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Neutrality will help net better Web for all

About three months ago the FCC proposed a change in a fundamental policy about the Internet called net neutrality. The public comment period is closing on Tuesday, and we should all be worried if the ruling is implemented.

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet service providers allow all traffic on their portion of the Internet equally. That is, their customers can access websites from any group or company equally. In this model, ISPs can charge their customers more for a faster connection, but they cannot also charge the company at the other end of the connection. A series of court and committee rulings, like this FCC ruling, has been chipping away at this principle. Some ISPs, such as Comcast, are now successfully charging companies for a “fast” connection to Comcast customers. These are speeds that Comcast customers are already paying to receive.

Before we get to why one company charging another is a bad thing, however, let’s cover why these issues are coming up now.

These arguments are heating up now because Internet speeds have stalled. Our experience in Fort Wayne is a good example. In the mid-2000s, our connection speeds were increasing quickly.

This increase was most obvious when Verizon chose Fort Wayne for an early roll-out of a fiber-optic network. Many experts talked about connection speeds doubling every two years or so. However, since that time speeds have not increased so quickly. Average Internet speeds have been increasing much more slowly over the last five years.

The average doubling now takes about four years. It looks like this slowdown may continue for awhile.

There are basically two types of Internet connections that homes and businesses use: ones that use copper wires (used by the cable companies) and ones that use glass-based wires (called fiber optics). The signal sent along copper wires uses electricity and is limited in part based on the frequencies that electricity in copper wires can transmit. Because of these limitations, the Internet connections using copper-based wires will probably stop increasing significantly after about five to eight years. Fiber-optic-based connections, however, use light. They will probably not reach their physical limitations for 20 or 30 years. It appears clear that if the general increase in Internet speeds we’ve seen is to continue, a transition to fiber optics is required. It is this transition that has so many people worried about net neutrality.

Many cable companies are reluctant to invest in fiber-optic networks. It is a somewhat expensive process that requires working through several bottlenecks. Probably the principal reason for the reluctance is that companies have been able to operate their current, copper-based networks profitably. Most cable companies have a monopoly or only one competitor, so there was not significant risk of being undercut by competition. With the limitations on copper-based networks rapidly approaching, however, either that investment will have to be made by someone or we will have to resign ourselves to the end of the constantly improving Internet. The debate over net neutrality, more than anything, appears to many observers to be an indication that the companies have resigned to maintaining their copper-based networks and pursuing other sources of revenue. I find it more than a little dispiriting that ISPs are turning away from investing in technology and infrastructure.

The bottom line is that Internet providers are standing in the way of innovation. We need to figure out how to force the continual improvement that technology allows. The current arrangement of largely unregulated monopolies or near-monopolies providing Internet service has not accomplished this for at least the last five years, and it probably won’t in the future. This might require government regulation. It might require forcing a more robust competition among Internet providers.

If we want the benefits of these new technologies, we should be willing to pursue any of these options that will work.

Christer Watson is associate professor of physics at Manchester University. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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