Regulation’s a bad thing, right? Personally, I think there are instances where regulation is an amazingly good thing that drives innovation. We also need to be cautious about who is saying regulation is good or bad. Back in the 90’s we’d hear that regulating in anyway to prevent acid rain would cripple business and kill our economy. This clearly didn’t happen, we have acid free rain for the most part, we have more productive manufacturing than ever. We also hear that regulating CEO pay by median rather than average is significantly more complicated to the point that a place stacked full of MBA’s can’t figure it out. Then there are regulations that pick winners like Solyndra and turns out to be a disaster. These cause higher taxes and are actual drains on the economy (personally I’m on the fence about experimenting with new technologies and having the government support them, but that’s me).
What about the FCC “regulating” net neutrality? I think that it’s important to look at how this all started. First, I’ll start with a bit of a history with the telecoms, then move to how the internet was developed, and move to comparisons between other monopolies.
AT&T has been described as a natural monopoly. This was partially helped by the US government because the government wanted coast to coast telephony and selected AT&T as the standard for that activity. This gave AT&T incredible market strength, but was also extremely fragile as it was continually under threat of being broken up for being a monopoly (which is was). To do everything they could to avoid this, the geniuses at Bell Labs continually designed ways to keep their costs down, improve quality, and make very thing better. They also had some government deals that helped them a lot (military contracts for telecom stuff, like the first satellite). The value of AT&T’s network grew every time a person joined the network.
The fact that one person joined Network A over Network B could further impact the growth of that network. Let’s say Person A is friends with 5 people and is already on Network A, it’s likely, if they are really good friends and A is known for making good decisions, that those five people will join A on Network A. The value increases by more than simply 5, because all five of those people can talk to each other as well as every other person they know on Network A. Now if Person A has more friends, but not as good of friends and they actually are better friends with Person A’s friends they will also likely join Network A. This sort of cascade effect will continue to happen. This is also known as Metcalfe’s law.
When AT&T was force to break up, all of that interoperability remained. Instead of one big monopoly there were regional ones instead. As we’ve seen over time, these same regional operators have slowly re-joined back into 2 Bells versus the non-Bells. AT&T being split is a type of regulation for sure, but it did spur some interesting competition for a time.
How the Internet was designed:
The internet was originally designed to operate in many different application layers. Essentially the bottom of the stack was Internet Protocol which was agnostic to the type of information being sent across it. At the time, the most efficient method was over Ethernet so there was not any requirement to be concerned over the application medium. Over time there would be some concern, but that was really addressed by the protocol.
What would happen is that the applications that required information to be sent on either end would translate the information to be used by the layer below it to send out, such as a web browser to the OS, to the network driver to IP, across the internet to the network driver to the OS to the web server application. Across this entire process the actual data being sent was unknown to any of the nodes in between the application layers. (If you’re interested in this check out Internet Architecture and Innovation).
Of course the companies providing the bandwidth for that did not want to find itself in a similar role as they had after the break up of AT&T where they were forced to become “dumb pipes” for whatever people wanted to send across their network. To prevent this they created capabilities like deep package inspection and other tools to identify what content was being shipped across their lines. This also was the beginning of violating “True” net neutrality.
Why were they dumb pipes? Because they were defined as a common carrier to increase competition across the land line providers and ISPs the telephone companies had no choice. This lead to the explosion of ISPs like AOL, Century Link, and so on. What has happened since? The broadband lines have been ruled that they are not “Common Carriers“. Meaning that the data across the line can be treated however the companies that own the lines want.
Why is this bad in a network economy?
In a network economy, being able to fully control anything and everything can be very bad for the consumer if there is no other option. Now, you could argue that there are options, but in most cases because of other monopoly rules there are few options for allowing a new ISP.
A perfect example where a network monopoly isn’t a big deal is in Smart Phones. The iOS App Store is a natural monopoly in a network. The more people using the iPhone the more valuable it became and more app developers developed apps. It never became a problem that Apple regulates the entire experience BECAUSE there were other networks you could shift to, such as Blackberry, webOS, Windows (whatever mobile version you want to include), and, of course, Android. All of these ecosystems offer very different options for devs. Additionally, within Android there are competing App stores which further benefits the consumer. If there were no other competitors to iOS and it’s App Store the constraints that Apple puts on their product would likely be viewed as very anti-competitive and a type of “foreclosure.”
Market foreclosure is using one monopoly to enable another monopoly. Now, regardless of if you think that this should have happened or not, it did. Microsoft was hit for using it’s Window’s OS to foreclose on the internet browser market and was looking to do the same with their music player. What resulted was that MS was required to offer other browsers when a new Windows OS was launched and helped to reduce the market share of IE.
How does this apply here? Comcast is already trying to do the same with Netflix in the streaming video business. Comcast owns the content (Universal, NBC, etc), the connection (Comcast Cable ISP), the rules (data caps), and if they want to charge to access their network or not. Eliminating the rules of net neutrality tilt the table in the direction of Comcast to a degree that Netflix may never recover. If Netflix, at one point 2/3 of all internet traffic, had to pay for every bit they streamed to allow for an enjoyable streaming experience they would be bankrupt in very short order.
I get that Comcast’s of the world don’t want to be dumb pipes, they own the content and that’s king. However, not every ISP owns content (Verizon/AT&T) so they aren’t at such an advantage to companies like Netflix. However that’s where AT&T’s data plan comes in. Which would essentially level the table compared to Comcast. We, as end users, wouldn’t see any benefit out of this. It’s not that our subscription fees would lower or we’ll magically get faster internet. This is simply rent seeking behavior and bad for the economy overall. Only true new competition can lead to that. Changing these rules have zero impact on that competition.
What it does do though is negatively impact the creation of new businesses that want to stream video or provide a novel product that requires high bandwidth and equal rights to streaming. Removing the protections on net neutrality dramatically increases the cost of streaming that otherwise could go into building that startup’s infrastructure. Think of the problems at Twitch.TV with their growth. My subscription fees pay for the growth of the network that I subscribe to regardless if it’s something like Twitch or Comcast. Anything else will go to shareholders and CEOs.
Could we develop other options like a Mesh network? It’s possible, but for that to work the option would have to be a public/private venture. Most citizens aren’t going to help create that and likely don’t have the technology savvy to do so. To further complicate this issue many ISPs are actually pushing to make it illegal for cities to create their own ISP.
In many cases regulation is bad for business. However, in cases like net neutrality it’s returning the net to it’s roots and enabling much stronger competition based on the merits of the company providing the service, not the arbitrary whim of network owner.
Thanks for writing this up. My position hasn’t changed, but it’s a good summary of the history and background. I tend to think that making legislation to make the net neutral is just a way of treating symptoms of a deeper problem, which as I mentioned on Twitter is that there aren’t enough ISPs and therefore not enough competition and innovation. If the market was actually free (even given network effects), this issue would sort itself out because a neutral internet is ultimately what people want and as such is what ISPs must provide. It wouldn’t happen overnight of course, because there are still plenty of people who don’t realize it’s what they want. But passing legislation isn’t going to magically cause ISPs to have more bandwidth to give, either. If you were the kind of person who wanted to get the government involved, I would think that subsidizing ISP startups and new network technologies would go farther than hindering the existing ISPs’ bottom line by imposing rules on how they can provide their services. After all if the ISPs aren’t making a profit, how are they going to grow the network’s capacity?
Anyway, thanks again, I always enjoy reading your posts.
Well, first of all, the ISPs like Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner are making money hand over fist. I saw they have a profit margin that is comparable to many software companies. So there isn’t the incentives to boost speeds even though they do boost capacity. Also, the reason why Google is able to jump in fairly quickly is that there’s a lot of dark fiber out there that makes it much faster to start up. So, your point about the government funding startups is spot on – I’m even for creating a competition for receiving funding based on business plan, success in one market to get money to expand further, etc…
Unfortunately, we’ll never get to the free market you’re talking about because of legacy laws that need to be killed too and there’s too much money in politics. If you want to address the root cause (which I’m all for) then we need to address that issue. Before we do we can’t create the reform we want (even if our visions of that reform is very different). You should check out the Root Strikers that Lawrence Lessig created to do that very thing. I’m planning on getting more involved here in Portland.
I’m glad you enjoy my writing. We should do some point counter point discussions on tech policy topics.
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