Some thoughts on Net Neutrality

This blog post is about my thoughts on Net Neutrality.   These are just thoughts based on my idle observation of living through the evolution of Internet access since the 1980s.

Since the 1980s, I went along with the changing trends in the network access, typically lagging the emerging trends by about a half a decade.   For example, I have yet to enter the modern era of accessing Internet from smart phones.   A good way to describe my opinion about Net Neutrality is as a continuation of my past attitudes about change.   I’ll just go along with whatever happens and take advantage of new developments that I find beneficial personally.  Otherwise, I’ll just ignore it.   In other words, I don’t really care which way the regulation goes.

The debate about Net Neutrality has been going on for the recent few years resulting in oscillating policies by the government and FCC in particular.   The current swing is toward no regulation on the concept of neutrality, allowing providers to offer new services that may discriminate between different Internet services based on bandwidth, data limits, or access on the network.

The government’s recent retreat from regulation of Net Neutrality is a return to how things operated in the first place.   The bulk of the Internet innovation in the past several decades has been the result of innovations by service providers that eventually found ways to make profits from Internet access.

I think the recent controversy is the emergence of new marketing approaches that fragment the Internet into a basic bundle of services that cover all the needs of the customers, without offering universal access.   For example, that bundle may include some specific service for each of email, short-message service such as Twitter, online communities such as Facebook, video distribution service such as NetFlix, etc.   These packages will allow users to have access to the various forms of services, but there will be a service given preferential treatment on the network, or there may be services that will not be accessible at all.

As I understand it, this primarily concerns Internet access for individual users within the general public.   I assume that Net Neutrality will not impede corporate entities to build out private Intranets that can span the globe but with a constrained set of services.   The fact that such entities will exist presents at least a boundary for where Net Neutrality is relevant: the general public accessing the Internet for their private interests.

Net Neutrality for the general public’s personal Internet access is very important because it involves the ability of people freely communicate and freely associate.

I heard one scenario of concern is that an Internet provider can provide a cheap service that can attract a large number of subscribers despite that service explicitly limiting access to certain services, primarily the already established big players in the various market segments.   For example, people may be able to watch online movies, but only if they go through NetFlix.   Personally, I can see such packages being successful if they are significantly cheaper than unrestricted services.   People will rationally choose a more affordable service that meets their basic needs despite limiting their choices for alternatives.

The legitimate concern of the Net Neutrality proponents is that such budget-conscious choices will present major barriers for innovative competitors to established players, or will silence certain groups from reaching particular audiences because their media platforms are not included in the user’s chosen plan.   In this manner, Net Neutrality is an extension of the right to free speech, and in particular the right to allowing anyone to access content that someone else presents.   Lacking Net Neutrality regulation, it is easy to imagine large segments of the public to be unreachable by voices whose platforms are outside of the approved services.

As one of those in general public who is an audience for other’s contents, I can see the risk of loss of access to alternative viewpoints or to innovative start-ups, but I would still be inclined to accept a lower-cost plan that restricts my access to certain services especially if the Internet provider can optimize the network between my access point and the content servers.   I would rather be limited to one movie-streaming site if my access to content rarely if ever has to pause for stream buffering after an intermediate delay.   That is preferable than having access to a large number of competitors serving movies where each one has a high risk of buffering delays, or where I would have to pay a lot more for Internet access for a network that can serve everything equally.

My impression is that the ideal of Net Neutrality is that it forces the cost of access to be proportional to the quality of service.   Experiencing equally high quality streaming content from all possible streaming content providers will require a more expensive Internet provider than one that delivers equally poor quality streaming content from the same set of content providers.   In contrast, the absence of Net Neutrality regulation permits a content provider to optimize for certain providers so as to deliver high quality for that provider in such a way that it can offer the service more cheaply than having to deliver the same quality for all other providers.   Part of the discount to the customer comes from cost-sharing arrangements of a partnership between the Internet provider and the content provider.    The content provider, for example, can maintain distribution points at key locations in the provider’s network to enable high quality for each of its regions.

I can see many people choosing such options if they are offered even with the full knowledge that they will lose unlimited access to all possible competitors providing exclusive content unavailable from the established provider.

I don’t have much of an opinion about entertainment content.   So long as the available content is sufficiently entertaining, I’m not much bothered by not being able to enjoy content that I might enjoy if I had access to it.

This is not a new thing.   The pay-per-view sporting events could be very entertaining, but I have yet to purchase one.

A more compelling argument for me concerns access to competing views on public debates, or even debates about topics that consensus says is closed.   The cheap service may offer access to only channels that have editorial policies to limit discussion within a range that offers credible evidence to challenge established consensus views.   I kind of like reading what people have to say about odd-ball theories such as advanced civilization during or before the last ice age, or the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors in the prehistoric past.   I can name many such topics that I probably would never have been able to encounter (or encounter as easily) had I had a restrictive Internet plan that did not include access to such content, perhaps due to editorial control by the chosen content-provider.

On the whole, I’m not inclined to throw my support for government regulations enforcing Net Neutrality.   I recognize the risks, but I am not very concerned about them.  I have faith in the inherent capacity of people to get bored with the popular.   There will be a market for alternative content and there will be providers who will grant access to that content.

Extrapolating from past experience watching the evolution of public-access Internet, I can see having multiple service providers: one may offer the established mainstream content and another that offers alternative content.   The separate providers specialized for the two different niches could offer a combined cost that is lower than having one generalized service provider.

I may choose to pay for an alternative provider only on a seasonal basis, since my boredom with popular culture tends to be seasonal.   Boredom generally motivates a willingness to pay a premium price to relieve that boredom.   The lack of Net Neutrality seems to be me to be more consistent with human nature in that most of the time we are content with the popular content of established providers.   Thus we would be motivated to get the best possible price for the limited set of established providers.  An alternative market will emerge to satisfy the needs of those whose boredom motivates them to pay a premium for something different.

An example is in doing research about some topic.   If sufficiently interested in a topic, I will pay for accessing specific sites or specific papers that have exclusive content that is relevant to my interest.

Usually, however, I am satisfied with the cheaply available content.   For example, I’m often content with Wikipedia articles even when I can see a bias that convinces me I’m not getting the full story.   Even in my paid work, there is very narrow range of topics that are relevant and reaching such a topic just once can keep me gainfully employed for months if not years.  I don’t need continuous access to premium content.

I would contrast Net Neutrality with the Affordable Care Act.   The same group people support both solutions that have similar goals of maximizing access to a certain commodity.   The two solutions take opposite approaches.

In the affordable care act, the focus is on access to any medical services that the subscriber may need.   The compliant insurance plans includes those that cover any access to any specialist the subscriber chooses, but such plans are very expensive.   More affordable plans will cover costs only for a select few medical providers within the plan: the subscriber choosing a provider outside of the plan will have to pay full price for that plan.   Many people choose the lower cost insurance that covers only a narrow set of medical providers.   When they need medical care, they will give these in-network providers a chance to address the problem.   If the patient is not satisfied with the in-network provider and has the means to do so, he will pay extra for a more satisfactory out-of-network provider.

The Affordable Care Act could have copied the goals of Net Neutrality with an enforcement of medical provider-network neutrality.   We would only have access to insurance plans that will cover any medical provider we choose.   These plans will be as expensive as the most flexible PPO plans available now, but we would not be aware of the possibility of cheaper HMO or EPO plans.   I’m sold on the current medical-network non-neutrality model: there is a very noticeable difference in premium costs.   Medical-network neutrality would lock us into only the plans that cover every possible medical provider.

There is an inconsistency on advocating for Net Neutrality for Internet access while advocating for non-Neutrality for medical provider networks.    At some level, both are dealing with the same fundamental problem of needing to trade-off the cost and delivery of satisfactory content.   I’m content with the choice of having non-Neutrality for medical networks.  I do not see the value of having Internet access options being restricted to a much higher Neutrality standard than what I accept for health care.

From a historical perspective, the current debates about Net Neutrality resemble the debates about offering unlimited Internet access to the public back in the 1990s at the end of the era of dial-up access to proprietary networks.   In particular, I was a big fan of Compuserve service at the time.   When I heard about competitors offering Internet-only plans, and in particular unlimited Internet access, I preferred to stick with my Compuserve showing that I was resistant to change even at a much younger age.

This revolution was the start of the Net Neutrality presumption since the disruptive network providers boasted on access speeds with unlimited access times and unlimited total data.   Early on, there was not as many options to take advantage of the additional freedom.   I suppose part of the business plan of offering unlimited access was an expectation that there was a ceiling on aggregate demand.   There was much more limited number of content options available, and the prevailing culture discouraged long-lasting connections to the Internet.

I do recall one argument against these plans being that the service will need to raise its monthly rates in order to accommodate a small minority of users who would access the network for long periods of time.   Such users included those who devoted lots of time on online games or took advantage of streaming radio (at that time of dial-up access, video options were not very attractive).   At this time, many people were experimenting with setting up servers in their own homes, providing their own web content, or participating in peer-to-peer networking for distributing copyrighted content.

At the time most of the paying users would continue to access the network only sporadically.   Most people only needed access to email while a smaller group may use Internet for research or checking websites.    The argument against unlimited Internet was that these users would eventually have to subsidize the more bandwidth hungry minority.

That prediction of future higher prices did not hold up.   Network improvements in the back-end allowed for more economical networks, keeping costs down.   At the same time, new forms of access such as ADSL or Cable modems allowing for Internet to be provided independently from phone.   Freeing up the phone line from the modem allowed Internet access to be charged separately, allowing for a widely accepted increase in cost of access.   Then there was the competition of higher access speeds where people willingly paid more for the better instantaneous access speed independently of how much total time they used it.

As most people adopted the unlimited Internet model, new services emerged on the network to take advantage of it.   New services included early internet shopping, and getting newspaper or magazine content from Internet.    Underlying this emergence was an unstated assumption of neutrality of access: the only limitation of in terms of bandwidth between any site and any user was just the bottlenecks at the connections at either end.   The path in between treated all traffic equally.

Over time, culture changed.   Today, we expect continuous access to Internet content.   At the same time, there has been a consolidation within services where each service has just one or two dominant players.   Facebook is the dominant platform for community-boards.  Google is the dominant platform for searching.   Youtube is the dominant platform for video sharing.   Twitter is the dominant platform for broadcasting short messages.   It is now possible to bundle just the dominant services with an Internet access plan where the partners can optimize their networks for this plan for a lower cost with the consequence of restrictions at least less optimal access for competitor sites.   This runs contrary to the presumed status quo that ended up getting the name of Net Neutrality.

This reminds me of returning that old debate in the 1990s between propriety network services like Compuserve and competing unlimited Internet services.  The technology has matured to the point where it is potentially attractive to go back to a propriety model that bundles access speed with a limit set of options for various services.   This new offering very much resembles what Compuserve was like at that time, but fast-forwarded to take full advantage of modern technologies.

Despite the increasingly lower flexibility, I stuck with Compuserve until it was bought out by AOL and converted into AOL’s model.   The conversion was inevitable because it was losing the battle at the time and yet they retained a set of stubborn subscribers refusing to jump over the unlimited Internet model.

At the time, I imagined it would have been possible for Compuserve to invest in their proprietary approach to directly compete, but it was clear that this would have been prohibitively expensive especially given the number of trial-and-error failures for various types of network services.   I felt there was an advantage to a proprietary network model in the possibility to optimize for the specific services.   The limited number of options in a proprietary network would also provide simpler security assurance at least in terms of all of the servers being in control of trusted and skilled administrators.

Technologies were not mature enough in the 1990s in order to present a viable proprietary solution.   We needed an era of the equivalent of Net Neutrality in order to work out exactly what services people need, and how best to deliver these services.   Now that these services have matured, we have the option to return to proprietary Internets for consumers.   As a consumer, I would like the option of choosing such options that would optimize delivery of a set of services I need while other options are given lower priority or blocked entirely.   It would satisfy my needs for most of the year.   On the odd intervals where I am attracted to content that is not available or not efficiently delivered in the proprietary network, I will pay extra for those instances to access this.   Again, I recall my experience with the pre-AOL Compuserve where such premium services were also offered.   I am confident similar options will exist in the future feared by the Net Neutrality advocates if Net Neutrality is not regulated.

I’d go even further in being confident that subscribers to proprietary Internet bundles will look back at the Net Neutrality era similarly as we today look back at the “wild west”.  Something for story-telling instead of something to yearn to return to.

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