FCC, Net Neutrality, and the Internet as a platform

The proposed FCC rules for Net Neutrality are pretty terrible. The Verge has a pretty good write up on them, here. Is this a good or bad thing? Personally, I think this is terrible for the future of innovation as I’ve written about before in a few spots, most recently here. I also think it depends on what you think about the role of the ISP. If you think that the role of the ISP is to provide a conduit to the internet and simply pass data to you, then Net Neutrality is for you. If you believe that the ISP should actively play a role in the content you seek, then Net Neutrality is not for you. If you think that the ISP has a role in shaping the way data flows, has the right to extract as much money out of the internet ecosystem, then you probably don’t think that Net Neutrality is the right thing either.

I believe that this comes from a fundamentally different world view on how the economy should function. There are a lot of people out there that truly believe that organizations have the right to maximize profitability. I don’t really think that’s true. I think that organizations have a role to play and those that exploit platforms like the internet are drains on the economy and limit our ability to innovate.

Many of the developers of the initial internet protocols strongly believe in net neutrality. Ranging from the guys that used to run Xerox PARC to Tim Breners-Lee, there’s a lot of different push back against non-neutral positions.

I think from an evolutionary economics standpoint, technology platforms of the past have been wildly successful because they’ve been able to continually lowered in prices which increases accessibility. This drives further adoption of that technology as a platform encouraging more companies to compete to make that technology platform. Some historic platforms are roads (shocking), steel, silicon chips/processors, and now the internet.

Roads have been pretty much government sponsored and open for just about anyone to use. In Portland, the Blue Line MAX line has driven $7 Billion in new development, the largest for a new commuter line anywhere. Computer chips are near and dear to my heart as I’ve worked at a few companies that make them. I think that we can all see in our daily lives how these chips have dramatically changed the world. That the company that makes chips (Intel) is worth a lot less than a company that leverages those chips (Microsoft). The combination of these two companies has essentially driven a great deal of the modernization we’ve experienced in the last 20 years in the US.

In the last 10 years the internet has driven the worlds most valuable companies. It has more quickly shifted how companies engage with their customers and powerful retail based stores have fallen on extremely hard times (Sears/KMart,etc…). My job is only made possible because of the internet I work with people in different states every day.

The fact that it will soon be government policy to enable a company to seek as much money from every user of their platform is only going to hurt the entire ecosystem. If my service stays the same but my price continually increases, that means I can’t afford to buy services that I want online, so I’ll switch to other options or drop the options all together. This will kill competition and negatively impact consumer choice. Furthermore, if I’m paying for Netflix and Comcast and Netflix is forced to pay for access to Comcast customers, then Comcast is charging everyone. I’d expect massive quality upgrades on a continual basis or something in return for all this extra cash flow. Instead it will likely go to investors in the form of higher profits.

What’s the difference between Ma Bell and Comcast?

If you were born in the 80’s or before you know that Ma Bell was the only phone company in town. Born any later than that you were born into a world without a single monopoly for telecommunication. That’s right, we’ve had a point in our collective history where there was only a single phone company. There are rules in place that prevent something similar from happening with Comcast, but we’ve been there before. However, I believe there are critical differences. AT&T knew they were a monopoly and they were a state sanctioned monopoly. They did everything in their power to keep prices down to prevent being broken up. AT&T actually had a broader monopoly than what Comcast could ever hope to have. They made the phones that worked on the line, they made all the telecom technology that made it work, and they designed the services that made it work. This is something called a natural monopoly, which I’ve written about before. A former founder of Comcast has declared Comcast a natural monopoly.

The biggest difference between Comcast and AT&T, back in the day, was that they did everything they could to keep the government happy. Was it perfect, no clearly not, there were shady business practices, but we as a society benefited greatly from Bell Labs. To this stay is still one of the greatest research facilities that ever existed. If it wasn’t for Bell Labs our current way of life would be very different. I highly suggest checking out the book on it.

Comcast claims to be pushing innovation with their X1 Xfinity platform, but that’s not really true, it’s simply a new operating system pushing content. Voice activation isn’t innovation and if that’s your main selling point then you’re in serious trouble. As I mentioned yesterday, the Netflix deal is a major concern, the Verge is saying the Internet is fucked and that we need to be contacting the FCC daily to un-fuck it.

I’m not entirely sure that the FCC can fix it. Congress has greatly hamstrung the FCC in dealing with internet companies, furthermore, their solution of calling the internet a Utility won’t work. If you aren’t aware we’ve had big pushes to deregulate the utility industry which unfortunately hasn’t really made rates better in many cases or in the long run. I think that it’s fair to say that in the telecom industry this is true as well. The impact of the AT&T break up has been this long term collection of conglomerates that continually increase price as well as “Fees” which similar to baggage fees are hidden from the “price” of the service. So, treating the internet like a utility isn’t going to work. What we need to do is treat it like a road.

Everyone that uses a car on the road is taxed based on use (Gasoline taxes) everyone pays for a portion of the maintenance based on other local taxes too. No, these aren’t perfect and are going to be under pressure based on hybrid and electric cars – and new models are being proposed. Of course one way to do this is through toll roads (which really never work) or through some sort of black box in the car to measure mileage (which no one wants).

Essentially it’s a pay for bandwidth consumed, so if you’re a high consumer of bandwidth you’d pay more, but the rates need to be realistic and the goal would be to cover expenses and continually improve service while making it cheaper. Which brings me back to AT&T – the president of Bell Labs had one mantra anything could be tested but only if it could lead to a “Better, cheaper or both” network. A public internet similar to a road that was paid to continually get cheaper, better, more secure, and faster is the only way to truly un-fuck the internet. It’s not likely to happen because it’s not a capitalist response. However, the internet these days is similar to public transpiration – it’s goal isn’t to make money, it’s goal is to enable economic activity. If think of it that way, then we can see the long term benefit of the whole economy rather than singular actors.