Broadband service quality: Rationing or markets?

White paper: “Net neutrality” is implicitly framed as a debate over how to deliver an equitable ration of quality to each broadband user and application. This is the wrong debate to have, since it is both technically impossible and economically unfair. We should instead be discussing how to create a transparent market for quality that is both achievable and fair.

Broadband service quality: Rationing or markets?


Broadband is increasingly vital to everyday life, as well as to commerce and enterprise. Its importance merits asking the question: what is the appropriate role of government in managing the market for broadband services? For historical reasons, the primary agency tasked with answering that question in the US is the FCC.

The FCC has a long history of policing traditional telecom networks, and constraining the actions of players engaged in unfair practices. Over many decades, the FCC has found occasions where dominant carriers to have leveraged their market power to favor or disfavor other players. Whilst this inflates carrier profits, it demonstrably harms consumers.

The subject of “net neutrality” (called “Open Internet” in FCC rulemaking) is about the potential for ISPs to become “king makers” for online services. Its proponents position it as being about the potential for harmful “discrimination” by powerful ISPs. The topic generates diverse viewpoints that are promoted with intense feeling. This paper proposes that such passion is mostly misguided, as the current policy debate is misframed.

Consumer advocates have taken a language of fairness for living people, and then misapplied it to packets, whose ethereal nature barely qualifies as inanimate. As a consequence, they have inappropriately focused their “discrimination” concerns on the internal traffic management choices of packet networks. The resulting regulatory rules unwittingly enforce a grossly unfair rationing of service quality.

We can successfully reframe the policy problem to achieve a far fairer social and economic outcome. To do so, we must strip purely technical concerns of unwise and irrelevant emotive language. Terms like “discriminate”, “throttle” and “violate” are used to fan public outrage, but come overladen with unhelpful semantic baggage. We need a new policy lexicon, one that clearly separates mechanistic network processes from orthogonal economic and legal issues.

Richer language and rational inquiry are our newfound friends; they help us to think with crisp precision about fairness concerns in the unfamiliar technology domain of distributed computing. Issues of equitable resource allocation need to be addressed at the human level, where they always belong.

The treatment of packets should only be relevant to the extent that a harm to people exists. Our goal then is to appropriately relate fairness to people to that of packet delivery. This can be achieved by focusing only on the external end-to-end service quality.

This paper proposed an alternative approach that (potentially) meets the needs of both consumer advocates and free market proponents. It constrains unfair ISP power, whilst also replacing rationing with a fairer market for quality. For this to come to pass, Congress has to express its will that it prefers fair markets over unfair rationing of broadband quality.

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