Neutral Networks: A False Solution for a Phantom Threat

Published October 1, 2005

There have been some heated statements in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in National Cable & Telecommunications Assn., et al. v. Brand X Internet Services, which ruled cable companies are not required to lease their networks to rivals.

“The Supreme Court’s decision is a potentially devastating blow to the wide diversity of viewpoints and voices upon which our democracy and culture depend,” worries Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media.

But in the actual consumer broadband market, consumers now enjoy an expanding array of choices, and all indications are those choices will grow rapidly.

I should know. I live on a farm in the Sierra Nevada mountains, more than 120 miles outside of Los Angeles. My property is not served by cable or DSL. Yet I have three companies competing to provide me with broadband Internet access–two satellite companies and a wireless company. My father lives even farther from town and yet has five options for broadband access.

In a world where rural mountain valleys two hours outside of L.A. have five options for high-speed Internet access, the idea that we have to create artificial competition though regulatory policies is absurd.

In fact, to the extent we don’t have as much broadband access in the U.S. as we want, open access policies are partly to blame. Open access regulations created a huge disincentive for companies to invest in more broadband infrastructure and slowed down the expansion of the technology.

That hasn’t made regulation zealots trust the market any more. Hence, a new buzzword: network neutrality. This refers to rules preventing broadband firms from influencing the way content flows to you. Without such rules, some consumer groups fear we’ll see fewer broadband providers, higher fees, and cable companies rigging the system so Internet sites they own load fast and ones they don’t own are slowed down or blocked.

Advocates of enforced neutrality ignore one important fact: Consumers wouldn’t stand for that. When you have a choice of several service providers, why would you choose one that deliberately mucks with your broadband experience?

Los Angeles may be the test ground for network neutrality as the city negotiates its franchise-renewal deal with the cable companies. The city controller wants the 18-year-old franchise agreements renegotiated, and consumer groups are pressuring city leaders to make network neutrality rules a requirement of any new deal.

But consumers don’t need protection from this phantom threat. They can cast the ultimate vote with their pocketbooks by switching companies.

Adrian Moore ([email protected]) is vice president of research at Reason Foundation.