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On September 25, the Mercatus Center, a research and outreach organization that promotes market-oriented solutions from George Mason University, did a presentation on net neutrality. The speaker, research fellow in the technology policy program Brent Skorup, gave a wide overview of the net neutrality subject. Skorup discussed, among other things, how the Internet works, the working definition of net neutrality, exceptions to the rule, and the options the FCC is exploring.
To fully explain the debate that is occurring, Skorup begins the presentation with the basics. He gives a brief explanation as to how the Internet works, what broadband is, and the constraints broadband must deal with. For example, When broadband is overwhelmed by information, it begins dropping packets or requested information. Generally this results in slow loading time or video buffering. This is where the concept of fast-lanes comes into play, which Skorup explains in detail later.
Skorup then explains the definition of net neutrality and how it got into the public eye. This debate began after a couple incidents. In 2004, A small ISP (Internet Service Provider) in North Carolina blocked access to an online phone provider Vonage. This resulted in many complaints by those effected and eventually a fine against the ISP. Then in 2007, Comcast was caught limiting access to the website BitTorrent. While Comcast said this was due to the information intensive requirements for the site, others suggested Comcast was attempting to limit competition to its own video providing service.
These events started the concept of net neutrality. The definition of this concept is hard to nail down, however, due to the constantly changing interpretation of the term. In general, as Skorup explains, net neutrality intends to treat all information as the same. The ISP would have no power over limiting information or services. Also, the use of fast-lanes, or giving priority to certain information, would be eliminated. Net neutrality is being advanced because of the fear of ISPs censoring political speech and curbing competition.
While this may seem straight-forward and fair, fast-lanes are currently being used, as Skorup point out, in justifiable ways. One example includes Voip or Voice Over Internet Protocol. This gives online telecommunication priority over other web services. So, as Skorup states, “when you’re calling Grandma, if someone in the next room or your neighbors are watching netflix, your phone call isn’t being chopped up.” Other services that sometimes use these fast-lanes include video on demand for TV, gaming, teleconferencing and Skype.
To deal with these complex issues, the FCC has several options. One option would be for the FCC to reinterpret title II of the 1934 communications act to include the Internet. This would put the burden on the ISPs. The ISP would have to prove that their discrimination of information or services is “just and reasonable.” The FCC could also apply section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which would put the burden on the FCC itself. They could also defer the matter to antitrust agencies or Congress.
Skorup ends the presentation by stating how this is a very complex subject. He recommends that engineers, computer scientists and economists should be consulted prior to making any decision on the matter.
For a more critical take on the FCC shoving broadband into Title II, listen to this podcast with Heartland’s Jim Lakely and Less Government’s Seton Motley.