Net Neutrality is Part of an Older Pattern of Technology and Media Warfare

We sometimes forget how much legal wrangling has occurred as the home video market was born. Sony released the Betamax digital video recorder in 1975. But not until 1984 was its use deemed fully lawful. Only because of that important decision was it possible to later see the rise of Blockbuster Video and Netflix.

It might seem odd, but it once was illegal to “own a copy of a movie.” So the notion of an “at home video market” was nonsensical. All media was consumed either outside the home or using devices that could receive but not store content.

Some level of conflict between proponents of technology and owners of content has been a rather common feature of the content business, though. Cable TV operators were at times denied the riight to import a distant TV signal and show those signals to local customers who could not otherwise get over the air TV service.

Later, the content industry tried to outlaw the rental of videos, music and software. The industry also tried to ban other new technologies, such as the digital audio-tape player, a successor to the analog audio tape player, and otherwise tax and slow the use of blank tapes, conpact discs and CD recorders, music players and digital video recorders.

Sometimes the opposition comes from other sources, though. For some, it might seem obvious that users ought to be able to obtain quality assured Internet apps from a caching site to their homes, as app providers now purchase the same quality assurance features from content delivery networks, or which business customers can buy.

For others the best effort Internet is better since it offers a level playing field, in terms of quality access (the biggest and the smallest app providers face the same challenges delivering quality experiences).

Beyond those differences of views, revenue models are at stake. Struggling to avoid commodity status for their product, ISPs hope to use quality of experience as content owners use image quality (standard definition, high definition, 3D) as ways of differentiating experience.

The helpful byproduct, from an ISP perspective, is the chance to create a new revenue stream or two, in the form of CDN services available to the end user, not simply to a data center. The other potential revenue stream is some optional ability for end users to set their own preferences for delivery of apps, when networks are congested.

In essence, some believe the Internet access service should be “dumb” (best effort only) while others think Internet access service should be “smart” (able to prioritize packets).

There is a bit of a nuance here: ISPs already have the right to manage traffic to maintain quality of service. That is called “network management.”

Telcos have done so routinely, actually blocking end user access when the voice network is overloaded (“I’m sorry, all circuits are busy right now. Please try your call again later.”) So “admission control,” a standard practice in the voice business, has an analogy in the Internet access business.

Some essentially could argue that prioritized packet access somehow defeats the “any to any” nature of the Internet. One hears that argument less these days as the old “any to any” Internet has been abandoned or transformed in many ways. Some country regulators do actually block apps.

And many private apps essentially “block” access to rivals by design. In other words, the Internet might permit anybody to communicate with anybody else. But that doesn’t mean any particular app has to do so.

It might be a bit of an existential argument, but some policies sometimes are necessary or desirable in part because they allow Internet access to exist and flourish. That is the argument made by ISPs who must keep investing in better and faster networks.

People can argue about the amount of market power held by app providers, device makers or ISPs. People can argue about the retail prices or profit margins enjoyed by any of the contestants.

Still, it is a legitimate matter to design and support a viable commercial ecosystem that allows the whole ecosystem to flourish, and differentiated services, features and prices might be a necessary part of that effort.

In other words, in order to provide first access, then quality access, to everyone, requires sustainable revenue models. A good part of the debate about quality of service mechanisms revolves around the effort to create such sustainable models.

It isn’t the only relevant issue, but it is a legitimate issue.
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