Net Neutrality—Spring Sweeps or Last Season’s Rerun?

Last month, most major TV networks ended their programming season and began showing reruns. The same is true in the telecom world- although net neutrality appears to be in its first season, it is really just a rerun, from the “open access” debate of the 1990s.

Not long ago, “open access” was the rallying cry of consumer advocate groups, independent Internet service providers (“ISPs”), noted academics and, yes, even some of the major telephone companies.They argued that ISPs would wither away unless cable companies were required to share their proprietary facilities with them. Their predictions that cable companies would discriminate by providing better quality of service for their content, block access to their competitors' and raise prices, did not happen.

Fortunately the leaders of the day decided to “do no harm” and said “no” to open access.Subsequently, the telephone companies were deregulated and competition and investment in new high speed networks exploded. So, why would anyone want to go backward?

That is exactly what is being urged today by the new gang in town—the net neutrality gang. We are witnessing the rebirth of “open access,” only under the new mantra of net-neutrality.This time with new leadership at the helm, e.g., Goggle and Yahoo-- powerful companies, who were barely on the radar screen in the '90s. Ironically, the very same companies whose innovations were hatched on a non-regulated Internet and whose applications grew rapidly due to expanded broadband deployment stimulated by deregulation, now argue for regulation—well, at least of their competitors.

Yes, it is a new day, but just like their sky is falling “open access” predecessors, the net neutrality gang is busy fashioning remedies before there is even a hint of evidence that real vs. speculative harms exist.Where evidence of real or imminent harm exists, government should take appropriate action as it recently did; Madison River, an ISP, threatened to block a competing VOIP provider’s customer calls and the FCC responded quickly by issuing a cease and desist order with the threat of a fine.

History has validated the FCC’s vigilant restraint policy and its refusal to succumb to the rhetoric of the moment.”In 1993, virtually zero American households had Internet access, never mind high-speed connections; today more than 37 million American households connect to high speed broadband networks.It cannot be disputed that the Internet remains open, robust, competitive and diverse.In fact, today consumers have more choice at lower prices and with greater freedoms.Today, 59 percent of residential Internet users subscribe to cable broadband services, while 41% of subscribers choose lower-priced DSL services.More importantly, consumers have not been restricted from accessing the web content of their choice. ISPs did not all “wither away” as some alleged, but instead adopted business models built around content, innovative new services (such as VOIP) and wholesale commercial arrangements to resell broadband services.

Is network neutrality legislation really necessary? No.Net-neutrality seeks to reverse a regulatory policy that has proved effective.The metamorphosis of the Internet occurred in an unregulated environment. Its continued evolution is contingent upon maintaining its freedom from those who ironically think they can protect it by regulating it.Undue regulation is perhaps the biggest threat to the openness of the Internet.

Net neutrality is a remedy looking for a problem; instead of living through the summer re-runs of the seasons’ best and worst, we should look to the future and the future’s “must see TV.”

Deborah Lathen is president of Lathen Consulting, LLC and former chief of the Cable Services Bureau at the FCC.