Who’s Neutral Now?

The FCC’s fork in the road, or should that be Information Super-highway, on Net Neutrality is fast approaching and the stakes are getting high and tempers frayed.

In typical Washington fashion, the sides are drawn up like gunslingers proclaiming the only good outcome is total victory for them – and, by definition, the demise of their opponent. In reality, there will be no outright winner and a compromise will hold – until it doesn’t.

The President wants to go for Title II – i.e., make broadband a utility and tie it to as near a universal and equal service as anything in America can be. The FCC’s inclination may the same, but it probably won’t go there. The cable companies have made it clear they will fight such a move through the courts and they have powerful allies in Congress who will look to change the law. The courts have struck down Neutrality before; if they do it again the FCC will have fired first but will still be the one wearing a wooden overcoat.

The lobbying and manoeuvring that has gone into this and will continue to do so, would be more than worthy of House of Cards – oh how ironic that’s a hit Netflix show!

The FCC will more likely stick with its case-by-case compromise – setting tough bars ISPs will have to cross before they can manage traffic or charge for it. The bottom line is the FCC will protect Neutrality day-to-day and that’s fine if you trust them to be consistent.

Over here in Europe we are being a bit smug about all this. On the day all UK ISPs signed up to a voluntary code, Matthias Kurth, Executive Chairman, Cable Europe said: “When I compare the investment climate in Europe with the United States, I am actually rather optimistic about some of the regulatory trends. Take net neutrality. Whereas President Obama has indicated he wants to regulate the Internet under Title II of the Telecommunications act that stems from the 1930s, I see early indicators of a markedly more rational and fruitful solution in Europe.”

Though actually that isn’t crowing, it’s lobbying. European cablecos don’t like enshrined Neutrality any more than American ones and are equally unimpressed with the EU’s apparent commitment to it.

“To be sure, regulation played an important role in opening up former government monopolies, but the landscape has changed dramatically in telecommunication over the last 15 years. A modern way of regulation has to reflect that and leave more and more ground to market forces and innovation. Europe is moving in the right direction,” Kurth continued.

Certainly where market forces – or rather market development – have seen an Open Internet underwritten by Open Competition for broadband customers, traffic management is less of an issue; providers must provide the service the consumer wants at the right price or someone else will. Perhaps America needs regulation to open up more competition on the supply side of broadband rather than trying to regulate existing providers. Time to buy shares in lobby firms.

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