March 9 2017
The new head of the Federal Communications Commission made his first trip to Capitol Hill yesterday. Generally, the meeting was reportedly low-key and ho-hum. Both senators and FCC head Ajit Pai avoided any great discussion about net neutrality, one of the biggest and most contentious issues facing the FCC.
However, a brief exchange between Pai and Republican Senator Ron Johnson is worth noting because it demonstrates just how the name net neutrality is the opposite of the harm it actually inflicts:
Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI): I know net neutrality sounds great and in trying to convey why [it] harms investment and innovation, I’ve come up with an analogy. I kind of want to run this by you [to see] if this is pretty accurate.
Let’s say a group of neighbors want to build a bridge over a creek so they can cross over and talk to each other a lot. So it’s really for the neighborhood, maybe a dozen people. But then they find out the local government is going to require that [the] bridge is open to the entire community of a million people. No prioritization whatsoever. They don’t get to cross first to see their neighbor. A million people can come onto their property, ruin their lawns, and walk over that bridge. Isn’t that kind of a similar analogy? Isn’t that a pretty good analogy in terms of what net neutrality is all about? … Tell me where that analogy’s maybe not accurate.
Pai: Senator, you’ve put your finger on one of the core concerns, which is that all of us favor a free and open internet where consumers can access lawful content of their choice, we also want to incentivize the construction of these networks which requires massive capital expenditures … our goal is obviously to make sure, to use your analogy, those bridges continue to be built, continue to be maintained and upgraded as traffic modernizes over time.
Johnson: In my example, I don’t think too many neighbors would chip in the money to build that bridge when they realize we’re not ever gonna be able to use it.
Johnson: Or certainly not priority on it.
Thinking of companies like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T which provide broadband, as a community of owners building bridges for neighbors is helpful, although some tech experts think is a bit inaccurate.
Here is another take:
Let’s say you live on an island, and you want to pay a company to build a bridge to deliver supplies to you. You agree to pay the company a set fee per month for building you that bridge, and in return, you expect unlimited use of the bridge and the ability to bring supplies over.
But the bridge is administered by Trump’s FCC, so net neutrality doesn’t apply. So, the bridge-builder says sure, he’ll build the bridge, but he gets to choose what supplies you bring over. The bridge company has a contract with Budweiser, so you can bring all the Bud across the bridge you want for free. To bring craft beer over, however, is a fee of $5 extra per case.
That’s a rough approximation of what net neutrality is meant to prevent. Net neutrality mandates ISPs to treat all internet traffic the same: a byte of data is a byte, regardless of whether it comes from Netflix or DirecTV Now.
That analogy paints the broadband providers as sinister and beholden to big companies over the community.
Perhaps there’s a better analogy somewhere in between such as private roads. Companies construct the roads with private cash and handle development, operations, and maintenance. The roads are paid for by all who use it, but the road owners may choose to create express lanes for those willing to spend more for faster access. If you’re willing to pony up an extra one or two bucks to get where need to go faster than others, that’s more than fair. We pay for express access to board airplanes, through the lines at theme parks, and on some roads. It’s not that far-fetched to expect that with internet access.