The Net Neutrality Dilemma, Demystified

It seemed like the right move. Net neutrality had become such an emotionally charged conundrum that I simply decided to sit this one out. Remain neutral, as it were. Also, I wasn’t sure I fully understood all the implications and I didn’t want to embarrass myself.

But I can no longer follow that cozy, comfortable path for the simple reason that there appears to be a problem, a pressing need, and so far, the Federal Communications Commission has more or less botched attempts to solve it. As a result, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is under fire from all sides, and justifiably so.

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I actually like Wheeler about as much as I can like any government regulator, which I guess isn’t saying much.  But let’s not forget, Wheeler is the guy who proposed an end to the FCC’s long-standing ban on in-flight cellphone use, calling the rules “outdated and restrictive.”

Personally, I think people gabbing endlessly on their cellphones and invading the only peace and quiet downtime business travelers have anymore would be a disaster. But Wheeler’s plan to put an end to the restrictions and let individual airlines make the final call made complete sense to me. After all, texting should be OK, right?

Which brings us to the FCC’s net neutrality efforts. First, let’s be clear. Wheeler is trying to do what’s right for consumers. He is. Unfortunately, his first attempt at this was a disaster. The commission’s 2010 open Internet rules were opposed by Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and struck down by a Federal Court.

But you can’t keep a good man down so, yesterday, the FCC agreed to move forward with potential new regulations. That starts the clock ticking on four months of public debate before final approval. But get this. Wheeler now finds himself in a position I wouldn’t have thought possible. Like some sick, twisted game of Twister, nearly every side in the debate opposes the new rules.

Republicans say it’s heavy-handed regulation, which it is. Consumer advocates say it allows for fast and slow Internet traffic lanes, which it does. Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and other Internet giants somehow agree with the consumer groups, which must be a first. And everyone is wondering how Wheeler’s trust me, we’ll do this right approach will hold up after he’s gone and the agency still has all these new, ill-defined regulations. 

Meanwhile, Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), which says it opposes the new regulations, has already cut deals with Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and Verizon that gave it a fast lane to meet consumer demand. Never mind that the streaming video company’s CEO, Reed Hastings, had previously called such deals a “slippery slope that gives broadband providers too much leverage” and reportedly requested that regulators step in.

Confused? You’re not alone. So let me try to demystify this whole thing. The problem is actually quite simple.

The Internet had grown pretty organically, and everything was fine, until broadband speeds improved to the point where people could download Netflix movies, which now account for as much as a third of North American peak Internet traffic. That created network bottlenecks, which upset consumers who complained to Verizon and other service providers.

The ISPs turned around and blamed it on Netflix, which eventually and reluctantly agreed to share the cost of upgrading network equipment to relieve the bottleneck, which worked like a charm. Everything is hunky dory. And here we are.

So what’s the problem? Good question? Everyone’s screaming for net neutrality, but is that really what they want?

Near as I can tell, net neutrality doesn’t exist and it hasn’t existed for quite some time, if it ever did. Netflix isn’t the only company to cut deals with broadband providers to improve service to end-customers. And Internet users have long paid extra for higher-bandwidth service. I know I do, and I don’t even use Netflix.

The reason why just about everyone is against the new regulations is because the FCC is attempting to fix a problem that has already been fixed. The free market seems to have worked it out just fine, as it probably always will. Wheeler should give his good intentions a rest, give up his quest, and leave the Internet alone.

And everyone should quit screaming for net neutrality. There is no battle over net neutrality. If you had net neutrality, you’d all be whining that it takes forever to download The Amazing Spiderman.