I disagree with Lessig's evaluation of the Net Neutrality camps

Lawrence Lessig declares that the two camps of the Net Neutrality debate are those who built the Net vs. those who never got it. I don't think that's accurate, the telecomms and cable networks have been a pretty key part of the Net. (Found via Rafe, btw).

I think the real division here is content providers vs. pipe owners, and the attempt to do away with network neutrality is essentially a coup attempt by the people who own the pipes.

People use the Net for the content, so that's where the value is. The pipes are just a commodity, which are expected to simply deliver the content. Selling a commodity service means competing on price, which means low margins.

So now the owners of the pipes are trying to restructure the market so they can charge content owners for preferential delivery of their content. This would overturn the current situation in their favor.

I'm doubtful this will work. Restructuring a market to foil the natural flow of the supply and demand of value is like trying to turn back the tide. There are only two ways it will work, barring government intervention (i.e. paying the politicians to restructure the market for them).

The first way is if the Unequal Net really does offer value. So if the content providers really feel a need to pay extra to get faster delivery to customers, they'll pay for it, and the Unequal Net will happen.

The second way is if the telecomms companies set up the Unequal Net, and degrade normal network service to the point where content providers will see the value of paying for the higher tier.

The first way is not going to happen. I've been providing technical infastructure to content providers for 10 years, and I just don't see them paying extra to get faster network to their users. It just isn't a huge pain point, and when it is the focus is how to reduce bandwidth costs, not increase them.

The second way could happen. The current political debate is around exactly this, with the telecomms companies vigorously denying they would slow down normal, non-premium network traffic. Instead they say they will be adding new capacity, and leave the existing Net as it is.

This is disingenuous, of course. As Internet usage continues to grow, with bandwidth hogging applications like video, the existing pipes will become more and more overloaded. Where are the telecomms companies going to invest in expanding capacity, the commodity, low-margin regular Internet, or in the new, high capacity, high cost infrastructure?

One would hope the market would overcome this strategy of blackmail. But there is a class of content providers who will need faster, more reliable bandwidth as they move more seriously into the Net as a distribution channel. They are the same content providers who are frightened of the Net as an open, level playing field. And they are content providers with deep pockets.

So it's easy to imagine a future market with two levels. The premium infrastructure will be for big-corp commercial content, TV, movies, music, and gaming, probably heavy with (ineffectual as always) DRM. The other level will be for the rest of us, the grass-roots, the non-commercial groups, individuals, and micro-businesses.

I don't think this would necessarily have an unhappy ending. That grass-roots market is huge, and as users we will will demand reasonable quality network access, so somebody will be able to make money providing it.

But I think the irony of the situation is that the telecomms companies who will eagerly build the infrastructure for the premium network in hopes of getting a bigger slice of the pie will in the end find themselves again competing for business strictly on price.

At the end of the day, people are interested in the content, and pipes are just pipes. If one telecomms company tries to hold Disney to ransom, they'll just switch to another.

Links:

Tim Berners Lee on Net Neutrality. Is it possible to have a better opening line?

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