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Net Neutrality From Muskets to Megabits

02/20/2015 07:29 am ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015
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On Feb. 26, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will do something that few have ever accused the government of doing. It will recognize reality and act appropriately.

That, in a nutshell, is the debate over Net Neutrality. Just as plain telephone service connected people and was regulated, now it's data services. Calls or video are all just megabits. Telephone companies couldn't discriminate in their traffic then, neither should they or cable companies be able to play favorites or manipulate customers now. That basic, regulated fairness is what allowed the Internet to develop, a point some current opponents seem to miss, whether blinded by ideology or money.

But if you listen to the anguished cri de coeur from the loyal defenders of the big telecom companies, you would think the FCC's action was a government coup d'interconnecter -- a takeover of The Internet. It's how we get into Muskets, Monopoly and Money.

Whether they are saying anything logical or relevant is hardly the question. But let's play along and test some of their arguments.

One of my favorites is the time comparison, attacking the use of "Depression-era regulation of Ma Bell" to instead "regulate the Internet."

Translated, this phrase refers to the time (1934) when telecom laws were first passed to try to keep a lid on AT&T, the Bell System, aka Ma Bell, which was a monopoly.

The Muskets Part

There are two pieces to this inaccurate comparison. The first is the Principle of Technological Relativity. That is, how can we think about using a rule for today's high-speed innovative networks that we applied back in the olden days of stodgy telephone service?

Let's try a little thought experiment. When the U.S. Constitution was written, the principal weapon around at the time was a muzzle-loaded musket. It was not at all accurate, could be fired at the rate of about three shots per minute, with a muzzle velocity of about 1,000 ft. per second.

When Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012, he was carrying a Bushmaster AR-15. It is spectacularly accurate, fires at a rate of about 50 rounds per minute (in semi-automatic mode) and a muzzle velocity of about 3,000 ft. per second. When James Holmes crashed the midnight showing of the new Batman movie on July 12, 2012, in Aurora, Colorado, he carried a Smith & Wesson M&P 15, with many of the same characteristics.

If you believe in Technological Relativity, then you should want to do something about more harmful guns, right? Why are we applying Revolution-era rules to today's weapons, right?

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD), who has hauled out the Depression line , has voted against every bill, including expanded background checks that might in the most limited way, cut back on availability of guns. I'll agree to your arguments on Net Neutrality if you agree with mine on guns, and restrict ownership under the Constitution to those weapons around at the time of, say, 1789.

The Monopoly Part

So there was a monopoly in the Ma Bell days. Guess what? It's back, and the telecom companies are doing everything they can to keep it in place. But this isn't a Ma Bell issue. It's a timeless issue of principle of fairness. That's why the FCC action isn't the "power grab" telecom company apologists say it is. It's simply the FCC reasserting jurisdiction over services it should never have given up in the first place. It's what regulators should do, at least in theory.

Unrestricted, unregulated monopolies hurt consumers and business. Whether broadband or telephone or telegraph or railroads -- the idea is the same. True competition can help give business and consumers more choices, but there's precious little of that around. By getting compliant states to pass laws outlawing municipal broadband networks, the big telecom companies are keeping their position intact.

Regulation is no guarantee of a fair result, but at the minimum, there's the possibility that a wronged consumer or business can be helped. Without it, there is no hope.

That's another big bugaboo, that the FCC will "regulate the Internet" or take over the Internet, or some other nonsense.

Let's go to the Hypocrisy Index. Many of those in Congress and elsewhere complaining about "regulating the Internet" are fine with other outside forces muscling in. It's OK when the National Security Agency monitors all of your email, texts, calls, etc. They have no problems with cable and telephone companies jacking up content providers like Netflix, slowing down services until Netflix comes up with some extra cash. There are limits on what children can access online. That's a good thing, but it's also regulation.

But, let a consumer or business be able to file a grievance against getting ripped off or treated unfairly by a telephone or cable company, and the world is about to end as a result of the dreaded "regulation."
This has nothing to do with "the Internet." Instead, it's all about the data services people get on which the Internet is carried. That's simple, pure telecommunications, just as the old phone lines were. The rest is extra.

The Money Part

There is one final canard that must be roasted -- that imposing some regulation will keep the big companies from investing in their networks.

They have been doing it for years. Verizon said five years ago it would stop building out its fiber network and instead is putting money into the very profitable wireless services.

Verizon cut a deal with Comcast, so that the big cable/media company would stay out of wireless services (it had bought some spectrum), while Verizon wouldn't compete with a wired broadband service. AT&T has been cutting its network spending for years and cutting jobs also.

Net Neutrality is nothing more than re-establishing timeless, basic principles of fairness backed by some commonsense rules. The loudly voice objections, backed by big money and/or ideology, can't cover up that simple truth.