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The better way to Net Neutrality

Open Access is a section of the Ting blog dedicated to discussions about the open Internet, net neutrality and other important online topics. Just for the record, you can put a check for us in the “for” column.

Let me be clear: I am a firm supporter of Net Neutrality policies that prevent the large access providers from controlling what we see and build on the Net. But I also favor a stronger way of preserving the neutral Net: Structural separation that prevents any business that provides access to the Net from also selling content and services over the Net. That removes the access providers’ financial incentive to give priority to some content producers over others.

But to see why structural separation is important, it helps to understand the Net’s organic neutrality that Net Neutrality policies aim at preserving.

The telecommunications industry would have us believe that Net Neutrality policies are about regulating the Internet. That’s entirely and knowingly false. Net Neutrality is about regulating the megacompanies that currently provide access to the Internet. It makes sure they don’t filter content or give preference via “fast lanes” for the exclusive use of big content providers who pay for the privilege.

In fact, selling “fast lanes” really means giving the access providers a financial incentive for putting the rest of the Internet into slow lanes.

If we can make sure the access providers’ hands stay off the content flowing over the Net, the Net would be neutral in an organic way.

The Net consists of a set of agreements among all its interconnected networks that specifies that they will move bits closer to their destination without favoring any of them based on who sent them, where they’re going, what’s in them, or what application they’re supporting. An Internet that does that is automatically and organically neutral. An Internet that does not do that isn’t really the Internet at all.

Problems and solutions

There are two problems with preserving organic neutrality via Net Neutrality policies. (Keep in mind that I favor such policies.)

First, Net Neutrality policies are inevitably messy to apply, especially when you get to the edge cases. For example, if you’re a small Internet service provider who enables a remote region to get tenuously connected via Wi-Fi, should a Net Neutrality policy prevent you from blocking access to high-bandwidth services that could bring down the network for everyone? Or, would a Net Neutrality policy mean that it’s illegal to set up emergency communications channels on the Net that get priority over normal communications? Then, way down at the technical level, there are questions about the “choices” Internet routers make when the network gets overcrowded.

Of course, Free Speech is at least as messy to apply, yet few say that we therefore should reject it.

Second, the access providers have extremely strong financial incentives for finding ways around any Net Neutrality policy. They can make yet more tons of money if they can sell “fast lanes,” if they can degrade competitive content offerings, etc. Our experience in the US of reining in the access providers is, well, bad.

Structural separation addresses both problems. In a structural separation model, it would be illegal for access providers to do deals with content providers. The idea could work because it isn’t too complicated to enforce and any impropriety would be picked up in a standard financial audit.

In the real world

Structural separation would forbid companies that provide access to the Internet from also selling content and services over the Internet, or having an ownership stake in companies that do. For example, Comcast owns NBC which owns Universal Studios, one of the Big Six Hollywood film producers. Comcast therefore has a financial interest in making sure that content from NBC and Universal comes to its Internet customers in the highest possible quality, and wouldn’t shed too many tears if watching content from competitors like Netflix or Hulu were a less satisfactory experience for its customers.

Structural separation would remove that temptation. As telecommunications expert and consultant David Isenberg puts it, we could think of it as Comcast being broken into two companies, COM and CAST .

COM would sell Internet access, competing against all other access providers on price, on how many bits it can move to and from each user, and on customer service. We’d see competition for higher and higher bandwidth at lower and lower prices. And that’s exactly what the Internet is all about.

CAST would sell movies and TV shows over the Net, and any other content and services it desires. It would compete on precisely equal footing with every other provider of content and services, including Goliaths like Netflix, and Davids like the fourteen year old in the garage next door.

After decades of experience working in the telecommunications industry, David Isenberg recommends that a structural separation policy require COM and CAST to occupy separate buildings. We don’t want them becoming too chummy, since the point is to keep the access providers like COM from preferring any particular content and service providers, including CAST.

Structural separation would still require that we have a strong Net Neutrality policy so that the COMs can’t sell “fast lanes.” But structural separation would pry apart the financial incentives, making it a much more effective way to preserve the Internet’s essence as a neutral medium than could Net Neutrality policies on their own.

Do you agree or disagree that structural separation is a viable and reasonable way to achieve net neutrality? Do you have other ideas that might help in the fight for an open Internet? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.