Why Net Neutrality Is Too Important to Leave Up to the ISPs

Anyone involved in the online video industry has to be chilled to the bone by the recent court ruling invalidating much of the FCC’s authority over broadband service providers.

The court essentially told the FCC that it couldn’t force Comcast to pass all bits equally through its cable modems, in essence allowing the ISP to once again shape packets and slow certain types of traffic with impunity. This is bad news for lots of different businesses on the web, but it’s most chilling to companies like YouTube, Metacafe, Netflix and mine, Revision3, which serve up independent video.

Why? Because Comcast could potentially slow down the delivery of our streaming video. Why would it do that? To protect its multichannel cable-TV oligopoly, and its owned and operated cable networks — including The Golf Channel, Style and G4 –- from web-based competition.

Comcast, along with Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon, Charter and other conglomerates have a lot at stake here. New multichannel services from Move Networks, Sezmi and others promise to use the broadband network to replace traditional cable services. Anecdotal evidence shows that many have already ditched cable for a combination of Netflix streaming, Amazon Video on Demand, iTunes and Internet originals, via devices from Roku, Boxee, Syabas and the new crop of web-connected TVs and Blu-ray players.

Streaming video is not like a simple file transfer, because all the bits have to arrive in order, and on time, in order to ensure a clean and rebuffer-free viewing experience. ISP routers already analyze every packet for source, destination and routing path, and it’s relatively easy to slow down, or shape, packets based on type or source. And if you can’t get a good streaming video signal because your ISP has slowed those services to a crawl, you’ll be forced right back to traditional multichannel video services for your television.

So the courts have handed cable TV operators, along with Verizon and AT&T, a huge tool to keep their customers from fleeing to Internet alternatives. As you would expect, though, Comcast and others are claiming that they “remain committed to the FCC’s existing open Internet principles.” They’re also asking the government to let them self-regulate.

But they can’t be trusted. Comcast lied about its packet-shaping in the past, and I don’t expect it to suddenly change its stripes now. Luckily the FCC isn’t standing still, but is considering a number of different alternatives to ensuring net neutrality, including getting Congress to expand its authority over broadband.

I think the best alternative, however, would be to reclassify ISPs to a Title II common carrier service from a Title I. This would put broadband into the same category as POTS and other telecommunications services. Self-regulation would be bad, and I’m leery about leaving the decision up to Congress in light of how long they can take to make a decision.

Free and clear access is important for consumers, for competition and for creativity. Because without it, we’ll be stuck in a “57 channels and nothing on” world, dictated and enforced by the cable monsters.

Image courtesy of Flickr user rstrawser

Jim Louderback is CEO of Revision3. He was previously vice president of Ziff Davis Media and Editor-in-Chief of PC Magazine and PCMag.com.

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