In essence, the term “net neutrality” refers to the idea of everyone having equal and unfettered access to the services provided by internet service providers (ISPs), but in recent years it has often come to refer more specifically to tiered services and pricing. Basically, some people and companies advocate reserving fast internet traffic to those who are willing to pay, whilst everyone else enjoys a free, but slower, service.
There are many arguments against that, such as the possibility of ISPs creating an artificial scarcity situation by which to extract more money from those who are willing to pay extra. I don’t wish to rehearse such arguments here, but just wish to muse on the economics of the issue in an objective manner.
It seems to me that the situation we have at the moment, which is one of net neutrality, is actually not as fair as people like to think. If bandwidth is a scarce resource, then it is going to end up being allocated to users in some way or other: if not by price then by some other means. However, we do not have the choice of paying for faster access should we be willing to do so. How does this compare with other life situations?
Road space is a scarce resource, which gets allocated by time, ie the time you have available to sit in traffic jams. Where road pricing schemes have been introduced, such as the Congestion Zone in London or the M6 toll road, traffic congestion has eased considerably. The people who use these roads are the ones who are willing and able to pay for using them. Unfortunately, ability to pay is not enjoyed equally by all, so the system is by no means perfect – except that it costs quite a lot to run a car anyway once you take into account all the costs involved rather than only the perceived ones.
Where you have health care which is not paid for at the point of consumption, it’s distributed by time and also seriousness. For example, if you have an accident on a Friday night in the UK, then unless you’ve suffered a head injury or really cannot wait until after the weekend, you’d be better off not going to the hospital’s Accident and Emergency department because you’re likely to be there for half the night at least. No matter what time you check in, anyone with a worse injury in general, or a head injury in particular, will be seen before you.
Less dramatically, if you are told you need an operation, you may well also be informed that you’ll have to wait 18 months to have it through the National Health Service or two weeks to have it done privately – again, if you’re able to pay.
Access to the best schools in the state sector is not free: house prices tend to be higher in their catchment areas because of the number of parents trying to move closer to the school so that their child(ren) stand a better chance of getting in. So state education is free, but the perceived best state education is not.
Is the internet different?
I don’t want to get drawn into a discussion of whether any of this is right or wrong; I am merely pointing out that where a resource is scarce it will end up being allocated one way or another. Just because it isn’t being charged for directly, does not mean that people aren’t paying for it somehow.
So is the internet any different? If you have a website or a blog, would you be willing to pay extra for the benefit of access to it being faster? In a way, I had to face this issue as an e-newsletter provider. Once the number of subscribers to Computers in Classrooms reached a certain level, sending it out became problematic. Although the software I’d installed on my website was reasonably good, there are limits on how many emails you are allowed to send in a particular period of time. Trying to send more than that resulted in its being stopped partway through the mailing, and that was resulting in some people getting it three times and others not receiving it at all.
The only way around that would have been for me to split the subscriber database into two or more subsets, and process each one separately. That would have meant that some subscribers would have received their newsletter a day or two later than others. In what sense could that be regarded as fair?
Also, the more subscribers there are, the more failed email addresses there are (people changing their service provider, changing their job and so on), and so the more time I was having to spend on dealing with it. In the end, we decided to go with a third party email provider; in other words, we were willing to pay a small amount of cash in order to get rid of the problems.
The key point in that last sentence is the word “cash”. Continuing with the old method of sending out the newsletter would still have meant paying, but in terms of time, and the quality of some subscribers’ experience. Setting up my own email server would also have meant paying in terms of time learning how to do it or money spent buying in expertise.
In other words, in certain circumstances the real issue is not whether providers of services like a website, blog or newsletter pay or not, but whether they pay in terms of money or something else, like time. Of course, the word “small” in the phrase “small amount of cash” is also important: subsiding such an activity becomes financially impossible or unfeasible after a point, and so we cannot ignore the possibility that introducing a charged-for “fast lane” could result in the websites, blogs or newsletters of start-up, small or niche content providers disappearing altogether.
I have to say, I am not an expert in net neutrality, as you will no doubt have ascertained if you are one, but I hope to know a bit more about it soon. I’m attending a conference on the subject provided by the Westminster Forum. If you decide to book, you may be interested to know that teachers and school professionals and others can take advantage of a 15% discount on the standard fee.
I think this would be an interesting topic to discuss with students, not only in ICT but also in Economics and Citizenship, because it touches upon so many issues, not the least of which is how you define terms like “neutrality” or “equitable”.
- The Wikipedia article linked to earlier is quite comprehensive. It defines the terms, gives background and historical information, and summarises the arguments for and against net neutrality.
- In this opinion piece from The Tech, Keith Yost argues in effect, in the way I’ve implied here, that providing net access is not really different from selling baked beans, but it’s written in a balanced way.
- In this article for CNet News, S. Derek Turner argues against charging for faster net access, calling it “fake net neutrality”.