At the end of 2012, there were 634 million websites scattered across the world. In the US, physical connections to websites are carried by dozens of commercial backbone operators and large last mile ISPs (Internet Service Providers), such as those using cellular, satellite, cable, fiber or plain old copper. As well, there are hundreds of smaller ISPs, including many small ISPs, over builders, Wi-Fi and WiMax networks.
Broadband connections are possible because of private company investments made over a 20-year period. Internet connectivity is public in the sense that anyone can get access through a subscription agreement to use the massive investments of ISPs, but the public does not own the Internet.
When trying to whip up public support for any issue, movement naming is important – even if the name is disingenuous. Net neutrality is a political euphemism coined by Tim Wu to support activist regulation on how ISPs package and price their Internet access.
The euphemism is meant to evoke fear that ISPs will unfairly restrict how customers use the Internet. Reality contradicts that. ISPs will sell as much Internet access as possible at a competitive price, and they will continually invest in bandwidth to keep pace with competitors and to meet customer demand. Investments will continue while ISPs earn a decent yield.
Most of us never download more than a few gigabits a month and don’t put a strain on the network’s capacity. Others download hundreds of gigabits each month. In fact, 84% of Internet traffic is from those downloading video. And, by one measure, 5% of users account for 45% of the all Internet traffic.
To rationally meet customer demand, ISPs need to offer tiers of service– where slower access or fewer bytes are priced lower than faster access uncapped volumes of data. If all usage patterns were priced at an “average cost,” then those choosing slower access would be forced to subsidize those with high bandwidth consumption.
Net Neutrality’s loudest voices come from those who sell or promote the high volume downloads or applications that require high speeds, or from a few who cannot resist populism on any topic. The net neutrality movement does not represent the interests of most customers who need modest speeds or data volumes. Those modest users are being lined up as sacrificial lambs to pay future Internet access subsidies. Those pretending otherwise are fantasizing that ISPs can be forced to subsidize customers. They are not familiar with the 5th amendment.
Net neutrality has been a game of lobbyist football since 2004, and Federal courts have twice booted out populist net neutrality regulations from the FCC.
While public engagement on issues is good, wise policy makers are aware that public sentiment on emotional issues can vacillate radically over relatively short periods. Wise policy makers also know how easy it is to fuel populist sentiment.
Prohibition is a glaring example. The temperance movement forced politicians to amend the constitution in 1920 to ban manufacture, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages. By 1933, the public thought better of that populist nonsense and forced legislatures to repeal Prohibition.
The Fairness Doctrine requiring broadcasters to cover controversial issues was introduced by the FCC in 1949, but then eliminated in 1987. The better supported Equal Time doctrine remains in place.
In 1999, the U.S. Center for Disease Control touted water fluoridation as one of the ten great public health achievements of the 20th century Today, fluoridation appears to be on its way out, opposed by many consumer groups and scientists.
Childhood vaccinations had been a standard requirement for public school registration. But in recent years, a populist movement of anti-vaxxers has been allowed to skip vaccinations with a resulting resurgence of measles (damaging other children), a disease that once had been under control.
Net Neutrality is a carefully orchestrated crusade to shift costs caused by high volume consumers onto low volume consumers. The main financial drivers are companies that promote high volume applications across the Internet. The FCC has been twice gulled by the siren of populist net neutrality sentiment but then reversed by the courts. Policymakers must see through the net neutrality smoke and mirrors, unless they are willing to blindly follow the movement and suffer a reputational hit.
Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes forTheAmerican Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org.