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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, December 05, 2017 1:00 am


Remove net neutrality, and there's no incentive for modernization

Christer Watson

Most people following tech news expect the Federal Communications Commission to repeal rules on net neutrality on Dec. 14. These principles have been around basically since the beginning of the internet, and they have been formal, federal regulations for a couple of years. In the long term, net neutrality is basically a requirement for an interesting, growing, changing internet. Without it, a few companies will probably dominate the internet and make money doing basically the same thing, year after year.

Net neutrality is a series of rules, either formal or informal, that require all requests for information on the internet to be treated equally. This principle is, in many ways, baked into the requirements of the main communication rules of the internet, the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. One of the key reasons this protocol was used was because it assumed a simple connection between computers. All the important decisions were made by the two computers communicating, not any extra computers in between. That simplicity allowed a very complex, mixed set of computers to connect to one another in a reliable way.

In the 1970s and '80s, there were other types of computer communication that were more complex and centralized, but they were not as useful, innovative or popular. The equivalent idea in today's world is that companies like Comcast and Frontier should be making as few choices as possible, leaving the important choices to their customers or the websites.

As the internet has evolved, communication has become more complex than just those protocols, however, which has led net neutrality principles to be formalized by the FCC. This whole tradition is pretty important. The internet is widely thought of and admired for being a changing thing. The internet used to be sites such as AltaVista, My-space and AOL. Now sites that are much more dynamic, like Facebook and Twitter, dominate. From a technology perspective, a lot of new ideas were developed to make dynamic sites possible. Net neutrality helped those new ideas grow.

A lot of new ideas were not used, however, to make faster internet connections possible. The principle way that speeds get faster is by laying new copper or fiberoptic cable.

It is also worth noting that speeds have gotten faster in the past decade, but that improvement has slowed tremendously. It used to be that speeds would double roughly every two years. That doubling time is now about every four years.

The bottom line is that companies that provide our internet connections have a simple business model and generally have been trying to avoid investing in faster connections.

This conclusion is utterly consistent with just about everyone's consumer experience with these companies. Internet service providers typically have among the lowest consumer satisfaction ratings of any companies in our economy. Other technology companies, such as Apple or Google, have consumers who are famously satisfied with their product.

The bottom line: We shouldn't confuse the new technology of the internet with internet service providers. That is, we shouldn't give these companies any credit for anything they haven't earned.

The new rules, removing the requirements of network neutrality, are justified by the FCC chairman as a way of encouraging innovation from internet service providers. It won't work. It will probably take awhile, however, for this failure to be clear.

The evidence won't be a sudden change in how we all experience the internet. Rather, the evidence will be that nothing changes. That is, people and companies on the internet don't develop new ideas that become popular. The same, familiar companies will continue to do the same, familiar things. I'm afraid that, under these new rules, the internet will become as boring as Microsoft Windows has been for the past 15 years.


Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, where his columns appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.