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January 20, 2010 11:32 AM

Crafting A Comprehensive, Pragmatic Solution For Net Neutrality

As the tide comes back in on the net neutrality debate, it's important we stay focused on finding real solutions to real problems rather than wasting energy trying to demonize or marginalize the other side, especially when there are good points to be made by both sides.

To this end, I want to propose the start of what I believe are the key components to crafting a comprehensive, pragmatic solution for net neutrality. Note that it's not about any one of these steps over the others, but instead taking a nuanced approach to untangling the net neutrality knot.

In no particular order:

Make providers be transparent to their customers
This is an issue that's already gained a lot of steam and covers things like finding ways for consumers to know the actual speeds of broadband service providers rather than just the advertised. It also includes greater transparency regarding bandwidth caps and any overage charges or throttling penalties associated with them. If we want a healthy competitive broadband marketplace, then we need an educated customer base. The reason this relates to net neutrality is that customers should serve as one of the checks and balances to the system. If providers start abusing the system, their customers need to have a way of knowing about it and being able to take their business elsewhere.

Set strong rules against slowing down traffic anti-competitively.
No provider should be allowed to intentionally slow down the traffic of some to favor that of others. This is one of the greatest boogeymen of net neutrality, and rightly so. If we lived in a world where your cable provider could slow down Amazon.com's site so that customers went to Barnes and Noble's site instead, that would mean the Internet as we know it is dead. Luckily, most providers agree that this shouldn't be allowed and likely would support strong rules against engaging in this practice.

Don't dissuade innovation in the network to speed up traffic.
I think it's dangerous to assume that innovation in the network that enables certain traffic priority access is an inherently bad thing. If it means that apps like videoconferencing can start working a lot better over current broadband networks, then I'm all for that. Sure it'd be great to have infinite bandwidth, and I'm working to help bring about that future, but we have to be realistic about the fact that we're not there yet and likely won't be for quite some time. Also, we have to realize that if we prevent incumbents from exploring these possibilities, then it's very likely that they'll slow down their investment in building out next-generation capacity, which we can't afford. I think the real issue isn't whether or not some traffic should be prioritized, it's about who controls who gets onto that fast lane and how they're able to profit from it. So let's not limit the potential of this innovation, but we should...

Keep a close eye on how the prioritized market evolves.
Ideally, network operators build out smarter networks and these more advanced capabilities become available to any and all app developers and content creators on equitable terms. I think there's a chance the market will evolve that way on its own as it behooves networks to try and get as much to fill the pipe as possible. But I also acknowledge the possibility that these markets could get out of whack and that some network operators could choose to abuse their positions. Because of this I think it's crucial we have someone watching this space closely to see how it evolves. If things turn sour then we can be ready to step back in and regulate it more tightly.

Fund testbeds to prove if open networks can work.
I think it's a total non-starter to attempt to install a new regime of structural separation on the current providers. The only place that leads us is into court for the next decade, and even then there's no guarantee we'll win. Instead I think we should focus on supporting the deployment of open network testbeds across the US so that we can prove whether or not open networks can be viable in the US marketplace. My belief is that ultimately they will prove out to be the best option, but it's going to be a whole lot easier to make that case if we have some success stories to point to, which right now are in somewhat short supply on domestic soil.


If we start with these components I truly believe we can find a comprehensive, pragmatic way to approach net neutrality. There are real problems that need to be solved here. And together I know we can find the real solutions our country needs to move forward.

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