Reading through dozens of posts reacting to the Verizon Communications-Google net neutrality framework, I am stuck by one thing. Amid the predictable grumbling about a Google sellout, there is a surprising, and to me disconcerting, desire for common carrier regulation of broadband services. Perhaps most over the top: A Huffington Post article by paul Loeb suggesting that common carrier regulation of voice service is the only thing that keeps Verizon from censoring our phone calls.
I hope that this fondness for old-fashioned telco regulation is coming mainly from folks too young to remember the bad old days. I’ve certainly been around long enough to remember the era of heavy-handed regulation, and it was not pretty. More important, it was anything but innovative. I remember when a really fast internet connection–1.4 Mb/second–was a T1 and it cost somewhere north of $1,500 a month. And that was after AT&T got competition from the likes of UUnet.
Common carrier regulation of voice calls worked, to the extent that it did, because all voice calls are, in a fundamental sense, the same, and common carriage is designed for the transport of commodity goods. Everyone got the same miserable 2.4 kilohertz of bandwidth for voice–come to think of it, we still do. All the network had to do was set up a circuit to complete the call and tear it down when the call terminated.
Data packets on the internet are very different. Some, such as video, need high bandwidth and low latency. Audio can get by with less bandwidth, but is ever more sensitive to latency. Text can afford to get by with lower bandwidth and higher latency without suffering unduly. On wireline networks we can get around these management issues with a surfeit of raw bandwidth. On increasingly important wireless networks, where bandwidth will be scarce for the foreseeable future, some measure of network management is going to be needed.
Network management necessarily means that some packets, by type of packet, not be source, be prioritized over others. Trying to marry network management with common carrier rules would produce a regulatory nightmare. The winners, ironically, would probably be Verizon and AT&T. whatever their other deficiencies, they have a deep understanding of common carrier regulation.
Why anyone would want such a world is beyond me. Given the fact that none of the nightmare posited by the more ardent net neutrality advocates have come to pass–it’s been two years since Comcast got caught messing with BitTorrent and they were stopped not by regulators but by a public outcry–there seems to be a strong argument for keeping a light regulatory touch, and certainly not the dead hand of common carrier regulation.
P.S.–Why is anyone shocked, shocked to see Google acting in what it perceives as its self-interest. That’s what soulless corporations do, even if “don’t be evil” is their motto.