Net-neutrality issue stirs controversy

Dec. 9, 2017

The proposal to curtail net neutrality is causing controversy. At Brookings, Tom Wheeler, who served as the 31st Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017, writes, “The Trump FCC’s proposal to eliminate the over-two-year-old Open Internet Rule is a shameful sham and sellout.” However, Virginia Tech Professor Jeff Reed, who has served as an advisor to federal organizations and commercial organizations such as AT&T and Samsung, writes at Newswise that “…net neutrality rules are written for yesterday’s Internet, not today or even tomorrow’s Internet.”

“The assertion that the FCC proposal is somehow pro-consumer is a sham that doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” writes Wheeler. “It is impossible to find anything pro-consumer in the expert telecommunications agency walking away from its responsibilities in favor of an agency with no telecommunications expertise or authority.”

That agency would be the Federal Trade Commission, which, writes Wheeler, “…has NO rule-making regulatory authority in this area. In the name of ‘protecting consumers’ the FCC is walking away under a smokescreen sham that the FTC can do the job.”

Professor Reed at Virginia Tech, who has served as an advisor to federal organizations and commercial organizations such as AT&T and Samsung, has a different view, citing nuances in the definition of Internet. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that everyone thinks internet is one thing, when in actuality it is evolving into specialized networks for cars, for first responders, for bridge ice sensors, for the power grid, etc.,” he writes. “These services have different requirements and networks, and will need to be specifically tuned; hence, all bits cannot be treated equally. Your 911 call is sharing bandwidth with your neighbor’s Netflix stream. Do you think they should be given equal priority?”

He also addresses the potential for monopolistic practices on the part of contend providers and data-transport providers. “This debate is more of a business struggle between content providers and data transport providers,” he writes. “The fear is that the transport providers may exhibit monopolistic practices, but people don’t realize that Netflix is now the majority of internet traffic. Hence, who is more likely to show monopolistic practices?”

He continues, “If constraint of trade does occur, this is primarily a legal issue for the Dept. of Justice, not a FCC issue. Trying to prevent this problem, which has little if any historical evidence of abuse, through technical regulatory management is a futile effort. Telecom services are too complex and rapidly changing to regulate this way.”

Reed acknowledges that most people in the U.S. today have access to only one broadband provider. “However,” he writes, “with the advent of 5G there will be new competition to provide high-speed data services. It is clear, this is going to be one of the driving business models for 5G.”

Regarding competition, Reed writes, “Could anyone envision that Comcast would cut off Netflix to its customers and force them to use Comcast’s streaming service? Providers are smarter than this and know there would be a tremendous backlash from customers.”

I think he is overestimating the potential efficacy of customer backlash. But I agree that the advent of 5G will increase competition.

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