I'm Ready to Push Away from the Bandwidth Buffet


Net neutrality is a hot-button issue with folks who like to talk about such topics, particularly since the Obama FCC has announced it is taking up the cause.


The thing about net neutrality is that it's hard to actually pin down what folks are talking about.


Most of my journalist-type friends focus on aspects of net neutrality that excited the librarians when the debate broke out a few years ago-ISPs using filtering tech to suppress political dissent or certain forms of communication that, in this country, are considered to be Constitutionally protected. You know, like our largest trading partner does.


Most tech folks, like the ones who contribute to this site, tend to focus more on the market dynamics of mandating that network providers give equal treatment to data packets on their network, no matter where they are traveling or their presumed nature.


About three years ago, I wrote that net neutrality was largely "a solution in search of a problem," but increasingly, smart guys like our Mike Vizard suggest that the Internet is, in fact, beginning to lag behind the strain of all that bandwidth-hogging video and such, and that somebody is going to have to pay for the coming build-out to support our seemingly endless desire for rapid delivery of data packets.


In his most recent post on the subject, Mike suggests that if the FCC imposes packet-level neutrality for carriers, the end result will be carriers turning back to the government for subsidies, given that the government has imposed an onerous, unprofitable obligation on them. Could be.


But Mike also raises a contention that, frankly, I don't get. He writes:

The end result, the carriers argue, is that they will be forced to rescind flat-rate pricing for Internet access in favor of usage pricing models that we have not seen since the 1980s. As it's unlikely that consumers will stand for this, the odds are good then that the carriers will turn to the Federal government as they become the next big industry standing in line looking for a bailout, which is really just another word for imposing a tax so more people can enjoy consistent application performance on the Internet.

Certainly, some advocates of unlimited consumer bandwidth plans say that buffet-style access to bandwidth has driven innovation and facilitated the growth of startups. I'd imagine that's true to some degree, but then again, artificially suppressed interest rates and easy access to credit drove up housing values like crazy, until-well, you know.


Restaurant buffets make money because they are relatively easy to maintain (no individual orders to process) and most folks don't actually eat as much food as they pay for. I certainly don't have any special insight into what percentage of broadband customers are "gorging" themselves, as Mike has put it, but I'd be willing to bet it's a higher clip than four-plate diners at the Jade Palace.


The WSJ article Mike points to outlines a six-tier plan AT&T is offering in some markets. I can see where that could become confusing and off-putting to consumers, but a simplified plan of perhaps three tiers (e-mail users, YouTube watchers, peer-to-peer villains) seems like a common-sense answer to metered usage that most users will understand and "tolerate." That's how we pay for TV channel access, cell phone service, fuel, potato chips-most everything, when you come to think of it. Mike has also reported on our CTO Edge site about software vendors and their customers heading toward some sort of detente over usage rates for enterprise apps based on metering. If it can work for CRM, seems to me like it can work for bandwidth access-if the plans are simple enough to manage.


Ultimately, I think some government compulsion to extend a basic level of service to everybody, including rural areas, will be needed and is warranted, given that the government did kind of invent the Internet and granted a lot of the powerful ISPs now lobbying against net neutrality some pretty sweet deals, as our Carl Weinschenk often points out. But I can't see how streaming Netflix falls under the Constitutional scope of "promoting the general welfare."


For the super-high-bandwidth Net of the future, I imagine the most fundamental of Free Market principles will apply.


You get what you pay for.

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