Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Problems with “basic access broadband” mandates

The Annenberg Center Principles for Network Neutrality, released yesterday, hinge on the notion of “basic access broadband”, a guaranteed minimum level of neutral Internet connectivity.

The Principles are a worthy contribution to the debate about the regulation of US broadband. (Disclosure: I was a participant in the workshop where these ideas were discussed.) It fleshes out the middle ground between the positions of net neutrality purists and free market purists. The Principles bring together some shared values (win/win for operators and consumers, light touch regulation, transparency, and competitive entry) in a way that marks out some common ground.

However, I’ve realized that the key innovation in the Principles – basic access broadband – is attractive in principle but unworkable in practice.

Here’s a summary of the problems, which I’ve detailed in more detail here:

  • One can’t set a meaningful “national minimum absolute speed”
  • One can’t set a meaningful “percentage of bandwidth”
  • Basic Access Broadband as a tier leads to price control, which the FCC can’t deliver
  • Basic Access Broadband as a floor will not prevent bias in favor of some content providers
  • A mandated minimum precludes socially beneficial offers, like very cheap but non-neutral broadband access
  • A plethora of parameters will have to specified, leading to endless politicking and litigation
  • Basic Access Broadband doesn’t prevent bias in favor of rich players, but will exact a high price in unintended consequences and regulatory capture

In short, while Basic Access Broadband sounds simple, its implementation will be dangerously complex. In the words of Yogi Berra: "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."