OPINION: Waging a futile war for ‘net neutrality’


July 23, 2014
By Mark J. Grossman

Free speech and consumer-rights advocates have been in an uproar since the Federal Communications Commission voted May 15 in favor of a proposal to allow internet service providers to charge their corporate customers – programmers such as Google, Facebook and Netflix – for faster delivery of their content.

They say that allowing a for-pay “fast lane” threatens “net neutrality,” and that would be a worthy cause to fight for, if it were true.

It’s certainly not true for the 3.5 million U.S. households that still rely on a slow, dial-up connection for Internet service. In a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, dial-up users cited cost and availability as the reasons they don’t have broadband. The Pew study also showed that dial-up users are more likely to be black or Hispanic, be less
educated and have a lower-than-average family income. For them, they’re already in the slow lane, and yet net neutrality advocates are silent.

Then there’s the multitude of “fast lane” and “faster lane” options available to broadband consumers. For example, Verizon FiOS offers a standard monthly rate of $50, plus five progressively faster tiers that cap out at $300 a month. Verizon also offers two tiers of DSL – a slower form of broadband – at $30 and $40. Cablevision offers three speeds of Optimum Online at $50, $55 and $105, and satellite provider DISH TV also offers three Internet speeds ranging from $50 to $80.

Website managers know that hosting plans – the rental of virtual real estate – are priced based on bandwidth, which is essentially the size or capacity of the Internet pipeline. Bigger pipelines handle more and faster data. Again, those with the financial means get access to the so-called faster lanes.

So if net neutrality is such an elusive goal, why all the uproar over the FCC proposal?

Unfortunately, these advocates – most who have good intentions – have been sucked into an industry battle that’s pitting ISPs such as AT&T, ComCast, Verizon and Time Warner against Internet programmers such as Netflix, Facebook, Google and Amazon. The ISPs support the FCC proposal because it gives them flexibility to charge bandwidth-bulky programmers more to travel across their networks. The programmers cried foul and have successfully reframed the issue by creating a grassroots masquerade, co-opting net neutrality advocates in the

It’s not unlike the “Save Free TV!” campaign of the 1970s. Hollywood knew cable TV, still in its infancy, would one day be a huge threat, so they concocted a self-serving petition drive and promoted it as a kind-of civil rights issue.

At the time, free over-the-air TV seemed as much a right as the air we breathed. Oh, how things have changed!

Today, 90 percent of all U.S. households subscribe to a type of “pay TV” delivered via cable, fiber optics or satellite.

But only half subscribe to some kind of premium channel package, with the rest receiving “basic” service that provides only local broadcast channels. Like the Internet, pay TV has fast and slow lanes, too.

And what about the remaining 10 percent – the 15 million American households that don’t subscribe to a pay TV service? They still rely on old technology – rabbit ears and rooftop antennas – to get free over-the-air TV with a half-dozen-or-so local channels. As you can guess, the people in these households tend to be poorer, tend to be less educated and tend to have darker skin.

It’s now nearing the end of a four-month comment period where the public can provide input to the FCC on their proposed new rule. Whatever the outcome, it will likely have little or no effect on Internet consumers and their service. That’s why net neutrality advocates would better serve the public good by abandoning this pointless protest and advocating instead for wider and more affordable broadband access for all.

Mark J. Grossman is an adjunct assistant professor of communications at Suffolk County Community College, NYIT and Hofstra University.  He can be reached at mark@markgrossman.net or @markjgrossman.