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Broadband, Net Neutrality, And The HOV Lane

TechnologyCNet has an interesting article on Net Neutrality today. Erick over at Broadband Blog covers it. The CNet article does a pretty good job of covering the debate, but unfortunately, some of the arguments from both sides go unaddressed.

For example, I have an issue with the depiction of Net Neutrality as an HOV lane.

“We are building a fifth lane on a four-lane highway,” said Dave Pacholczyk, a spokesman for AT&T. “If you offer a high-occupancy lane for certain traffic, it ought to be better for those who remain in the other four lanes.”

The trouble with making that analogy is it’s just not true. Anyone who has traveled in the other four lanes of a highway with an HOV lane knows that their traffic situation isn’t improved at all. (Note: I’m only talking about HOV lanes for motor vehicle traffic at this point.)

As a matter of fact, I have always argued that HOV lanes cause more congestion. When all those cars that have sped past in the HOV lane approach their exit, they now have to careen across 4 lanes of traffic to get to the ramp. Human traffic tendency is to wait until the last possible moment to make that lane change, so they jam on their brakes and attempt to cross four lanes in very short order and cause everyone in those lanes to slow down for them. In doing so, they slow all five lanes.

So that’s a pretty poor analogy for how tiered service would work. Anyone who has sat in traffic watching HOVs go by would argue that’s not a good solution.

A better example would be the special treatment often accorded to buses. When you have a lot of traffic that needs to get to the same place (as in the case of video content) you can bundle it together and give it certain rights (the ability to turn left when other traffic can’t for instance, or the ability to use a certain lane). It’s not a mater of an HOV lane, it’s a matter of giving privileges for a fee.

Further into the article, Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge argues, that carriers “shouldn’t favor those providers [with whom they have other relationships] more than others, because ultimately, the consumer suffers.”

If that’s your concern, then regulate that, not the entire net. To impose a law that prevents managed networks, or even charging for tiered service, because you fear some exclusivity arrangement is foolish. If you fear exclusivity, then pass a law that says carriers are allowed to manage and charge, but they must do so on a non-exclusive basis. That solves your actual problem without creating new ones.

In all, the article isn’t bad. I’ll be curious to see the public discussion after today’s hearing.

(Disclaimer: While I work for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, this post should in no way be construed as an official position of the Association. Thoughts in this space are mine and mine alone and do not reflect the views of my employer.)

Written by Michael Turk