Dec. 21, 2010 at 1:28 PM ET
As long as you buy Internet access via cable provider, wireless carrier or telecom, you're going to have to play — or at least pay — by their rules. They'll just have to make sure to tell you what those rules are. That seems to be the real gist of the FCC order that was ratified today.
The order, titled "Preserving the Open Internet," does stop wired broadband service providers from blocking access to sites and applications that compete with them, something that none have done to date. It also bars "unreasonable discrimination" of services and enforces transparency in network management and performance. (This last bit means that carriers have to disclose information to you on their websites and at any point of sale, something I would have imagined they should have been required to do already.)
While the order gives providers of wireless Internet access even more discretion with their customers, it also enforces transparency in this sector, and prevents providers from blocking competing services.
Although it allows for "specialized" services, such as a cable company's Internet telephony service, the mandate includes provisions to monitor those services to ensure that they "promote" competition and consumer benefit, and that they "do not undermine or threaten the open Internet."
The bad news for consumers is that in both cases, the service providers have power to "manage" their traffic as they see fit, and to ration it — that is, to charge for tiers of usage or amounts of data used.
Also, any real power the FCC intends to wield is likely to be curbed by lawsuits anyway.
Critics on the right say this is regulation for regulation's sake, that "nothing is broken that needs fixing." Critics on the left say it's not nearly enough to prevent network operators from gaining too much control over public access to the Internet. Both are, semantically, correct: The only people currently getting throttled by their broadband providers are file-sharing pirates who wouldn't be protected by any net neutrality regulation anyway; meanwhile, wired and wireless broadband networks are increasingly controlled by a smaller, more powerful cadre of competitors.
(More on today's FCC proceedings here.)
Tiered pricing has to happen
You can use as much electricity from the power grid as you want, but you have to pay by the kilowatt hour. If you think of the Internet as a utility — and why shouldn't you? — network management should look something like that. Prices offered by regulated private companies should be competitive and reasonable, but highly metered. Sadly, that means no more flat-fee unlimited access.
If you then consider that streaming a movie from Netflix uses up more data than checking e-mail, then yes, you will pay more for Netflix, one way or another. The rules here say that a cable carrier can't block Netflix, or "unreasonably discriminate" against it, but all that does is make me think of my cable bundles.
By some neat feats of billing, Comcast forces me to take HBO and a telephone line, along with standard digital TV and broadband Internet access. When my introductory bundle expired, I tried to drop both, and was told that the total fee would be higher than if I signed on for another 12 months of the bundle. I am happy to keep HBO, but it just proved to me that the menu of prices that Comcast posts on its website isn't the whole story, or really the story at all.
So, about Netflix: Will a cable provider stop me from streaming Netflix? No! But it might charge me extra for the bandwidth it requires, while including a competing streaming video service in a pricing bundle, possibly for way less than the advertised fee. Whether that's "unreasonable" would be up to a court to decide.
(It should be stated at this point that msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, which is currently in negotiations to be acquired by Comcast, the nation's largest cable company. As you can guess, the assorted parents of this organization may be at odds over this matter, but this piece doesn't reflect any of their viewpoints, only my own.)
What did you expect?
Even before the FCC order is rendered powerless by courts, it represents a known compromise that many see as lose-lose. "These rules appear to be flush with giant loopholes," said Craig Aaron, managing director of Free Press. Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge said the order "created a vague and shifting landscape open to interpretation."
To which I reply, "What did you expect?"
I don't mean to sound cynical, but I come at this from a technology background, not a legal or political one. What I see are all the ways in which "public" access to utilities become profit centers for increasingly massive companies.
After the break-up of the Bells, the phone companies eventually consolidated and worked their way back together like some kind of liquid-metal Terminator. The good news? Instead of a single monopolistic phone company, we have two Leviathans and some smaller fish. Long-distance service used to be their cash cow; now it's wireless and broadband, and they're not going to let those slip so easily.
Speaking of the phone companies, where was the FCC's power when wireless standards were being regulated in other parts of the world? We're only now getting wireless capabilities that other countries have had for years, in part because our nation has not one but two — and arguably more like four — distinct wireless networks all built on top of each other.
Another example is CableCard. If you haven't heard of that, my point is already proven. CableCard was supposed to separate us from our godawful cable boxes by allowing TV makers and companies like TiVo to gain access to cable. It exists, but in such a compromised state that it's not even a requirement of TVs, and has not led to any sort of widespread adoption, despite enforcement of regulation.
Beware of consensus
There are more many more examples like this that make me believe that the upper hand is always attached to the arm of the well-heeled corporation. And in this particular debate, nothing made it more clear than when Google and Verizon (hand in hand) agreed on their version of network neutrality.
Back in August, the two companies rolled out their idea of a fair Internet, with net-neutral wired broadband, specialized wired services, and a less regulated wireless broadband. So, in essence, three separate Internets, each with their own cost structure.
What was scary was that Google and Verizon were supposed to be enemies on this matter. Verizon's view was expected, but seeing Google — a champion of "openness," at least when convenient — jump to Verizon's side was disheartening.
Future, bleak or bright?
I don't mean to present some dystopian pay-for-play future where we'll all walk around with virtual taxi meters on our heads. I think that for the most part, the regulation — and the lack of regulation — will manifest itself in new services. It's like cable TV. First there was a basic subscription, then there were premiums, now there are 30,000 options, all listed with nickel-and-dime rates or in shiny bundles. We complain about the increasing cost of cable, and some (though not many) of us jump ship. But we do get more than before.
That's how it's going to play out — you'll get more, you'll pay for more.