Broadband monopolies 1, Net freedom 0

The National Broadband Plan and Net neutrality are in jeopardy after a federal court ruled the FCC can't regulate ISPs -- bad news for you, me, and the Internet

Well, the FCC just got kicked in the gonads.

A U.S. circuit court has ruled the agency does not have the jurisdiction to punish Comcast for throttling down its customers' BitTorrent connections without telling them.

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This throws a huge spanner into the National Broadband Plan and the hopes of getting some kind of Net neutrality principles in place.

Now, I'm not the biggest fan of government regulation of technology, mostly because so far the feds haven't done the best job of it. (DMCA, anyone?) Fact is, few people in Congress understand tech enough to write intelligent rules around it, so they let the industry lobbyists do it for them. That's changing as the old guard dies off, but very slowly.

Still, I don't think we can just sit back and let the "free market" rule -- because we've seen what happens when it does.

Why is Net neutrality important? Because in most areas of this country, broadband access still largely depends on regional monopolies or, in best case, duopolies. If you're lucky, you get a choice between a Monolithic Former Baby Bell or a Big Five Cable Company, both of which want to sell you Internet, voice, video, and maybe also wireless for $100 to $200 a month.

These companies do compete on price. They might compete on features. Will they compete on neutrality? Not bloody likely. So far, the cable and telco industries have been lobbying heavily against it [PDF].

So what happens in a world where Baby Bells and Big Cable control all the bits? Try these scenarios on for size.

  • Suppose you get your broadband service from a telco like AT&T or Verizon. Suppose they suddenly decide Skype or other VoIP services are competing with their own voice services and decide to block them. One day your VoIP calls work; the next day they don't -- hope you aren't using them to run your business.
  • Let's say you're a Comcast subscriber. You dial up its Fancast video-on-demand service and shows stream instantly to your PC. Strangely, though, when you dial up other online video services, they're so slow and jittery as to be unwatchable. Could there be a connection?
  • Maybe you use Time Warner or Charter or Cablevision to get 300 channels of dreck delivered to your home. But instead of renting their digital set-top/DVR box for $10 or $15 a month, you go with the far superior TiVo option -- except that suddenly your TiVo no longer works, because the cable companies require you to use their own hardware.
  • You're steamed at your cable company, so you create a Website called MyCableCompanySucks.net. Other people are also steamed at your cable company, so they jump in with their own tales of woe. One day, though, MyCableCompanySucks.net won't resolve in your browser. Instead, visitors get redirected to a page on your cable company's Website warning them about violating its terms of service.
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