The President Is Wrong on Net Neutrality: The Internet Needs Fast Lanes and Slow Lanes

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(This post originally appeared on The Philly Post)

You’re staying at a hotel. You get online. When you log in, you’re given a choice: You can use the free Internet service that the hotel provides or you can pay extra for “faster downloads.” Like me, you’re a cheapskate, so you choose free. And it works fine … most of the time. But how about first thing in the morning when you’re checking your email? Or maybe right after dinner? Notice something? Yeah, you did — it’s slower. Much slower. And I’m sure you can guess why. Every user of the free service who’s waking up or getting back to their rooms from the conference you’re attending are all complaining about the boring keynote speaker … .and checking their email. And because you’re all sharing the same, free service you’re all suffering from slower performance.

Welcome to net neutrality.

Let’s take another example. Same hotel. Same Internet. Except there is no ability for the big time surfers to pay for faster downloads. So now everyone’s using the same connection. We’re all one big happy family. But there’s that one girl in room 310 who’s looking at a lot of porn (oh, right … like girls don’t do that, too?). And the guy in room 525 who’s streaming Breaking Bad the whole night. These two, and others like them, are killing your Internet’s performance. And because the hotel doesn’t charge them more for their additional downloads there will ultimately be a need to invest in more infrastructure to accommodate everyone, instead of just the few who need the increased bandwidth. That additional cost will be spread among all of the guests, of course.

Welcome to net neutrality.

This is what President Obama is proposing to the FCC. He’s right about a lot of things. He doesn’t want content to be blocked by an Internet Service Provider (ISP).  He doesn’t think the ISP should have the right to just slow down access to others without cause. He wants more transparency, too. And he’s right that the Internet really is a utility — we have to accept that we need it as much as electricity, water and plumbing. Today it’s primarily for communication. But tomorrow’s Internet will carry data, energy, and communication that will be an increasingly vital part of our lives.

But when the President says “having a ‘fast lane’ and a ‘slow lane’ is dangerous,” he’s wrong. When he says that “there are no toll roads on the information superhighway” he’s wrong. As a business owner and as a consumer, I’d be hit hard by the President’s recommendations to the FCC. He’s asking me to pay more for the Internet. His recommendations would increase my Internet costs and decrease my speeds. Why? Because the Internet is a different kind of utility. A 21st century utility.

If the President wants the Internet to be run like a utility, it will have to be billed like a utility. Today, I pay a flat fee to Comcast (or to the hotel or to Gogo Inflight or whoever is providing my Internet service). But that’s not how a utility bills. A utility, like PECO or PGW, bills me based on my usage of their product. So ultimately I will be billed based on my usage of the Internet. No more flat fee. And because my ISP will not be allowed to charge higher rates to those higher usage customers, those costs will have to be spread among everyone. That’s me and you. This will all be in addition to the fees I’m paying to watch movies on Netflix or On Demand, and there will be no refunds even if you sat through Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which was terrible.

And what if Netflix, for example, is allowed to just eat up more bandwidth as it delivers more content to homes around me? Or some other service comes along (and it will) that also hogs bandwidth to provide its content to my neighbors? Sure, you could say we should all be outside getting more fresh air, but that’s ridiculous. Comcast came under fire for “throttling” Netflix’s data transfer speeds and maybe (well … OK … probably) the company did so to extract more fees from Netflix. But, in the evil Comcast’s defense, the company is trying to manage data usage to maximize network speed. And it is also trying to protect its other customers from experiencing performance problems as a result of Netflix’s streaming demands. With net neutrality, they won’t be able to do this. So all of us will be subject to the impact of large data users and content providers grabbing valuable online real estate.

So what to do?

The FCC is struggling. But the answer isn’t that difficult if you just take a step back. Times have changed. Like electricity, railroads or plumbing, the Internet is an essential public service and everyone should have affordable access to it. But it’s a new kind of service that’s doesn’t fit into the 20th century definition of utility. So rather than re-classifying it as a utility as the President recommends, we should be redefining the meaning of utility, perhaps creating a different variation. And changing this definition should allow a provider of that service to charge more for those who need it and even offer things like “fast lanes” to those who can afford it because it can be in the public’s best interest to do so.

Net Neutrality, like socialism and communism, is actually a great idea in theory. And I do support certain parts of it — the need for more government regulation (likely from the FCC), the availability of a basic, affordable level of Internet service for all. But in reality, we do need toll roads. People who want more of a service should have to pay for it and be separated from a basic level of utility service that the rest of us are getting. Otherwise, the “information superhighway” will just become more expensive and slower for the rest of us, which isn’t good for me, my business and my customers. And I’m already paying enough for a hotel room anyway.

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