A Third Way on Network Neutrality

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to continue the arduous task of creating new rules of the road for the ever-changing Internet. The stakes couldn’t be higher for 2010.

The vision of the Internet in which all traffic travels at the same speed is under pressure not from anti-competitive practices, but rather from the increasing variety of services that end users are demanding from the network. The biggest challenge comes from the latest generation of Internet applications, like Internet-protocol video, virtual worlds and online gaming. These applications consume more bandwidth and are more sensitive to delay than first-generation applications, like e-mail and Web browsing.

The classic solution is for Internet-service providers simply to build bigger pipes. The problem is that adding bandwidth is not always possible, as is the case with wireless broadband networks for which spectrum is scarce. Installing bigger pipes can also be prohibitively expensive, which harms consumers and makes it harder to serve rural areas by increasing the number of subscribers that a network provider needs to break even. And despite the ISPs’ best efforts, they cannot perfectly anticipate exactly how much, when and where additional bandwidth will be needed. So providers need the ability to make reasonable decisions on how to manage their networks to create the best possible online experience for all users.

Against the backdrop of these challenges, the net neutrality debate has started anew. The risk to Internet-service providers is that the government may rule out options that can reduce the cost of supporting these new services. The consequences of doing so are potentially dire. Despite the struggling economy, network providers are investing billions to upgrade their networks to accommodate these new services. Reducing their ability to manage their networks would increase the price tag by billions more.

That said, I believe there is a third way on net neutrality.

What we need is a set of standards that would allow the ISPs to manage their networks safely. One solution is to place a tag on content that is sensitive to delay. This would enable the network to prevent the split-second hiccups that can render streaming video or voice-over-IP calls unacceptable. E-mails may arrive a fraction of a second later, but such disruptions would be virtually unnoticeable.

This solution would not even require dramatic changes to the Internet’s architecture. The ability to prioritize content in this manner is a feature that was designed into the Internet from the very beginning.

And here is the place where supporters of net neutrality should get on board: The flag would be added by the content providers, not the ISPs. The network companies get the freedom they need to manage their networks. Consumers get the open, fast and stable Internet they want. Problem solved.

But the strictest notions of net neutrality would kill off the opportunity to manage networks in this manner — or in any other way except digging up city streets and laying more wire.

Do we really want to lock the network into a business model where increased capital spending is the only way to provide greater bandwidth? In the distribution of energy, we’re moving away from dumb pipes and toward smart grids that help the network deal with surges in demand. We ought to be open to that kind of innovation among ISPs.

Strict net neutrality could also forbid companies from charging more to customers that spend hours uploading and downloading large files. Forcing everyone into a single class of service would prevent customers from choosing their level of service based on whether they just check e-mail or are a high-end online gamer.

Clinging to net neutrality as the Internet’s saving grace would cut off smart-network technologies that Internet companies need to stay ahead of the rapidly growing demand for bandwidth. Instead, we need an architecture that allows ISPs to manage their networks intelligently and keeps the Internet open to everyone regardless of what they are doing.

The third way on net neutrality is what we need now. The reality is that exploding traffic, not discrimination, is the biggest challenge our broadband networks face. Our regulatory regime at this point in history should recognize the imperative for managed networks. The alternative would simply raise the cost of providing Internet service, to the ultimate detriment of individual consumers and society as a whole.