Don't let net neutrality foes stifle innovation - page 2

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I believe we're at a point in telecommunications evolution similar to when the railroads, (today's cellular carriers) met the commercial airplanes (WiFi, WiMAX, et al). The railroads made taming the West possible, produced some interesting travel innovations and made other remarkable contributions to the country. But no matter how you slicked them up and even spawned bullet trains (initially not in America, ironically), those trains can't fly. Trains retain some usefulness, but planes took travel to the next level.

The pushback on net neutrality probably stems in part from a fear of history repeating itself. Recall how cellular carriers quaked in 2004 at the thought of cities nationwide developing wireless networks because WiFi and fixed wireless networks were faster and cheaper to build. Incumbents' data communications operations were encumbered by slower technology, huge capital investments and large operational overhead. Talk to cities such as Oklahoma City that have since built citywide WiFi or other wireless networks because cellular networks are too slow. Look at how many iPhone users wanting data access can't get to a WiFi network fast enough. Cellular may get better, but it can't fly.

Net neutrality favors and encourages the swift. If entities can blast as much as 30 Mbps or more through a wireless network, net neutrality rules aren't a burden because capacity isn't scarce, plus the rules remove barriers incumbents could put in the way. I'll go out on a limb and say the stimulus program will be a big driver of wireless networks with faster speeds than cellular networks specifically because net neutrality helped keep incumbents out of the game. Sixty percent of the 1,130 last-mile proposals are for wireless networks.

(Note to critics: Before you start hyperventilating about muni wireless being government failures, remember that almost all of those networks that failed were run by private companies with a whacked perception of "free" markets.)

The 'free-ride' myth 

Finally, there's the anti-net neutrality crowd's rather silly contention about others taking a free ride on "their pipes." Their logic is terribly flawed. Incumbents are players in the Internet game, but they aren't "the Internet." The Net is the byproduct of combined public, private and nonprofit contributions of technologies, infrastructures and applications that collectively comprise the Internet. To see the free-ride myth for what it is, consider the stimulus grant program.

Applicants were encouraged to identify institutional customers who would transmit and receive lots of content, for which they will pay a sufficient price that offsets much of the network's operating costs. If they have any business sense, applicants also structured individual subscriber rates to get a few more bucks from people who live on YouTube than from those who just check email. The heavy network users aren't getting a free ride or harming operators' bottom line. Net neutrality doesn't change this.

On other parts of the Internet are content providers such as Google, Skype and applications yet to be born. They pay big bucks for access, private infrastructure and others expenses to enable their content to get across the Net. They're not getting a free ride either, nor are they impacting grant applicants' operating costs because institutional and premium customers pay for the capacity to receive the content.

What you don't have, thanks to net neutrality, is a structure in which network operators restrict traffic except for those willing to pay extra ransom to get their content through. Operators can't prohibit applications on the network because they compete with operators' apps, or prevent you from using whichever device you want to access the network. There's a lot to be said for this.

So Mr. G, keep fighting the good fight.

Craig Settles, President of Successful.com, is an industry expert who helps organizations pursue stimulus grants. Follow Craig at twitter.com/cjsettles

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