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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

November 10, 2014 at 12:18 PM

Obamacare for the Internet? Americans probably want it

Over-the-top responses to President Obama’s call for net neutrality underscore what a savvy move it was heading toward the next presidential election.

The vast majority of Americans resent cable and phone companies charging tolls at the gateway to the Internet. How many think Comcast, AT&T and the rest have consumers’ best interests at heart?

By endorsing net neutrality and calling for more consumer protection from the big telecom companies, Obama is putting himself on the side of all these frustrated people and leaving his opponents to defend the least palatable aspects of cable and phone companies.

Endorsing net neutrality is a no-brainer. That’s the mom-and-apple-pie slogan of the wired generation. Just about everyone agrees that Internet service providers should not discriminate against or offer preferential pricing for any of the material they are transporting. Who doesn’t want a free and open Internet?

It gets tricky, though, when a few companies overload the system. That’s happening with streaming video services, particularly Netflix. Is it discriminatory if those companies have to pay more? Net neutrality advocates say this opens the door to preferential service and will end the open playing field that has enabled all sorts of innovation and company creation.

Net neutrality is only part of the challenge. Even if rules are written in stone to protect the concept, it doesn’t address concerns about broadband’s rising cost and quality of service, particularly in poor and remote areas.

That’s where Obama is really making a bold move, by calling for Internet services to be regulated as a utility the way phone companies are.

That’s the only way the government can start regulating prices and mandating the reach and quality of broadband. But such regulation is as repellent to the telecom industry as net neutrality is appealing to Silicon Valley.

If the Internet is essential, it’s past time for government to regulate it similar to the way it governs energy, phone and railroad companies.  As Obama put it in his statement:

For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business. That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information — whether a phone call, or a packet of data.

But there’s a risk that the cure will be worse than the disease, and the regulations will burden the Internet and innovation more than the FCC’s recent attempts to tinker with its net neutrality rules.

For now, it’s politics. A new federal broadband policy is unlikely to be finalized before the next president is elected, especially now that Obama has made it part of the larger, partisan political battle.

In the meantime, any hope of a civilized discussion of how to proceed with this important topic is probably lost, especially when we’re hearing things like Texas Republican Ted Cruz branding net neutrality “Obamacare for the Internet.”

 

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