Uncommon Wisdom

Nov 9 2010   12:47PM GMT

Net neutrality loses momentum, highlights broadband difficulties

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

The latest political wisdom, arising from the results of the mid-terms, is that net neutrality as an issue hurt those who supported it. That combines with the Democratic loss in the House to create a loss of momentum—at least according to popular wisdom.

In truth, net neutrality never had any momentum. Congress doesn’t like to intervene in telecom because problems there are too easily created and too hard to fix. That’s why we have an FCC. When there’s a problem with FCC authority, Congress is inclined to stand by and let the FCC do its best, as I think it intended here all along. That the problem is getting more complicated by things like the Fox/Cablevision brouhaha is only making “becoming a tree” a more attractive option to our leaders on the Hill.  The FCC closed comments on this, and it will no doubt issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking at some point, but don’t expect magic.

One of the complications is illustrated in Australia, where the boundaries between the new NBN, a public access network intended to provide good broadband by bypassing the commercial process and the national carrier (Telstra), and Telstra. The NBN now wants to get into inter-city transport, creating a backhaul network that would link metro broadband customers to the Internet by hauling them between cities to get to a big on-ramp.  At one level it’s not a serious issue because that type of traffic is often not particularly profitable.  On the other hand, it illustrates that when politics get involved in broadband, the normal political tendency to build one’s own empire rolls over into the broadband space.

Does NBN’s head (Quigley, formerly of Alcatel-Lucent) see himself as the czar of Australian broadband, and perhaps even of networking?  Minister of Networks?  Aside from the fact that this sort of thing would devalue the investment of millions of Australians who bought into Telstra’s privatization with the encouragement of the government, it raises the question of how far NBN will really go, and how much taxpayers will have to kick in.

Worldwide, the tension between consumers/voters who want everything for nothing and businesses who want something for everything isn’t going to be resolved through government ownership.  If transport/connection isn’t profitable, we need to figure out how to achieve public policy goals within the framework of networking today, because dismantling that framework at this point is simply not possible.  If broadband were a good business, VCs would be fighting over the carcass as we speak.  Instead, they’ve long since gotten out of Dodge.  Think about it.

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