If you've paid attention, you know the modern "network neutrality" debate took off in 2005, when then AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre proudly, though dumbly, proclaimed that Google got a "free ride
" on his network. According to Ed, this unfairness could only be rectified by charging companies who already pay for bandwidth
money to ensure their traffic reaches AT&T consumers quickly. Such a bizarre statement obviously resulted in fear that phone companies planned to act as trolls under the metaphorical Internet bridge, grumpily extorting passers by. That created a desire by content companies and consumers for laws that would prevent this from happening.
The entire concept of network neutrality is really very simple. It was born out of phone company executive greed, and remains driven by legitimate fear of market abuses by companies with a long history of them. Unfortunately, over the years the debate has been so badly mutilated by PR folk, shoddy journalism and policy wonks that it has become a nonsensical mess. Thanks to said wonks, we're still having the exact same debate we were back in 2005, as this painful editorial in the Wall Street Journal
pretty clearly illustrates. Say hello, Mr. Holman W. Jenkins Jr.:
...everything you need to know was contained in the first act, when AOL began bleating about "open access" when broadband first threatened its dial-up empire. AOL's business model depended on free riding on the infrastructure paid for by phone users. AOL users were dialing up and keeping a line open for days or even weeks at a time - yet faced no cost for the disproportionate capacity they used up.
If you thought we were going to make any
intellectual progress on the network neutrality discussion you were painfully mistaken, given people still don't understand how the Internet (or bandwidth bills) work, and are still claiming that content operators like AOL or Google get a "free ride" on the Internet. That idea, like most of Mr. Jenkins' editorial, comes directly from the brains of phone company lobbyists who are now fighting new network neutrality rules at both the FCC
and in Congress
The "free ride" shtick was almost cute in 2005, because you could assume "Big Ed" Whitacre was just babbling. Whitacre, who has amazingly moved on to run
General Motors despite knowing nothing about cars or innovation
, had clearly grown detached after decades of government coddling and duopoly luxury.
But it's almost 2010, and having been deconstructed hundreds of times in hundreds of public forums by thousands of the best minds in this industry, the "free ride" argument has become the pinnacle of idiocy. Yet somehow, the idea remains the cornerstone of the baby bell argument against network neutrality.
It doesn't matter how many times you point out that companies like Google pay millions of dollars for bandwidth and their own infrastructure, the paid talking heads
who work for Verizon and AT&T simply keep repeating the same myth. Telling these individuals that AOL dial-up users paid phone companies billions in tolls and long-distance fees will get you nowhere. By demonizing Google and repeating nonsense, Jenkins and AT&T think they can distract unintelligent lawmakers, journalists and the public from the real issues. Unfortunately, they're right.
Yes, companies like Google are not saints. Yes, Google is solely interested in dominating the advertising industry. Yes, companies like Google can and possibly will turn into anti-competitive tyrants over time who violate user privacy and do everything in their power to obliterate competitors. However, the network neutrality debate was not started by Google. It was started by a very confused Ed Whitacre.
Network neutrality has always been about phone and cable companies trying to maintain power in the face of Internet evolution.
If network neutrality confuses you
(and it pretty clearly confuses Mr. Jenkins), at least understand one thing: network neutrality has always been about phone and cable companies trying to maintain power in the face of Internet evolution. You can't blame phone company executives for being terrified. They should be.
The evolution of the Internet is strangling decades old cash cows, herded across analog fields by monopoly dinosaurs who've been pampered by Uncle Sam for generations. As voice becomes simply data, charging nine dollars for services like caller ID or call waiting (both of which costs pennies to provide) becomes untenable. Suddenly, programs like Google Voice allow users to send free SMS messages, eroding hugely profitable SMS revenue. AT&T and Verizon, protected from competition for so long, are coming face to face with reality for the first time in generations.
With voice, video and other services all just bits, broadband has made cable and phone company empires as service
providers irrelevant, whether they know it yet or not. That leaves them with one
purpose: running a network. And while the baby bells make a perfectly healthy fortune simply selling flat-rate bandwidth in this new paradigm, investor pressure and the need for quarter over quarter stock improvement makes simply being incredibly profitable not good enough.
Ma Bell's remnants turned to Internet content and advertising as the solution, but being incapable of content innovation themselves, their attempts
frequently wind up with all the sophistication of an unartistic and troubled child trying to draw a pony. One thing they have
gotten very good at after years of coddled monopoly living is anti-competitive behavior. That's why when faced with the specter of losing control of content and service delivery, Ed Whitacre's very first impulse was to choke the hell out of the bandwidth supply
in order to maintain AT&T's position of power.
If the network neutrality argument is about the biggest phone and cable companies trying to maintain power and control, then what better plan than to set themselves up as unquestionable guardians of a precious and easily exhaustible resource?
With that in mind, what began as muddled musings by Big Ed would quickly evolve into a sophisticated political and PR campaign designed by much smarter men with nearly unlimited budgets. Unfortunately for the phone companies, both bandwidth and the hardware to provide that bandwidth continues to get cheaper, making strict rationing hard to justify to the public. The solution? Convince the public and lawmakers we're facing a bandwidth apocalypse.
Shortly after Ed's comments a PR push known as the "Exaflood
" was born, created by a slew of AT&T-funded think tanks and the Discovery Institute, the same PR firm behind intelligent design
. Not coincidentally, the exaflood first appeared in a 2007 editorial in the Wall Sreet Journal
by the Discovery Institute's Brett Swanson. Swanson warned this collapse could only be avoided by giving broadband companies infrastructure investment support (code for no neutrality laws).
Much to the chagrin of AT&T's army of lobbyists and think tanks, the Exaflood idea has been repeatedly discredited by a little something we like to call actual science
. The fact that network engineers around the world keep repeatedly showing how the global Internet is incredibly resilient to capacity demands with just modest investment and some elbow grease also seems to stand in opposition.
All the same, carriers are still trying to sell the public on the idea that this digital apocalypse can only be stopped by a shift from flat-rate to per-byte billing, an idea that's immensely unpopular with consumers
but adored by investors. Loyally selling the metered plan, Mr. Jenkins again somehow blames Google, then trots out the scary word "socialism" in order to rally and confuse Journal readers. Don't worry about the fact that socialism in this context makes absolutely no sense, because Jenkins' goal isn't to make sense, it's to get Journal readers in line with metered billing:
Google's trick will be to lobby for the optimum of Internet socialism - "tiered" pricing may be OK, in which some consumers pay extra for a bigger pipe. But usage-based pricing that would give consumers a reason to think twice before clicking on a Google-sponsored ad? It would be the end of Google's business model.
Of course concerns by content companies (be they the giant Google or the tiniest of startups) that strictly rationing bandwidth results in constricted innovation are perfectly valid. Could the nation's largest ISPs implement a per-byte cap and overage broadband billing model that was fair and actually delivered value to consumers? Sure. Will they? Don't be ridiculous
. Any new metered billing model proposed by a phone or cable company would mirror the generations of over-priced services they already deliver in marginally competitive markets across America.
The need for quarter over quarter results would result in endless hikes in per-MB overages, hikes completely out of scale with the real costs of providing terrestrial broadband. Conflicts of interest from companies that deliver both TV and content will result in metered billing models aimed at controlling use of third party video and voice services. If you doubt that phone and cable companies will abuse the metered billing model to the detriment of consumers, there's a hundred-plus years of industry history you probably should get busy reading.
However, perhaps the biggest illusion of the network neutrality "debate" has been that there's some kind of middle ground to be reached if all sides of the discussion just keep working through their differences. In reality, we've made no intellectual progress in this debate in nearly half a decade, because the discussion has always been driven by phone and cable company lobbyists. They're not paid to compromise, they're paid to win by any means necessary, which includes the endless repetition of already disproven and sometimes utterly nonsensical concepts.
So if you're a consumer awash in neutrality jargon, don't let Mr. Holman W. Jenkins Jr. or other industry vessels take your eye off the ball by recycling idiotic, disproven talking points about "free rides." Take a minute to understand, whether you support network neutrality rules or not, that network neutrality isn't about "free rides," "socialism," how evil Google is or even political parties. It's about giant telecom conglomerates doing everything possible to maintain their historically-abused positions of monopoly and duopoly power in the face of Internet evolution.