Saturday, January 18, 2014

Is Internet access a utility?

I forwarded a link about Network Neutrality to Google Plus, and it got a lot of comments about how Internet access should be treated like a utility. I think that's a reasonable perspective to start with. What we all want, I think, is to have Internet access itself be a baseline service, and that Internet services on top of it have fierce competition.

In addition to considering the commonalities with Internet access and utilities, we should also note the differences.

One difference is that a utility is for a monopoly, but Internet access is not monopolized. You can only put one road in any physical location, and I will presume for the sake of argument that you don't want to have multiple power grids in the same locale. Internet access is not a monopoly, though! At least in Atlanta, we have cable, DSL, WiMax, and several cellular providers. We have more high-speed Internet providers than supermarket chains.

Another difference is that utilities lock down technology change to a snail's pace. With roads and power grids, the technology already provides near-maximum service for what is possible, so this doesn't matter. With telephony, progress has been locked down for decades, and I think we all lost out because of that; the telephone network could have been providing Skype-like services a long time ago, but as a utility they kept doing things the same way as always. Meanwhile, the Internet is changing rapidly. It would be really bad to stop progress on Internet access right now, the way we did with telephony several decades ago.

I believe a better model than utilities would be supermarkets. Like Internet providers, supermarkets carry a number of products that are mostly produced by some other company. I think it has gone well for everyone that supermarkets to have tremendous freedom in their content selection, pricing, promotional activities, hours, floor layout, buggies, and checkout technology.

In contrast to what some commenters ask, I do not have any strong expectation about what Comcast will or won't try. I would, however, like them to be free to experiment. I've already switched from Comcast and don't even use them right now. If Comcast is locked into their current behavior, then that does nothing for me good or bad. If they can experiment, maybe they will come up with something better.

In principle, I know that smart people disagree on this, but I currently don't see anything fundamentally wrong with traffic shaping. If my neighbor is downloading erotica 24/7, then I think it is reasonable that Comcast give my Game of Thrones episode higher priority. The fact that Comcast has implemented this badly in the past is troubling, but that doesn't mean the next attempt won't work better. I'd like them to be free to try.

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