The History of Neutrality

14 Jan ’06

Lawrence Lessig criticizes the reported comments of Howard Waltzman, the majority chief telecom counsel of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and network neutrality opponent, who is reported to have said that net neutrality regulation would turn “broadband pipes into railroads and regulating them under common carriage”, and that “the reason the Internet has thrived is because it’s existed in an unregulated environment. Regulating … under common carriage would be a complete step backward for the Internet.” Lessig’s observations in a post yesterday (this is just the gist – read the entire post):

So half right, but wholly wrong. For of course, when the Internet first reached beyond research facilities to the masses, it did so on regulated lines — telephone lines. Had the telephone companies been free of the “heavy hand” of government regulation, it’s quite clear what they would have done — they would have killed it, just as they did when Paul Baran first proposed the idea in 1964. It was precisely because they were not free to kill it, because the “heavy hand[ed]” regulation required them to act neutrally, that the Internet was able to happen, and then flourish.

So Waltzman’s wrong about the Internet’s past. But he’s certainly right about what a mandated net neutrality requirement would be. It would certainly be a “complete step backward for the Internet” — back to the time when we were world leaders in Internet penetration, and competition kept prices low and services high. Today, in the world where the duopoly increasingly talks about returning us to the world where innovation is as the network owners says, broadband in the US sucks. We are somewhere between 12th and 19th in the world, depending upon whose scale you use. As the Wall Street Journal reported two months ago, broadband in the US is “slow and expensive.” Verizon’s entry-level broadband is $14.95 for 786 kbs. That about $20 per megabit. In FRANCE, for $36/m, you get 20 megabits/s — or about $1.80 per megabit.

Broadband is infrastructure — like highways, if not railroads. If you rely upon “markets” alone to provide infrastructure, you’ll get less of it, and at a higher price. (See, e.g., the United States, today.)

Waltzman is of course (intentionally?) conflating the ideas of a regulated internet on one hand and regulating the providers of access to the internet on the other. They are not the same thing.

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