As per the links and quotes below, my views on the network neutrality debate may be summarized as:
- There should be a fairly good level of internet delivery that is, by regulation, available to any website or other internet service. This is essential so that ideas can blossom, speech can be shared, etc.
- There should be a way to pay for arbitrarily good levels of internet delivery. Entertainment would benefit from that. Medicine, in the future, might require it.
- Any payment for better delivery should happen through a marketplace open to all.
In this post I’ll add detail as to how that marketplace could work.
Personal note: When I interviewed for academic and think-tank jobs in 1981, my favorite interview speech was the one on utility regulation across different qualities-of-service in the face of uncertain supply and demand. I’m really going back to my roots here.
What I wrote in 2007 — and which garnered considerable discussion at the time — still applies:
Net neutrality is both necessary and workable for what I call Jeffersonet, which comprises the “classical”, bandwidth-light parts of the Internet. Thus, it includes e-mail, instant messaging, much e-commerce, and just about every website created in the first 13 or so years of the Web. Jeffersonet is the greatest tool in human history to communicate research, teaching, news, and political ideas, or to let tiny businesses compete worldwide. Any censorship of Jeffersonet – even if just of the self-interested large-enterprise commercial kind – would be a terrible loss. Net neutrality is workable for Jeffersonet because – well, because it’s already working just fine. Jeffersonet doesn’t need anything beyond current levels of bandwidth and reliability. So there’s no reason to mess with what’s working, other than simple profit-hungry greed.
Network neutrality opponents, however, point to evolving and future technologies, technically more demanding than what the current Internet can well support. Their uses are centered on what I call Edisonet – communication-rich applications such as entertainment, gaming, telephony, telemedicine, teleteaching, or telemeetings of all kinds. Reliable, tiered service is needed for these applications, and somebody has to pay for it. Even so – and this is a key point — the payment scheme should be as favorable to application-developer competition as possible.
So does what I wrote earlier this year:
I think the anti-discrimination argument for network neutrality has much merit. But I also think there are some kinds of payment structure that could leave the playing field fairly level. Imagine, if you will, that:
- Consumers are charged for data, speed of connection, reliability of delivery, or anything else, but …
- … internet companies have the ability to absorb those charges on consumers’ behalf, but can only do so …
- … one interaction at a time, with no volume discounts, via an automated system that is open to everybody.
Such a system is surely technologically feasible — indeed, it is at least as feasible as the online advertising networks that already exist. Further, it would be possible for the system to have nice features such as:
- Telcos could implement forms of peak load pricing, for those times when their network capacity actually is under stress.
- “Edge provider” internet companies could pay subsidies only on behalf of certain consumers, where those consumers are selected in all the complex ways that advertisements are currently targeted.
To see how this could look, let’s distinguish among some categories of market participant, and consider what kinds of business complexity they can reasonably be expected to endure.
- True consumers. Their situation probably should and will remain much as it is today:
- Simple choices of bundled connectivity-service plans.
- Consumption of particular sites and services on the basis of e-commerce, subscription or free (ad-supported or otherwise).
- Regulation needed to control — likely with partial success — the huge oligopolists who market, sell and supply the connectivity services.
- Other kinds of end customer (e.g. businesses acting as consumers).
- Most of their internet consumption is akin to true consumers’.
- In addition, they should be able to obtain business-critical services with SLA (Service Level Agreement) guarantees for reliability and speed.
- Connectivity providers. They can handle any kind of complexity their customers can, provided the equipment exists to deliver on the promises they make. This is true of customer-facing “last mile” and intermediate/wholesale telecommunication firms alike.
- Market-makers/middlemen for the new market(s) I’m suggesting be created. (Analogous to ad-tech real-time auctioneers/clearing houses.) It’s their job to handle the complexity everybody else needs.
- Publishers, e-commerce vendors and other internet-based enterprises – or, similarly, the internet parts of brick-and-mortar businesses. Here is where the analysis gets interesting.
- The reason we’re having this discussion is that certain large internet-based enterprises want the ability to buy SLA guarantees for their service delivery.
- If they’re able to do so, many of their competitors will suddenly develop that desire as well.
- Hence the business of SLA-guarantee purchasing needs to be organized not just for the benefit of a few large internet companies, but also to suit smaller companies who might wish to compete with them.
- What kind of SLA will a smaller/generic internet company want to be able to buy? In a nutshell, they’ll want to guarantee quality and reliability end-to-end on a customer-by-customer or interaction-by-interaction basis.
The distinction I’m drawing here is:
- Huge companies like Netflix or Google can buy their SLAs piecemeal — one deal to set up a private wholesale network, another deal to guarantee “last-mile” delivery, etc.
- But mom-and-pop web businesses don’t have that luxury. They need to buy delivery on an all-or-nothing basis.
Making the latter happen is, I maintain, just another job for the middlemen — provided those middlemen come into existence.
And so, net neutrality is easy to solve except for one chicken-egg problem:
- The right middlemen need to be created …
- … for a business that doesn’t yet exist …
- … and which indeed can’t exist unless they’re first created …
- … which nobody has a strong incentive to do unless the business is first shown to (be likely to) exist.
I hope somebody — perhaps an existing ad-tech company — gambles on setting up the needed clearinghouse, and gets richly rewarded for doing so.