Dude, Where’s My Fast Lane?
Following the footsteps of Marijuana Belt states Washington, Oregon, and California, the lower house of the Colorado General Assembly passed a bill (HB 18-1312) reanimating dead FCC Internet regulations. Because the Constitution doesn’t give states jurisdiction over interstate commerce, the bill is narrow, coming down hardest on rural Coloradans.
The bill’s author, State Rep. Chris Hansen, copied text from a lobbyist-written FCC regulation banning “paid prioritization”, a method of enabling advanced applications to function over consumer-grade Internet pipes. Those of us who oppose such bans regard the practice as beneficial in most, if not all, cases.
FirstNet and Aira
For example, the enabling legislation for FirstNet, the nationwide first responder network, requires public safety agencies to obtain access to high-priority treatment from commercial mobile networks.
Federal law contains this provision because it’s essential for public safety to get high-fidelity audio and video communication services during disasters. Many emerging consumer applications require similar services to work properly as well.
Aira Technologies demonstrated such a system at a Congressional hearing on the day Hansen’s bill passed (I was also a witness at this hearing). The Aira service provides sighted guides to visually impaired people through a video camera in their eyeglass streaming video over the Internet to the guide’s home. This is a matter of life and safety.
Loopholes in the Loopholes
Hansen’s bill incorporates a loophole authorizing special treatment for FirstNet, but it doesn’t extend the same favor to consumer-oriented startups.
Net neutrality fans say “fast lanes” are nefarious means of making some web pages load faster than others, silencing the voices of the poor and perpetuating the worst abuses of information capitalism. This is a delusion born of bad information.
Web site owners have many choices for making their pages load faster, including Content Delivery Networks and web accelerators such as Cloudflare; many of these services are free to low-volume users.
Hansen fears that Internet startups will be out-bid by Big Internet now that fast lanes are legal. Oddly, no one has hazarded a guess as to how high these fees will actually be.
If, for example, fast lanes for services like Aira that can’t be accelerated by CDNs cost no more than the CDNs used by more conventional startups, there’s nothing to worry about. In reality, they’re likely to cost far less.
Big Internet firms have spent billions on worldwide networks of computers, data centers, and communication pipes that essentially bypass the open, public Internet except for the last mile. Because they’ve made these investments, they lobbied to prevent startups from getting similar results for less money.
Real World Analogies
Some Big Internet firms deliver physical goods in a similar way: Amazon moves its boxes around the globe using private networks but relies on the postal service to drop them off. It has no need for Priority Mail because it does the heavy lifting on its own.
Smaller companies do buy Priority Mail, as did today’s cast of monopoly Internet firms when they were smaller. Venture capitalists do not sign billion dollar checks for global networks, after all.
Many argue that the FCC’s zombie Internet regulations didn’t harm innovation because they had so many loopholes. But laws based on sound technical and economic analysis don’t need to evade their general consequences with crafty special interest carve-outs.
A Better Way
Rather than passing party-line bills in the name of innovation that actually harm it, Colorado policymakers should join the national conversation with Congress and the other 49 states over the best way to move the Internet forward.
For most of its history, the Internet was a research network, generally unconcerned with mundane consumer issues such as security, privacy, responsiveness and cost efficiency. Internet precedent is therefore not very helpful for modern problems.
Those of us invested in the Internet’s success – everyone who communicates – should focus on finding ways to make it better. Neither Hansen’s bill nor the Congressional Review Act resolution subverting current FCC policy is a recipe for progress.
This op-ed was written before final disposition. The Senate Committee that heard the bill voted it down, 3-2, on Monday.