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November 11, 2010 10:25 AM

Solving Net Neutrality By Splitting The Baby (In A Good Way!)

There's an exciting new development in the debate around net neutrality. This Ars Technica article highlights a letter that was sent to the FCC from an impressive group of tech luminaries commending that agency for recognizing that the open Internet and prioritized network services are two distinct and valid things.

The reason I'm so excited about this is that the net neutrality debate has been largely stuck on the notion that the FCC must choose between the open Internet or prioritized network services. The open Internet guys often decry prioritized network services as evil with the potential to destroy the Internet as we know it, and the network prioritization guys often decry calls for an open Internet as a form of socialism divorced from the realities of the capitalistic marketplace networks must operate in.

What this letter clearly highlights is that both the open Internet and network prioritization are valid concepts that may be able to coexist, so long as from a regulatory perspective we recognize that they're separate and need to be treated as such.

Even more exciting is that I think there's at least a chance that this perspective could allow the net neutrality debate to finally make some significant forward progress.

I'd think if I were an open Internet supporter I'd want to leverage this opportunity to move the debate to questions like how much of a broadband provider's capacity needs to be devoted to the open Internet vs. prioritized network services, enabling the discussion to be about how to specifically protect the open Internet instead of having to argue on behalf of theoretical ideals.

And if I were a believer in the value of prioritized network services, I'd relish the opportunity to have my position validated, to start clearing up the regulatory uncertainty that the net neutrality debate has created, and therefore to be able to continue building the future of my company in earnest.

Given that I actually am a believer in the possibilities of both the open Internet and prioritized network services, I could not be happier that we may finally be reaching a tipping point whereby the net neutrality debate can be about more than demonizing the other side and can instead focus on how we can continue moving our country forward.

Now, in no way does this mean the net neutrality debates are over. We're a long way away from that. There are still a number of issues that need to be resolved, many of which are alluded to in this letter.

For example, there's the issue I mentioned above, namely determining whether or not there need to be rules to insure that as prioritized network services take off that broadband providers continue to devote some percentage of their network capacity to delivering open bandwidth to the Internet.

Tied deeply into this issue are questions about network management practices, and how providers should balance their networks in real time as demand fluctuates between the two halves of the service they provide.

There's also a lot of issues around how the business models for accessing prioritized network service capacity should work. Does government need to be involved with setting the rules of engagement at the outset, or can it wait to see how the market handles things and only step in if there's a breakdown?

Then there'll also need to be some analysis of what happens when prioritized network services need to jump between different broadband providers. Will the rules that guide the Internet be relevant to this new paradigm in interconnected network communications?

And how do we keep an eye on the practices of network operators as we go through this evolutionary process to make sure that the public interest continues to be protected?

These are just some of the many issues that still need to be resolved, but because of this letter my hope is that we can now start digging into these specific problems and move the debate beyond what has too often been a good vs. evil back and forth that has made relatively little progress in the last five years.

This splitting-the-baby approach isn't necessarily new as the debate had been turning a corner recently with many open Internet supporters acknowledging the legitimacy of prioritized network services, and network operators admitting that they aren't trying to muck with the open Internet but instead just want the opportunity to explore new ways to monetize their networks by providing better services.

But today I'm more confident than ever that we're on the verge of finally reaching the next stage in the Great Net Neutrality Debates where we can start getting down to brass tacks about how to keep this dialog moving forward.

So kudos to all that wrote and signed that letter! Hopefully my optimism about its impact will not be unfounded.

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