A Net Neutrality Metaphor
A Net Neutrality Metaphor
A Net Neutrality Metaphor

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    We may be as little as a week away from a vote in the House on Net Neutrality. At this point, it's uncertain whether there will be a vote on a legitimate Net Neutrality amendment to the bill (HR 5252) that passed the House Commerce Committee.

    The telephone and cable companies have been going all out to smooth the way by proposing what appears at first to be a reasonable policy, which, on further review, doesn't hold up quite so well. Rachel Maddow on her radio show recently used a nicely descriptive phrase when talking about how politicians phase in gradually policies they don't think would meet with public approval if introduced all at once.

    The phrase is “boiling the frog.” The metaphor goes like this: If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put a frog in warm water, and gradually raise the temperature, it will become acclimated, until it becomes cooked. Gross, but accurate.

    This is what the telephone companies and their allies who sell them equipment are doing. The metaphor was on display last week when Verizon Executive Vice President Tom Tauke testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. Verizon is not trying to do away with the current Internet, Tauke said. (Water warm). Verizon argues we have had “a real change in the paradigm” in dealing with network issues. (Water warmer.) Through its fiber offering, Verizon will put three separate channels into the consumer's home, one for the Internet, one for video and one for whatever else Verizon wants to use it for, through its “virtual private network.” (I feel those bubbles.) We want to draw the distinction, Tauke said, between offering Internet services and other access, which would be services for which Verizon “may provide some unique arrangements.” (Rare, medium or well done?)

    Let's be clear about what Congress will create in telecommunications legislation. There will be today's plain “Internet access” and this other, “general access” service equipped with “unique arrangements.” That is a two-tiered system, with the telephone or cable company in complete control. And what will happen if those allowed on the supposedly “private network” are chosen by the telephone or cable company? As Tauke asked, what if Verizon wants to enter into a heart-monitoring arrangement with Johns Hopkins? What about George Washington Hospital, or Georgetown, or any other hospital or medical company.

    When the telephone or cable company picks what goes onto a network, the telephone or cable company, not the customer, and not the company the customer might want to reach, is in charge. The telephone and cable company will do what they can to improve their new toll road. And today's Internet? Wouldn't be as attractive in the future, would it, if companies feel they have to pay extra for “special arrangements” or be left behind.

    What the telephone and cable companies are saying, is “trust us” not to disrupt the Internet. They, after all, are in the transmission business. But “trust us” only goes so far, particularly when we look at other parts of the world and see how far behind our telephone and cable companies have left us.

    Here in Washington, Verizon takes out full page adds to tout their DSL service of 768 kbps for $17.99 per month. This is in a telecommunications regulatory regime in which the telephone companies do not have to share their broadband networks with competitors on the theory that they will invest in the network.

    On a recent trip to London, I was astounded by an ad I saw on a billboard in the Underground (subway) for a company called Be. It advertised 24 mbps service at 24 British pounds per month – about $50. To get something comparable here, say Verizon's touted 30 mbps, you would have to pay about $180 per month. That 24 pounds is for the heavy-duty service. A service with less upload speed and supposedly more limited usage is available for 14 pounds – about $30 per month. See for yourself at http://www.bethere.co.uk. There is an active program called LLU — leased lines unbundling — in the U.K., and throughout Europe, that encourages sharing of facilities. The result is that there are dozens of companies offering broadband throughout the U.K., while British consumers have a more choices of providers than we do here.

    As our legislators contemplate the fate of Net Neutrality legislation, they may want to consider the win-win situation abroad and adjust their thinking. (Water warm).

    A version of this post was originally on www.tpmcafe.com