Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Speaking of mixed feelings...

The Net Neutrality thing is coming to a head, and again I don't think it's quite black-and-white. Make no mistake: the issue matters, and I think it's important that the Net Neutrality amendment pass. I dearly wish this issue hadn't been brought to this pass -- I think the best situation is the sort of squishy gentlemen's agreement that has prevailed until now, where everyone more or less treats packets equally and there is room for experiments and violations. But the big broadband carriers turned this into a Big Problem, and that being the case, I think that official Neutrality is the best of the plausible options.

(Those options being: no legislation, in which case the carriers have expressed a fairly clear intention of using their semi-monopoly powers to screw the information providers; Net Neutrality, which skews the economics in a different but fairly even-handed way; and price regulation -- the option that no one is officially talking about, but which I suspect the carriers would *love* to present as a "compromise" alternative, and which would almost certainly be the worst of all possible worlds for the consumer.)

All that said, both sides are guilty of pretty serious exaggeration. This was driven home by the NPR report I heard this afternoon, which said (paraphrasing) that "both sides agree that the decision made here will shape the Internet for generations to come".

Oh, come on. "Generations to come"? Get real.

Let me make a bald prediction; I don't think it's by any means certain, but the odds are good. Within 15 years, this whole thing will have been written off as an irrelevant historical footnote, because the big broadband carriers will all be out of business, at least as the business is currently understood. They'll be out of business because their business model is probably doomed.

The Internet as it currently stands is all about democratization of information -- anybody can get to anybody else. But the current broadband business models are built on top of the assumption that the pipes are controlled by what amount to mostly-unregulated utilities: semi-monopolistic companies like Comcast and Verizon who mediate that information getting to the consumers. I believe that anyone who thinks that's going to be the case in the long run doesn't understand the technology picture.

Mesh computing (with end users passing packets around to each other) is in its infancy, and far from ready for prime time -- there are many theories, but no real standards yet. That's going to remain the case for a while, as the technologies compete and evolve. But once they do, the controlled-pipe model becomes tenuous at best. Just as the information revolution sent the information providers scrambling, so will the provision revolution do the same to the broadband providers. Some will transform and survive; others will cling to the fat-pipe model and fail. But either way, I think that this whole question will become fairly moot, because once those packets are mainly flying from person to person instead of from middleman to consumer, no company is going to have enough control to be able to enforce differential pricing.

As I said, this issue matters for the medium term. If Net Neutrality fails, I suspect that the next 2 - 10 years will have a lot of pain, many legal fights, and a lot of businesses forced out of business by broadband extortion. But it will also speed up the death of the broadband providers, by giving consumers and information providers an excellent economic incentive to speed up the adoption of mesh networking...
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