Internet Fast Lanes Do Not Inevitably Create Slow Lanes

Network neutrality is not an easy concept; it never was. But as U.S. network neutrality policy seems likely headed for changes, the misinformation and misunderstanding will have consequences.

In popular imagination, network neutrality has been about preventing potential internet access provider exercise of market power. The thinking is that by outlawing any forms of packet prioritization.and quality of service, ISPs can  be prevented from creating new “fast lines” for content.

Ignore for the moment other issues, such as the fact that some types of internet content actually benefit from packet prioritization; that packet prioritization already happens; that paid packet prioritization already happens; or that it is nearly impossible to clearly distinguish between permissible “network management” and banned “packet prioritization.”

The notion has been that creating voluntary “fast lanes” (allowing content delivery network features from access edge to the end user) would, by definition create “slow lanes” (otherwise known as best effort internet access, which is precisely what we have now).

Those assumptions are based on “scarcity,” something that is ceasing to be a constraint in the mobile and fixed internet access businesses in the United States. In other words, creating some services that have quality of service features “creates slow lanes” only if one assumes there is a scarcity of bandwidth.

On networks pushing up to a gigabit per second, and then beyond within the next five years, on both mobile and fixed networks, there is not going to be any functional scarcity. There will be plenty of available bandwidth for best effort services, as well as some QoS services, much as now happens with WoS-enabled cable TV video services and best-effort internet access services.

To be sure, some worry that for-fee prioritization, were it to become a market reality, would disadvantage smaller content or app providers. That already happens, as big content providers routinely use content delivery networks that prioritize packets. That is what Akamai and other CDNs do. It does not appear that such packet prioritization by some big providers actually prevents all other smaller providers from entering markets and creating services.

Scarcity of access bandwidth used to be a problem. It is not going to be a problem in the near future. For that reason, fear over the impact of prioritized packets misses the mark. Fast lanes will not automatically create slow lanes, because there will be bandwidth abundance. Best effort still will work. But apps requiring some QoS measures might be made lawful.

It is not going to be an “either, or” choice.
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