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Net Neutrality: Just Say No

A business I consult with recently struggled to figure out why it was having problems accessing a critical website hosted on the Internet. Initial testing showed that accessing the same website from other locations/service providers did not exhibit the same degradation in performance. The trouble seemed to occur only when attempting to access it from within the company's corporate headquarters.

As I dug deeper to find the root cause, and ultimately a workaround, I found myself face to face with the net neutrality debate. This issue could technically be resolved with a government-managed Internet backbone, à la net neutrality, but it's my belief that it would only make things worse.

In his recent statement that rekindled the net neutrality debate, President Obama said the driving force for net neutrality was to ensure "that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper, restricting what you can do or see online." His proposal addresses not only the concept of information restriction, but also the concept of intentional or unintentional data throttling to certain parts of the Internet. It's this latter portion of the net neutrality bill that I found myself grappling with while fixing my client's website access problem.

After much effort working with Internet service providers on both the source and destination ends, I discovered that the problem was a congested peer link between two upstream ISPs. Since I was not a customer of either transit service provider where the congestion was happening, there was not much I could do to formally report the problem. Because I was not a customer, the transit ISPs have little incentive to fix it. Instead, I had to work with my service providers to design alternate methods to route my client's traffic around the congestion.

This fixed my client's immediate problem, but it's far from ideal, because it's not an optimal traffic path. Additionally, just because I was able identify and reroute my client's traffic, that doesn't mean it's not impacting other Internet users. The congestion still exists and may continue to exist for quite some time.

Though I expressed dissatisfaction in essentially putting a Band-Aid on a much larger wound, my service provider sales manager responded with support for net neutrality. In his opinion, a major problem with allowing private companies to own large portions of the Internet backbone is when one service provider hands Internet traffic off to another. One provider may have the capacity to handle traffic loads, but the next provider may not. And because there is no larger oversight committee to force or assist a company to meet traffic demands, these types of issues are likely to occur. This is especially true if a service provider is struggling to make ends meet and doesn't have the budget to upgrade connections.

At first, it seemed my ISP account manager made a pretty decent case for net neutrality. But my second thought was that the real solution to this problem is good old-fashioned capitalism. If service providers are struggling to make a profit, than they aren't charging their customers enough, or they are poorly managed.

In either instance, another Internet provider will step in to take over -- and hopefully will do so in a more efficient way. And if your company absolutely needed better speed and less congestion, I would even consider the option of fast-lane services -- even though I'm not a huge fan of this option.

Alternatively, if you allow the government to come in to throw tax dollars at the problem, you do nothing more than subsidize Internet access costs, forcing Americans to pay for it on the back end. Ultimately, businesses and consumers will end up paying more for Internet services because of the added layer of government bureaucracy that's inherent in this solution. Plus, service providers that can't succeed in a capitalist market will be allowed to continue operating in an inefficient manner. So prices go up, and quality goes down.

But don't just take my word that net neutrality is bad for the country. There are plenty of industry leaders in the telecommunications space that see nothing but red flags if we begin treating the Internet as if it were a public utility. A recent poll of 1,000 Americans showed that an overwhelming majority strongly oppose federal regulation in the form of net neutrality.

Instead, the better option is to let capitalism run its course so that truly capable companies can take on the responsibility of our ever-growing need for Internet bandwidth. Might that mean that our Internet access prices might go up? Probably, but not nearly as much as the alternative.