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Verizon Throws Fuel on the Net Neutrality Fire

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The Net Neutrality fire continues to smolder with Verizon's just-announced support of Comcast, in Comcast's dispute with internet backbone provider Level 3 Communications. In a letter to the FCC, Verizon opines that Comcast charging additional fees to Level 3 does not violate the FCC's new Net Neutrality rules.

To Comcast, this is merely a dispute over "peering" or inter-network traffic. Level 3 sees it differently. As Netflix's new streaming data provider, Level 3 believes it is being targeted by the nation's largest cable provider (and now the majority owner of NBC-Universal) in an attempt to make it more expensive for Netflix to reach Comcast customers. This would clearly violate the FCC's new and admittedly weak Net Neutrality rules, which read, in part: "To the extent that a content, application, or service provider could avoid being blocked only by paying a fee [to a broadband provider], charging such a fee would not be permissible under these rules."

Comcast and Verizon are focusing the discussion on the bandwidth and peering issue, as if they are agnostic about the content that Level 3 is delivering. Is it any coincidence that Comcast slapped additional fees on Level 3 immediately after Netflix's decision to switch their traffic from Akamai to Level 3? Pardon me if I am suspicious of Big Bandwidth's (the cable and wireless providers) blithe attempts to sweep all this under the rug as if it were a dainty dinnertime disagreement between family members.

Last year Comcast won a court decision that limited the FCC's ability to classify the internet as an "information service," and put a serious crimp in its Net Neutrality policy agenda. Since then, regressive Congressional voices like senators Kay Bailey Hutchison, Jim DeMint and John Ensign have twisted the debate in a cynical partisan nod to Big Bandwidth. They claim that the FCC's Net Neutrality rules constitute what amounts to "over regulation" of the internet, when, in actuality, the FCC is trying to protect the internet from becoming a walled garden controlled by the Big Bandwidth companies. They want to be able to decide who gets to stream content over their pipes, and who doesn't. They want to keep the playing field small, and curtail new players with deep pockets and potentially innovative business models (like Netflix, but also Google), who understand today's audience and are not wedded to the 20th century media/entertainment business.

As senator Al Franken has expressed on these screens, Net Neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time. It is time to reframe the debate so everyone understands who the good guys and the bad guys really are, here. The FCC is trying to keep the gates open for all content providers (including visionary new content startups), not prevent companies from providing fair and reasonable services. It is not surprising that senator Hutchison and her ilk are promoting restraint of trade, but calling it free trade.

It's not about fees: charge what the market will bear, but do not favor or tier access to content. Bandwidth is bandwidth. But as Verizon and Comcast and their Capitol Hill allies would have it (with apologies to Mr. Orwell), some bandwidths are more equal than others.

Old media is doing everything it can to resist the erosion of old content revenue models brought about by the legitimate availability of content over the Internet. It's time to face the facts: screen-based entertainment content has been commoditized and we can't put the horse back in the barn. We need to allow new revenue models to emerge from this chaos. The sooner all content is made available all the time, day-and-date, the sooner we will usher in a new age of prosperity in the content business.

Please don't anyone try to condescend to me here by playing the "piracy" card, or the "content cannibalization" card. As my colleagues at Carnegie Mellon have demonstrated, piracy goes down when content is made available online legally. More and more experience is showing that online availability of content actually promotes viewership, including, famously, NBC's broadcast of last year's winter Olympics in Vancouver.

What Big Bandwidth apologists misrepresent as FCC "regulation" of Net Neutrality is actually the preservation of the open market.

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