Feature:Opinion

The Forgotten Consumer In The Fast Lane Net Neutrality Debate

Is the Internet consumer in charge or the product sold to others? Is net neutrality about protecting consumers or Silicon Valley?

We’ll learn the answers to these critical questions in the coming months when the FCC votes on a redo of its “Open Internet” order implementing net neutrality.

Silicon Valley vocally opposes “fast lanes” on the Internet — please let that rhetorical nonsense sink-in for a moment.

The industry that long complained America was behind in broadband speeds, and urges that America needs ultra-fast gigabit speeds to everyone, now opposes Internet “fast lanes.”

Never mind that Internet users routinely choose different Internet speed “lanes,” faster or slower, depending on how much they are willing to pay for broadband service.

And it isn’t only about price. Internet users are a very diverse bunch with various speed needs and wants from broadband.

On one end, Internet gamers have the highest need and desire for fast lanes, next those who want to stream 4k/HD video, and on the other end are lighter or average users who may only need or want the lower-priced speed.

Virtually every Internet user also understands that different broadband technologies — fiber, coax, copper, satellite, fixed wireless or mobile wireless — all naturally generate a range of broadband speed lanes because of physics.

The technology one chooses to use naturally creates faster and slower Internet lanes.

Silicon Valley knows this as it has long used content delivery networks and content caching to create a de facto specialized Internet fast lane advantage for their content over others.

Think about the nonsense of Silicon Valley’s “no fast lanes” rhetoric for a moment.

If fast lanes are now somehow bad, why is it good to limit everyone to one, same, slower speed — the lowest common denominator?

So behind this “no Internet fast lanes” rhetorical nonsense, what does Silicon Valley really want?

The rub here is that what big video streamers, like Google-YouTube & Netflix, really want is for the FCC to ban “paid prioritization” — i.e., the prioritizing of Internet traffic that depends on real-time delivery ahead of traffic that does not.

Translation: Silicon Valley covets a proverbial free lunch on Internet consumers’ tab.

For their “innovation,” Silicon Valley is claiming to be entitled to a huge permanent FCC-mandated subsidy — paid by consumers alone.

Specifically, Silicon Valley should have to pay nothing, a zero-price, for the delivery of their streams to consumers, because consumers ordered the traffic.

In the past, FCC subsidy schemes had businesses subsidizing consumers. It will be telling to see if the FCC now decides that all consumers should be forced to subsidize businesses, even those they never use!

Under the cynical guise of fairness to “entrepreneurs and startups,” Silicon Valley is demanding the FCC force consumers to shoulder the whole cost for maintaining and upgrading the Internet’s infrastructure, by indirectly, perversely, and unwittingly subsidizing the Silicon Valley companies that profit the most from a fast Internet.

The logical and best policy answer here is simple.

Empower users to decide what’s best for their circumstance — don’t empower the FCC to guess that everyone needs one speed — neither fast nor slow, but the same, average speed.

If the FCC indeed works for the American consumer, they should explore and encourage innovation to empower user-directed prioritization.

If a consumer does not believe in traffic prioritization, they could choose not to prioritize their traffic.

However, if a consumer needs or wants personal prioritization of their traffic to ensure that their most important, real-time traffic is prioritized ahead of non-real-time traffic, they could have that Internet freedom and consumer right to choose.

New innovative user-directed prioritization settings could be developed for signaling how a user wants their traffic prioritized. Eventually, they could be similar to a user’s device settings to use WiFi mode, or to set one’s own spam, privacy or security priority settings.

Users know what’s best for them, their personal circumstances and needs.

They don’t need the FCC telling them they don’t, because Silicon Valley paternally knows what’s best for them.

In a truly free and open Internet, shouldn’t users have a right to signal their choice or preference for their own Internet traffic delivery priorities — akin to a consumer choosing from FedEx or UPS same day, next-day, or slower-delivery based on a market price?

The Silicon Valley emperor has no clothes here. Their “no fast lane” proposal, one same-speed-for-all-bits, is not aligned with the best interests of America’s diverse Internet consumers, but what is best for Silicon Valley’s commercial and business model interests.

Watch to see if the FCC treats consumers as a product or as the real customer in this net neutrality proceeding.

Will they preserve consumer freedom to signal their preference of how to prioritize their traffic to serve their own individual needs?

Or will we learn if Silicon Valley is now the FCC’s main political constituency and customer?

In the flood of “no fast lane” net neutrality lobbying, will the FCC remember or forget the American consumer?

Actions will speak louder than words.

Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, a research consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests that “promotes competitive Internet choices for consumers.”