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App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

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February 21, 2008 12:06 PM

Seven Steps to Solving Net Neutrality...For Now

Throughout this week I've been exploring the dynamics of the debate around net neutrality in an attempt to help frame these issues in a new and hopefully more productive light.

Now I want to dive into some initial thoughts on how we might find some kind of resolution to this mess.

The first step is to recognize that from certain angles the two sides aren't that far apart. For example, both agree that network operators should not be allowed to intentionally degrade legitimate network traffic, especially in order to favor their own. The only disagreement here is whether or not legislation is needed or if the FCC's four principles regarding broadband are sufficient.

The second step is for the pro net neutrality crowd to agree that network operators should be allowed to manage traffic on their networks and that they should retain the right to explore the possibilities of delivering applications in-network, so long as doing so doesn't slow down the broadband service they're selling to consumers. In fact, if we're going to have a bill protecting the rights of consumers we should also include one protecting these rights of network operators.

The third step is to enact some form of truth-in-advertising legislation or regulations. We need to close the gap between what some broadband providers are marketing and the level of service consumers are realizing. Companies should still be able to market the theoretical maximum of their service, but alongside that should be a number that more accurately reflects the speeds consumers will realize. Maybe it's a minimum guaranteed level of access or the average speed customers will get on a day-to-day basis. However we frame this it's important consumers know what they're getting when selecting a broadband service.

Along these lines, the fourth step would be to expand those truth-in-advertising requirements to include full disclosure of what traffic a particular network is managing. If Comcast is going to degrade P2P traffic, their customers have the right to know about it. If Comcast doesn't want people to think they can't use P2P at all on their network, then they should have to clearly state the time and type of managing they're doing. I say don't prevent them from managing P2P traffic but force them to be honest about it and then, assuming competition is working, consumers will be able to make informed decisions about whether or not they want to continue using that service.

The fifth step would be to setup a taskforce charged with monitoring network operators in order to protect consumer interest. This task force would bring to light instances where network management practices are not aligning with the service being marketed. You wouldn't even necessarily need to make this an official group as there seems to be plenty of tech heads out there that would love the opportunity to catch big, evil broadband providers doing bad things and then outing them. Just give them a way to get the attention of the FCC when they find something happening that suggests wrongdoing.

The sixth step would be to establish consequences for broadband providers caught slowing down legitimate traffic without advertising that they're doing so. The first level of punishment could be to simply have them update their marketing materials and send them to their customers indicating their new treatment of particular types of traffic. Then there can be additional levels, like forcing them to give free service to affected customers for a period of time.

The seventh and final step in my plan to resolve net neutrality is to not pass net neutrality legislation. I've already written about how net neutrality is terrifying, so why show its hand now and just end up stuck in court? Why not leave the threat of net neutrality legislation in place, hanging above their heads like Damocles sword? Let them know that if they continue to get caught misbehaving that there won't be any stopping the support that will get behind passing full-blown net neutrality.

Now all this being said, I had to include the "...For Now" in the title of this post as this is an amorphous ever-evolving area. Tomorrow a brand new application could come along that eats up even more bandwidth than P2P. The day after that broadband providers who also offer cable TV could decide to start aggressively attacking the free and open delivery of video over the Internet. The day after that we could wake up to a world where fiber to the home is the norm not the exception and with all that capacity these worries go away.

The point is that the best we can do today is establish a plan that puts the rights of consumers first without ignoring the rights of broadband providers while keeping an eye towards the fact that the dynamics of all this could change tomorrow.


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