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ISPs have two choices: Live with net neutrality rules or live with real competition

Published Apr 14th, 2015 10:00PM EDT
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I’ve had conversations in the past with people from Europe who just don’t understand why America needs to have network neutrality restrictions. Their argument is that if one of the ISPs in their country tried to throttle Netflix to make its own other-the-top video service run faster, people would flee to a rival ISP and thus put them out of business. It’s at this point that I laugh at them and say, “What I wouldn’t give to have even two choices for broadband services!”

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This is really why net neutrality is such a big deal in the United States — our ISPs are often local monopolies, and if they wanted to discriminate against our favorite applications, we’d have nowhere else to go. This is why net neutrality protections are important: ISPs in the U.S., and wireline ISPs in particular, have the unique power to make or break a business through their stranglehold on last-mile connectivity.

However, I consider myself a reasonable sort of person and I’d be personally happy to dump net neutrality rules if ISPs were actually open to plans to make their industry more competitive and thus give Americans more choice for broadband access.

Writing in Bloomberg, NYU School of Law professor Christopher Sprigman explains that there’s a simple way to create competition in the broadband market: Mandate local loop unbundling. What does this mean, exactly?

“That is a policy that would force the cable companies to lease access, for a price determined by the FCC, to what’s known as the last-mile connection: the copper and fiber-optic cable, switches, and local offices that connect the main arteries of the Internet to individual homes and buildings,” he writes. “We’d get competition in one stroke, as new entrants would vie to provide broadband access… In a competitive market, if Comcast throttles Netflix, then people who love Netflix can pick up the phone and arrange service with one of Comcast’s competitors.”

Coincidentally, Fierce Telecom is reporting that Milo Medin, the vice president for access services at Google Fiber, recently said that the FCC’s net neutrality rules really don’t do anything to promote more competition for broadband services in the United States.

Medin said that the FCC should make it a priority to give upstart ISPs the same access to key pieces of infrastructure that cable companies and phone companies now enjoy.

“Until recently none of us had any right to get on a pole because the FCC only granted pole attachment rights only to telephone companies and cable operators, but in the process of reclassifying broadband Internet service as a common carrier service they extended pole attachment rights to all Internet service providers,” Medin said. “That’s a great first step I’d like to commend the commission for addressing, but we still need more details on how this is going to be applied.”

Google Fiber is notorious for being very demanding of cities who are vying for its services, and the company has regularly cited archaic permitting processes, outdated and inaccurate maps, and continued reliance on ancient technologies such as fax machines as big impediments to bringing Google Fiber to new markets. This is an instance where less regulation could also spur competition in the sense that cities could do a much better job of granting access to new ISPs more quickly.

Of course, ISPs like Comcast have been infamous in recent years for working overtime to keep competition out of their markets and have been supportive of protectionist regulations in the name of keeping their hold on key markets.

Writing in The New York Times last year, Philadelphia City Paper senior staff writer Daniel Denvir described how Comcast used its ties to local politicians in Philadelphia to block rival RCN from setting up shop in large swathes of the city. When RCN officials met with then-mayor Ed Rendell several years ago, he angrily chastised them for wanting to bring their business to his city and rhetorically asked them whether “we have to tear up the streets so you can come in here and compete against one of our best corporate citizens?”

The way I see it, then, ISPs have one of two choices: They can either live with the FCC’s net neutrality rules and continue to enjoy their positions as de facto regional monopolies, or they can rid themselves of net neutrality rules and embrace changes that will open them up to more competitive pressure. They cannot, however, continue to soak up monopoly rents while claiming they have the right to intentionally degrade users’ favorite apps and services.

Brad Reed
Brad Reed Staff Writer

Brad Reed has written about technology for over eight years at and Network World. Prior to that, he wrote freelance stories for political publications such as AlterNet and the American Prospect. He has a Master's Degree in Business and Economics Journalism from Boston University.