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The Answer to Net Neutrality is Competition



the answer to net neutrality is competition-cover

Editor’s note: This op-ed originally ran in the Newsminer and has been republished with Forrest Dunbar’s permission. Yesterday, hundreds of websites and social media sites (including Alaska Commons) took part in a national day of action in support of Net Neutrality.

In 2010, Senator Mark Begich made the case for why the federal government should invest in broadband Internet access for Alaskans. “It helps a student in Fairbanks learn about their government in Juneau, and it can save a patient in Kotzebue a flight to Seattle,” he argued. The Recovery Act that followed included a $100 million investment in broadband for our state, offering high-speed access to thousands of Alaskans for the first time.

Connecting Alaska’s villages to the Internet is a huge victory (and one we’re still working on), but a critical element of what makes the Internet valuable is the equal playing field that it offers to all users. For news sites to earn readers, or businesses to appeal to customers, they have to offer better content or services than their competitors; they cannot attract customers simply because their competitors have cripplingly long load times.

Take, for example, Jason Iya — an Alaska Native artist who lives in Savoonga and uses the Internet to access markets around the world. He doesn’t have to ask a gallery in New York to host his work; he can put it up himself for all to see.

Net neutrality is about keeping the Internet equal.  If one company could pay an Internet service provider (ISP) to slow down the sites of its competitors, it would ruin what makes the Internet a good place to share ideas and do business.

As an Alaskan, I support the goal of net neutrality.  Furthermore, to preserve an open marketplace for ideas on the Internet, I support an approach known as “common carrier,” which promotes competition among ISP’s, rather than burdening them with unnecessary regulation.

Internet service providers act similarly to utilities, both in the services they provide, and in the relative advantage larger companies have over smaller ones. ISP’s like GCI (or Comcast in the Lower 48) have well-established networks that run into the homes of their customers, and as a result, adding new customers is relatively cheap. Unfortunately for smaller companies, this means that competing directly with the larger providers is very difficult.

Supporters of net neutrality fear that large ISP’s might leverage or abuse their positions, giving the fastest Internet service to those that pay them the most. This has led many to call for the FCC to step in and enforce network neutrality rules onto the ISP’s to keep all traffic equal.

Neutrality sounds like a great idea, but unfortunately it’s not that simple.  Many large content providers already have special relationships with ISP’s, called ‘peering’, and far from being a bad thing, it makes service better for all of us. Google, for instance, has routers set up inside of Comcast’s data centers that allow the two companies to trade information more quickly and efficiently. Since it’s impractical for every content provider to have a peering connection, the net will probably never be truly “neutral” as it relates to traffic between websites and ISP’s.

Rather than mandating neutrality in how Internet companies interact with websites, the best solution is supporting competition between ISPs.  Competition will allow the market to punish Internet providers who aren’t acting fairly and avoid the most burdensome forms of regulation. The best plan to do this is common carrier.

Common carrier is not a new concept.  Phone transmission lines, most prominently, are common carrier.  So is the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, meaning that if you are an oil company on the North Slope you get access and are allowed to send your product down the pipe.  This prevents the Big Three from stifling competitors.

In this case, common carrier rules would require companies like GCI to open up part of their networks to competitors. Similarly to how Golden Valley might purchase power from Chugach, companies would have to pay a fair market rate for use of another’s network, but smaller ISPs wouldn’t have to completely build their own infrastructure into neighborhoods before they could compete with larger providers. In practical terms, this means that if Comcast unfairly slowed access to SarahPalinChannel.com or ThinkProgress.org, customers would have more freedom to switch their provider. This would protect the ability of the Internet to grow, and put in place a check on unfair business practices.

So where should we start? Private companies that have invested millions in building out their infrastructure have a strong argument that it would be unfair to force them to open to competitors. But what about connections that have received government subsidies or financing, like the $100 million mentioned above?  The public should have the right to try common carrier on those lines.  After all, we paid for them.

Requiring more competition over infrastructure that the public bought or subsidized would help consumers and protect the net neutrality idea.  Private companies have benefited hugely from the government’s spending on broadband access; requiring those networks to open to competition is a fair trade.