In Brief: The Politics of Broadband

Last week Comcast won a big victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals that threatens the F.C.C.’s ability to regulate the Internet (in this case, keeping it wide open via the guiding principal of network neutrality).  Comcast, had moved forward with a plan to regulate how much bandwidth speed customers who used P2P file sharing sites or programs like Bit Torrent could have access to, thereby restricting Internet usage even though those customers paid for open access with the same network speeds as every other Comcast subscriber.  The F.C.C. has long take a position that supports an wide-open Internet that allows consumers to have access at broadband speed levels without restriction on what content is up or downloaded.

Many other companies, like Google, Skype, Yahoo support a wide-open and largely unregulated Internet (ironically, if it must be regulated at all, then the regulations in place should be the least restrictive giving users the most access without ISP interference).  ISP’s see it a bit differently, as do telcom and cable companies like Comcast.  They’d prefer tiered service levels that restrict bandwidth based on cost and usage.  By creating an artificial scarcity of broadband service, they could charge virtually whatever the market will bear for various levels of Internet service and/or usage… but the real issue is whether the conglomerates can prefer certain content over another or restrict content altogether.

Comcast isn’t shy about wanting to block P2P users and services like Bit Torrent, but the greater implications are what a huge dominant player like Comcast might do with other services or sites it dislikes (or feel is competitive with its own services).  Time and time again, users have seem issues like these pop up with companies like Apple wanting to control their device, but this is a bit different as it affects the Internet (famously described by former United States Senator Ted Stevens as a “series of tubes”) as a whole and how Americans can access their favorite sites and services.  In the end, I see it as affecting whether a company like Comcast has control over what you see and hear as VOD services and music-streaming services grow and become popular with mainstream consumers.

Today, the New York Times reports that the F.C.C. is going to move forward with their expansion plans for broadband that favors the consumer regardless of the court ruling by finding a work-around… possibly classifying the Internet/broadband as a utility service over which it would have more control, wresting that power away from the conglomerates and corporations who wish only to profit from putting the squeeze on broadband service.  The F.C.C. claims they can work within the Appeals Court’s ruling while still putting the key elements of its National Broadband Plan into place, which includes more rural broadband, greater consumer access to broadband networks and wireless services.

The fear by some is that once Comcast or another large engulf-and-devour type company gains control over what type of content can be carried over its ISP networks, you can kiss your ability to see sites like Hulu, JustinTV, Boxee and other services goodbye.  The great what ifs run the gamut from hypotheticals such as What if Company A no longer wants to play nice with Apple and wants to form their own service for content rental and purchase… Can it restrict access to iTunes IP information and thus block you consumers from use? Or, What if an ISP that is also a cable company no longer provides access to Pandora Radio in order to boost their own music streaming service (at an additional cost to your regular service)?

Congress, of course, isn’t fond of Federal commissions and agencies that overstep their bounds (meaning they’re creating de facto legislation by way of regulation), and they’re now dickering on whether the F.C.C. even has a right to do such a thing… and you can easily guess who’s taking sides on this one with GOP Senators taking a dim view of the F.C.C.’s gumption and Democratic Senators playing to the public… as Senator Byron Dorgan (D – N.D.) said, “I love the free market, but it needs a referee.”

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Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson

Christian Hokenson enjoys knife throwing, growing exotic mosses, and that warm spot where the sun shines through the corrugated box. Christian also writes for Gadget Review. You can also find Christian on Google+, and Twitter.

One Reply to “In Brief: The Politics of Broadband”

  1. Brett Glass says:

    The author here is right to worry that corporations could act as Internet gatekeepers; however, he’s worried about the wrong corporations.

    If you look at what the court really said, it’s hard to argue with i t. The Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that the FCC — in attempting to forbid Comcast from managing its own network — had overstepped the bounds of the law and was trying to exercise powers that We the People, via our representatives in Congress, never granted to it. The court’s decision prevented a government agency from breaking the law and simply doing whatever it wished. Thus, whatever you think about regulating the Internet, the decision was a profoundly good thing. It was an affirmation of democracy and of the rule of law.

    What’s scary, though, is that the FCC is working to find other ways to overstep its bounds. And it wants to do so not to favor Comcast or other Internet providers, but to favor another megacorporation which should concern us even more: Google.

    Google, which has monopolies on Internet search, search advertising, video, and banner advertising, is seeking Federal regulations which would prevent ISPs from having any control over the future direction or evolution of the Net, leaving Google — a multibillion dollar corporation — totally in the driver’s seat. One way it’s doing that is to pay substantial sums to Washington DC lobbyists who claim to be acting in the “public interest” but actually are doing its corporate lobbying. These lobbyists are lobbying for what they call “network neutrality,” but in reality the regulations aren’t neutral. They essentially give control of the future of the Net to Google.

    So, be careful what you wish for. The Internet so far has prospered without Federal regulation; competition has been more than sufficient to keep providers honest. The regulations Google is pushing for would raise the price of Internet service, slowit down, give you fewer choices of providers, and make it more difficult for companies to advance the technology. This is not what we want. Let’s not let a multibillion dollar monopoly “engulf and devour” the FCC and then use it do the same to our Internet.

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