Open Internet is great; more broadband competition is better

MICHAEL HINKELMAN / DAILY NEWS STAFF Wharton professor Kevin Werbach would like to see more competition among broadband providers.
MICHAEL HINKELMAN / DAILY NEWS STAFF Wharton professor Kevin Werbach would like to see more competition among broadband providers.
Posted: May 29, 2014

WHEN THE Federal Communications Commission voted May 15 to move forward with a four-month public-comment period on how best to protect and promote an open Internet, there was a whole lotta chatter about the impending end of net neutrality - the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally.

There was considerably less discussion about what impact new rules would have on small businesses and startups. (The FCC's open Internet rules were struck down by a federal appeals court in January.)

The FCC said it's committed to ensuring that all Internet users can enjoy "robust, fast and dynamic" access, and that an "ombudsperson" would have "significant enforcement authority" to serve as a "watchdog and advocate" for small businesses, startups and consumers.

But Web advocates are concerned that the FCC may let large, well-funded firms like Netflix and Google pay Internet service providers an extra fee for faster connectivity. Think of it as an HOV lane: The big boys would be able to use the presumably faster lane and the rest of us would have to creep along in a slower lane. (The FCC wants public input on whether this practice - called "paid prioritization" - should be banned.)

A recent report by Sandvine, which analyzes Internet trends, found that Netflix and YouTube (owned by Google) account for 43 percent of total broadband usage by North American home users.

The pipeline is already being hogged by certain businesses.

Kevin Werbach, a Wharton professor and an expert on Internet policy and telecommunications regulation, says small businesses and startups should be equally concerned about a more-competitive broadband market.

Net neutrality "gets us policing over the existing broadband providers, and we certainly need that," he said, "but what we need to do is push on every front to promote more competition. Add a little more spectrum from wireless and we should sweep aside laws in states that actually prohibit municipalities from having their own [broadband] networks."

There's no longer a monopoly in broadband, but Werbach said "it's also clear we don't have lots and lots of [broadband] providers, aggressively competing." He said that would "require all levels of government to open up markets to competition and get private-investment capital to flow to those alternatives. And we need the FCC to help with that."

And we can't just let the market sort it all out. "More competition doesn't mean we don't need new net-neutrality rules. Your broadband provider, whoever it is, still controls your traffic and you may or may not know what they're doing with it," Werbach said. "But having more competition makes it far less likely that anti-competitive behaviors will happen."


On Twitter: @MHinkelman

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