Net Neutrality and the Internet’s Future

Government regulators of the transportation industry were jolted earlier this year when an unprecedented 3.5 mile long freight train was driven through the Los Angeles metropolitan region by Union Pacific. Although public advocates expressed concerns about monster trains, experts noted that such modes of distribution can remove hundreds of large freight trucks from our nation’s highways, thereby relieving road congestion.

Railroads, of course, have been enjoying a recent revival in the United States as a preferred method for transporting merchandise. Although train tracks were first laid across the North American continent during the 19th century, decades before interstate highways were built across America, the decline of trains during the 20th century has ironically led to a current surplus of rail shipping capacity at the very moment when gridlock threatens our national road system.

The internet, as an information superhighway, also faces a condition of gridlock. But how should government regulators act to ensure that our soaring demand for mobile messaging, video, and other bandwidth hogging services can be met by the newly emerging technological infrastructure?

The Argument for Net Neutrality

Traditionally, the internet has been embraced as a medium in with any individual or organization can share information across the globe for little or no cost. Individuals, for instance, are free to use web services such as Facebook or Blogger to post the details of their lives and express their personal opinions. And organizations are welcome to use inexpensive web hosting services such as Microsoft’s Office Live to engage in e-commerce activities.

This tradition, however, has begun to fray in the face of the explosion of content that requires enormous amounts of bandwidth. Even a brief video, for instance, requires far more server storage space than hundreds (or even thousands) of text messages or static web pages. And with the advent of mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad, the demand to stream such content over wireless networks has challenged the abilities of service providers such as AT&T to continue building accessible systems.

Proponents of net neutrality believe that all individuals and organizations should enjoy equal access to all commercial internet networks. By maintaining this principle, proponents argue, the next generation of inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs will be able to reach their constituents and develop the new technologies that will be needed to ensure continued growth.

Google’s New Argument: A Nuanced View

Until this past week, Google has been the technology industry’s prime supporter of the principle of net neutrality. This is, of course, not surprising; after all, without having enjoyed equal access to internet users, Google may never have convinced the general public to give its once-new search engine a try. In other words, if not for net neutrality, we might all still be using Yahoo, Lycos, Alta Vista, and Ask Jeeves for our internet search activities!

That’s why so many industry pundits were stunned when Google and Verizon issued a joint proposal last week that appeared to refute the principle of net neutrality. Although they reaffirmed that this principle should continue to be applied to wired internet services, it unexpectedly advocated that wireless services — including Verizon cell phones that utilize Google’s Android operating system — should be permitted to offer individuals and organizations premium access to faster and more stable levels of internet service.

They argued, with some merit, that internet providers must find a way to raise the capital that will be required to continue building service capacity. Because the mobile industry is a highly competitive market, they asserted, developers and users of the most advanced web based services should be expected to pay for the premium levels of bandwidth that will be needed to operate them.

Private Service or Public Utility?

Although some skeptics complained that Google appeared to be shifting its long held position to advance its own private commercial interests, Google may simply have been responding to an evolving perception regarding the internet itself. As was the case with radio during the 1920s and then television during the 1950s, the internet was initially perceived as a radical new technology with immense power to educate mass populations through electronic global communications. Eventually, though, all three media channels matured into networks that were focused on for-profit commercial transactions.

Radio and television stations, for instance, were once expected or required to devote large amounts of air time to broadcasting current news stories, documentaries, and other public service features. Although the three legacy television networks in the United States still broadcast the evening news each day, they have dramatically redefined their news divisions to cover entertainment stories, and have long ceased broadcasting live performances of fine arts such as dramatic theater.

Net neutrality advocates appear to perceive the internet as a public utility that should be tightly regulated to ensure that citizens continue to enjoy equal access to its public benefits. They may find, however, that — like the communication media innovations of the twentieth century — the internet will inevitably age and increasingly focus on its role as a commercial distributor of private sector goods and services.