Time Warner rolled out data metering in Beaumont, Texas on Thursday, a development that might inspire many in the pro net neutrality regulation camp to cry foul. However, bandwidth metering is probably a fairer and more transparent way to deal with the vast disparities in usage amongst broadband subscribers. Rather than claiming “unlimited” service and then proceeding to restrict access in a few dozen ways, metering gives unlimited use to a point, and then asks heavy users to pay their fair share.
I had an exchange with Robert X. Cringely over email recently. He was responding to a newsletter released by CEI about network neutrality regulation. Amongst his many helpful insights in our exchange he made a keen observation about the real issue in this debate, namely fraud:
The carrier sells me something he claims is unrestricted and unlimited within specific bandwidth guarantees then it turns out that’s not true. It’s unlimited and yet there is a limit. It is unrestricted and yet there are restrictions. Not even the bandwidth is what it is claimed to be. That’s not network management, it is fraud. It is not capitalism, it is fraud. The alternative isn’t socialism but simple contract compliance.
I agree wholeheartedly with Cringely on this issue. Claims of “unlimited” anything should be met with suspicion, especially unlimited bandwidth. However, instead of mandating that restrictions be lifted and some management methods be outlawed, why don’t we just outlaw these fraudulent claims?
Were we to make claims of “unlimited” bandwidth in advertising illegal, we’d face a far better future than one with mandated neutrality. In a fraud-free world, we can have networks advertised as metered, managed, or really unlimited (total free-for-alls). It’s likely that consumers will drift away from truly unlimited networks if BitTorrent and other bandwidth-hogging protocols continue to chew up networks.
In a mandated neutrality world, however, consumers will have fewer choices. Managed networks that provide reliable access to average consumers won’t be able to exist depending on the regulatory regime. If shaping, throttling, outright blocking, or any combination of management techniques are banned, it may be that the service that best fits your needs won’t be allowed to exist.
Cringley is right when he says what we need is contract compliance. We also need to ban the bait and switch routine of “unlimited” for managed and limited. Honesty and honoring contracts is at the heart of any free-market system. So, the alternative to today’s system shouldn’t be a government controlled one, but rather one that is actually much more capitalist.