As any economist or ecologist knows, minor alterations in complex environments can cause drastic changes, something called the butterfly effect. Now, as the Obama administration prepares to deploy more than $7 billion in stimulus funds to increase the availability and adoption of high-speed Internet service, there’s a debate in Washington, D.C., about making some changes to the delicate ecology of our broadband networks, something that could send hurricane-force winds through the vibrant online world we’ve built so carefully during the past 10 years.
Technology, telecom and media companies are investing a combined $400 billion annually in a variety of next-generation technologies. This investment has brought some of the most advanced high-speed networks to 92 percent of American households. And as the price of broadband is dropping precipitously, speeds are soaring.
Consumers with an ever-hearty appetite for these faster speeds and newer applications are eating it up. Last year, more than $140 billion was spent purchasing goods and services online. In July, 158 million U.S. Internet users viewed more than 21 billion online videos, and last year YouTube alone dwarfed the bandwidth that the entire Internet consumed in the year 2000.
YouTube, of course, is owned by Google, which itself has grown to become one of the largest companies in the world with a market capitalization of $110 billion. Its staggering growth — and that of its brethren Internet companies like eBay, Yahoo and others — was made possible only because of the investment in high-speed networks to create the necessary ecosystem.
Of course, we should protect this ecosystem at all costs. For years, proponents of a policy called “net neutrality” have argued that without government intervention, broadband providers would stifle competing services and content providers, Internet development and usage would stagnate, and consumers would be unable to use their broadband connections to download video or access other emerging applications.
The exact opposite has happened: Investment in broadband has driven innovation and investment in new content and applications.
But in order for America to keep its broadband success story alive, we need to be able to manage pollution on our broadband networks — deter spam, combat viruses and address the increasing problem of network congestion. Various estimates project that as few as 5 percent of customers use from 50 to 90 percent of the total capacity of the network with high-bandwidth-consuming applications such as file sharing.
Some advocates have argued that network management practices affecting certain applications are “discriminatory,” making the case for a new round of government regulations. But collaborative, symbiotic relationships are what help any ecosystem prosper.
Net neutrality regulations could inhibit these collaborative solutions by insinuating government regulators into a technological process and draining the investment. Net management practices are constantly changing and it would be virtually impossible for any regulation to keep up.
Even ardent net neutrality advocates seem to accept this notion. Ben Scott of Free Press recently admitted that some net management tools are “essential.” And Dr. KC Claffy of the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis defended “deep packet inspection” — the bogeyman of management techniques — because “the good guys need it, too.”
The disaster scenarios voiced by network neutrality proponents for many years have never happened. In fact, the opposite has occurred: The Internet is booming with just the lightest regulatory touch. Network neutrality remains an unwise change that could very well wreak havoc on our prosperous online ecosystem.
Matt Salmon is a former Congress member from Arizona and is the immediate past president of Comptel, an association of more than 150 competitive telecommunications companies.