Surely that bastion of idealism and community, the Internet, is not subject to such wrangling between creators of content and providers of access to content as the soap opera of the old-fashioned cable TV industry. Surely a company committed to “organize the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful” and another who seeks no prejudice to “Rule the Air” wouldn’t be talking behind closed doors about a deal to carry certain websites and their content faster and at a better quality than others.
Well, if you’ve been paying attention to the (most recent and continuing) flap over net neutrality, you’ll see that’s not the case. (Time Warner Cable subscribers who are Getting Tough and Not Rolling Over and are fed up w/ being “taxed to subsidize free web video” usage, please don’t follow that link – use this one that takes you to some nice, light text).
A recent piece in a WSJ blog puts it nicely:
“Net neutrality was always a contentious issue, and, idealism aside, there were straightforward economic issues at work. For media companies, it was about getting access to telco networks at a rate that was advantageous to them. The aim for the telecom companies remains to extract as much return from the network as it can get away with, without upsetting regulators and customers. And one of its ways of fighting its corner is to not build infrastructure if it thinks it will be given away cheaply to others.”
Interestingly enough, large content providers and ecommerce sites are actually willing to pay higher fees to network operators to ensure higher quality experiences for its users. Amazon’s VP of Global Policy, Paul Misener, recently made the argument that improving the quality of delivery of certain websites willing to pay to have improved quality without degrading the quality of delivery of other sites is a win-win-win for Internet users, network operators and content providers. He said it was no different than a website that is now able to pay to have their site hosted or cached at multiple places across the country to ensure better performance regardless of geography.
Perhaps that would be making the best of the situation as it is. But maybe this is all a bit alarmist at this point, the solution looking for a problem, and maybe the continual buzz about the potential for regulation will be enough to ensure their won’t be any. But knowing that this is a relatively straightforward economic issue, where do you think network providers would spend their time – on the base, “non-degraded” network available to all, or with the paying customers who have the money to spend on ensuring their sites perform at a higher level than the base?
More importantly, what does this mean for consumer options? What would be the incentive for people to innovate on web-based platforms, to develop Mom-and-Pop storefronts if you will, if the stuff they’re creating won’t perform at a level seen as sufficient compared to the proverbial Big Boxes with the deep pockets? Who will be the next Jeff Bezos if the network operators are spending most of their time making sure the current Jeff Bezos is happy with the performance of his site on their network?