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Commentary: Net Neutrality – An Update, a Misnomer, and (Possibly) a Better Way

Since we last covered the issues surrounding net neutrality in February, national awareness of this debate has grown significantly, driven by public advocacy groups and internet giants alike beating the drums for net neutrality and telcos lobbying fiercely against it.

Amidst this polarizing debate, net neutrality has become a primary lynchpin in the push towards federal telecom reform. Its advocates in the U.S. Senate have threatened the use of a filibuster to scuttle any legislation not containing specific language that would prevent network operators from creating so-called "tiered access" to their networks.

Despite the continuing rallying cries in support of net neutrality, we’re on the verge of all this effort going for naught as neither Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens—whose bill awaits a potential vote in the fall—nor his counterpart, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton—who spearheaded a telecom reform bill that passed through the House in June—favor the inclusion of specific net neutrality language in their respective bills.

At this point, it appears as though the most that net neutrality supporters can hope for is that their efforts prevent federal telecom reform from passing altogether this year, since the type of broadly worded net neutrality legislation they have proposed to date doesn’t seem likely to pass any time soon.

What’s led to this impasse is the lack of realistic solutions to the issues at hand. The only proposals currently on the table are all-or-none options either allowing for no regulation at all on how network operators manage traffic on their networks or creating all-encompassing net neutrality rules that would not only prevent network operators from offering tiered access but also slow down the deployment of next-gen networks and potentially limit the evolution of tomorrow’s high-bandwidth IP-based applications.

What’s needed to break this stalemate is a coherent understanding of the issues at hand, clarification of the terms being used, and a plausible solution that stands a chance of finding support on both sides of the issue. Here’s an attempt at accomplishing just those tasks.

The Internet is Not Designed for Video? We Beg to Differ
The crux of the telcos’ argument against net neutrality hinges on two claims. The first asserts that, without the freedom to manage traffic across their networks, they won’t be able to generate sufficient revenue to justify the investment needed to build out next-gen networks. The second claims that the internet was not designed to handle the delivery of high-bit rate video and other bandwidth-intensive applications.

While the latter claim may be historically accurate in terms of the original intentions of the internet’s architects, no one can deny what streaming media and other online video distribution methods have accomplished over the last year. The quality of video is superb and getting better, the number of applications is increasing quickly, and both industries and individuals are experiencing firsthand the utility and usability of increasingly higher-bit rate video.

In reality, the aspect of the internet’s design that fails under the weight of higher-bit rate video is broadband providers’ business model, where consumers buy a certain level of access and then have carte blanche to use as much or as little as they’d like.

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