No One’s Neutral When Bill Comes

As we strain the Internet with an explosion of bandwidth-intensive applications such as file-sharing, video-streaming and video-gaming, a fundamental question arises: Who should pay the bill for future improvements to the Net?

That’s the basic question underlying the current debate flaring in Washington over “network neutrality.” Typical of most ad-driven political campaigns, the language in this debate is both loaded and inaccurate. What’s also typical is that when you strip away all the rhetoric, the issue comes down to money.

Broadband high-speed access to the Internet is now the norm for more than half of all Americans connected to it, and those numbers are rising rapidly. This has all happened, in part, because Internet development and distribution have been largely free of government regulation. We have managed to avoid the almost inevitable “unintended consequences” that government regulation brings.

But new Internet services and businesses are spurring calls for even more growth in broadband speed and bandwidth. Some major Internet-based companies have indicated they have business plans that entail massive use of that anticipated new broadband capacity. Ultimately, the question comes down to this: Who should pay for building more lanes on the “information superhighway?”

Should it be the average home user, who does not generally need or use the massive bandwidth now called for? Or should it be the smaller group of customers and companies envisioning new uses for the Internet, such as massive multiple online gaming, or real-time streaming high-definition video?

The currently dominant Internet players — Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp., Inc., eBay Inc. and others — favor freezing things exactly the way they are now. While many of these companies have outlined business plans for using ever-increasing Internet bandwidth to supply very profitable services to consumers, they are perfectly happy to have government enforced “net neutrality” rules requiring residential customers to pay the entire bill for rebuilding the “pipe” that gets those services delivered. Consumers not using as much bandwidth will have to share the cost.

Current major broadband Internet providers have warranted they have no intention of blocking access to lawful destinations on the public Internet. There is also no substance to the allegation that they intend to discriminate among users, creating “fast lanes” for some information and companies, while at the same time slowing down or interfering with the data being sought and sent by others.

Such “discrimination” would be counterproductive even if enhanced delivery services — much like the Priority Mail offered by the Post Office — were to be offered.

It really does come down to a simple question: Who pays? Net neutrality rules wouldn’t be neutral on that issue. They would require that only the user, mainly the residential customer, would pay the whole bill.

Potential new “enhanced services” would be prohibited. The rules would freeze current business plans — and dominant Internet players — in place. That’s a law any big Internet company could love.