Why Net Neutrality Matters To Us All

He Holds Net Neutrality In His Hands: Ajit Pai – Head of the FCC

In case you hadn’t heard, there’s a right to-do going on over net neutrality at the moment.  This affects everyone who uses the internet. In fact, as we’ll see, it involves those who aren’t on line too.

What’s the beef?  Well, simply put, technology is now at the point where broadcasters and others can give preferential treatment to their own or supported content. Deliver it to the end user more quickly, for example, by slowing down – or “throttling” – the offerings from rivals.  In the US, the fear is that the powerful Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is on the point of allowing this to take place.

“Outrageous” shout many who believe that the ‘net was, is and must remain neutral on this matter – eschewing content and sponsorship as criteria for discrimination in the delivering of content to all users.

This is a tricky issue alright.  For many years, it has been an article of faith that the internet cannot be regulated.  That’s why it is such a bastion of freedom of expression – for good and ill.  It makes everyone, potentially, a journalist or a publisher (submissions on which were accepted by the Leveson enquiry back in 2012).

But of course, there are differences in the way content is delivered – these are based on technical issues to do with network capacity, network speeds, and the sophistication of devices we receive said content on. We have no choice but to accept these, and trust that ingenuity, curiosity, investment and future profitability will drive improvements.

Market forces have essentially taken us from dial-up to 2G, 3G and 4G. From PacMan to Battlefield 1. So why a concern about the inexorable move of business practices into all aspects of internet content? If businesses can do deals to profitably segment the market, what’s the problem – isn’t that what businesses do? And what’s so special about the internet anyway

The fact that there are these regulatory restraints on the internet, under the auspices of the FCC in the USA and Ofcom  here, is a reminder of just how special this now everyday near-ubiquitous technology still is.

And here is an important contradiction.

Successive governments have said how serious they are about moving to an ever more online economy and society.  It’s touted as more efficient, allows more flexibility and improvements in public services, supports and facilitates business large and small, established and new.

Yet even though  access to (and presumably competent use of) universal highspeed broadband has been a government aspiration for a number of years now, and despite huge technological advances, more remote areas of the UK are still lagging way behind when it comes to connectivity and speed.

For something so important, is it not extraordinary that there is no viable plan to deliver these objectives? Indeed, it is arguable that no credible market-based plan could ever be drawn up.

So for the desired outcomes to be realised, two things need to happen.  First, we need to recognise universal highspeed broadband for what it is truly is – a necessary utility for a fully functioning society and economy in the early 21st century. Not a luxury or a bolt-on but a companion to water, power, and sewage. Part of the package of living in the UK.

And second, we have to accept that as the market will not provide a solution here, we need to look more widely.

National projects are very much in the news at present – with the looming debut of CrossRail, the award of around £7bn in HS2 contracts and the ongoing debate over the third runway at Heathrow.  It is surely time to look at a national highspeed broadband network through an infrastructure prism too.

(This then begs the question of who would build and how would you maintain our new national broadband infrastructure?  Ofcom and it’s fixation with competition and price, seems unfit for purpose. As has been suggested, you could do worse than to talk to BT.  I can see many jaws drop, dear readers – but arguably alone of the network providers the ex-state monopoly has the scale and imagination to deliver. Perhaps that’s an argument for another article.)

It’s about time that both government and regulator stepped up to the plate on this, and embrace it as a critical success factor – a key performance indicator for uk.com.

And this could be crucial in more ways than one: Assume that the FCC position does change and a Brexited UK either surrenders net neutrality or is over-run by corporate forces. Then the only solace for supporters of the “open internet” could be if there is genuinely universal access to truly highspeed broadband – so everyone can access premium levels of service and bypass attempts by others to dictate our viewing agenda.

A triumph, if you like,  for the concept of a “people’s broadband” ?

Note:  Readers may also be interested in the CWU’s “Delivering Digital Britain” campaign for a national highspeed broadband network

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