On behalf of the Net Neutrality community, I'd like to thank Public Opinion Strategies and the Glover Park Group for their recent survey on Net Neutrality. And a fine piece of work it is. On one hand, some of the poll was so over-the-top that it's easy to discredit. On the other hand, if you look a little deeper, it appears that the Verizon-sponsored work not only bolstered our case, but provided the seeds to start a wider discussion of a new broadband policy for the country.
It isn't every day that an interest group has one of its paid-for polls released under the authority of a Senate committee. Yet, it was under an official Senate Commerce Committee press release that the Bell companies and their friends were able to make public their poll showing how “the majority of Americans favor video choice over onerous net neutrality regulations.” At the bottom of the page is a link to the survey report.
The money question in the poll that has garnered so much attention was this one:
“Which of the following two items do you think is the most important to you:
Delivering the benefits of new TV and video choice so consumers will see increased competition and lower prices for cable TV
Enhancing Internet neutrality by barring high speed internet providers from offering specialized services like faster speed and increased security for a fee”
It's difficult to comprehend how so much can go wrong in one simple question, even realizing that it's a stacked poll.
Of course, everyone wants the benefits of new TV and video. The only problem is that neither version of the telecom bill will, with any certainty, bring said benefits. There's no build-out requirement. So some areas might get competition and some won't. There's not even a guarantee of lower prices. There might be now in those few areas in which Verizon has started competing, but over time? It's more likely that the dust will settle into a nice pattern of mutually assured profitability.
The second part of the question is equally problematic. No one is barring high-speed Internet providers from offering specialized services. The whole point of Net Neutrality is to make sure that those who operate the networks don't pick who gets to operate which service, to the detriment of others.
Mining the Nuggets
But let us not nit-pick, at least too much. Instead, let's take a look at the golden nuggets in the dross. Let's look at what the survey shows is really important to people.
There is a common theme through the first three crucial questions.
The first question — “How important is it to you that (Insert State) residents have a choice of service providers when it comes to cable TV – in other words, that there is more than one company to choose from?” In the overall survey of 800 voters, 73 percent said the choice was “very important Separate surveys from 400 voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri had similar results.
The second question — “How interested would you be in having more companies to choose from for your cable TV service?” The response was that 50 percent were “very interested” and 26 percent were “somewhat interested.”
For the third question, a multiple choice one, 56 percent of those surveyed said more choices would bring about lower prices, 50 percent said better customer service (not exactly a vote of confidence) and 40 percent, new technologies.
The central theme, and what these questions show clearly, is that consumers want choice. Let's look at this on two levels. Consumers want choices in Internet applications and services. They don't want a telephone or cable company deciding for them what Web sites or applications will function better than others. They don't want a telephone or cable company cutting an exclusive deal with one company or another or one affiliate or another.
We can look at the choice issue in another way with a word substitution. Imagine if the question read: “How important is it to you that (Insert State) residents have a choice of service providers when it comes to high-speed Internet service – in other words, that there are more than two companies to choose from?” Or what if the second question read: “How interested would you be in having more companies to choose from for your high-speed Internet service?”
It is deeply ironic, considering 98 percent of broadband access comes from the telephone company or the cable company that a survey by Net Neutrality opponents would emphasize the type of choices that consumers don't have. Once upon a time we had a flourishing, competitive Internet industry, with thousands and thousands of Internet Service Providers. Little by little regulatory decisions, made at the behest of those which are left, whittled the once-flourishing industry down to next to nothing. Most of the country has no choice in broadband. Some places don't have broadband, and won't for the foreseeable future.
A New Policy Discussion
If the telephone and cable companies are serious about following the wishes of consumers for more choice, then we should look at what type of policies would need to be put in place to revive that choice. The European Union, for example, has some of the line-sharing policies that we once had, but discarded. We should have a broad-based policy discussion of how we can bring competition to our consumers, as consumers are starting to benefit overseas.
Farther down in the survey is a question about some of the elements of the legislation, which lead to another theme. Without getting into the depths of Universal Service subsidies, the survey asked voters to rate how important it was to “Provide funding that will help deploy broadband to rural and underserved communities, schools and libraries, create state-of-the-art communications networks for first responders and develop more advanced communication services for the disabled community.” Not surprisingly, a lot of people supported that. Overall, it was 59 percent, with the percentages about the same for each of the states.
Where should that money come from? The answer to that policy question also should be up for debate. Should it come from universal service funds? Or from grants or loans, or subsidies? Making sure that all our citizens have access to high-speed Internet connections is an issue of economic development and educational opportunity.
Taken as a whole, what the responses to these questions show, and show emphatically, is the need for a broader discussion of our broadband policy that has lowered us to 12th, or 16th, or lower, depending on whose statistics you use, for broadband penetration.
Is this an important issue? The survey said no, that only nine percent of the general public are even aware of Net Neutrality. First, that figure is contradicted by a survey released earlier this year by the Consumer Federation of America, Free Press and Consumers Union found that more than 70 percent of Internet users are aware of the dangers facing them. Second, it's guaranteed that people will become aware of it once the telephone and cable companies start imposing discriminatory policies. Only then it will be too late.