Much has been made about an article in the New York Times this week describing how Google and Verizon are approaching a “deal” on Net Neutrality. The article suggests Google and Verizon are dealing to prioritize Google traffic on Verizon networks, but both Google and Verizon deny the claim. But then Google CEO Eric Schmidt hinted that there’s some sort of “Agreement” in the works. So what gives?
While I don’t have any secret sources at Google or Verizon, here’s what I think is going on: Once again, the term “Net Neutrality” is getting interpreted in 12,000 different ways, and causing a lot of confusion. In my opinion, this has been the #1 problem with the net neutrality debate. Some take the minority (and extreme position) that net neutrality means low-cost broadband for all, or that you shouldn’t be allowed to charge more for bandwidth or higher connection speeds. Others think Net Neutrality is only about not discrimination if offering quality of service. When discussing net neutrality, I think we should focus less on the technological aspects of organizing a network, and focus on what matters most: Consumer Choice. Maybe we should even start rebranding the “Net Neutrality” movement as “Network Choice” or something similar (any suggestions?).
So back to Google: according to Schmidt, Google and Verizon are looking to come up with an agreeable “definition” for what Net Neutrality is. He suggests that quality of service (the idea that some network traffic gets prioritized) is OK, as long as the prioritization takes place based on content rather than source. (So Verizon can prioritize video for a fee, but can’t discriminate amongst video providers). That seems reasonable, but I think a better way to achieve the end-goals of the net neutrality / network choice movement would be to focus on the consumer. Rather than have the networks themselves decide what kinds of content get QoS, end-users should decide what they want quality of service on, whether it be VoIP, video, or some sort of data-intensive gaming experience. And to be clear, I think it makes sense for someone to pay for this QoS, whether it be the end-user or the content provider. The key is that the choice be left to the consumer and that the networks not discriminate amongst various content providers.
I think the choice element is important from an innovation standpoint. If Verizon decides that they’re going to prioritize video, even if they don’t discriminate in that prioritization, it still blocks the opportunity for a non-video competitor to take advantage of prioritization. Effectively, the network operator is making a market changing choice on behalf of it’s consumers. Let’s say that there’s some sort of up-and-coming data intensive game that consumers and providers would like to distribute over QoS, but can’t because it doesn’t fit one of the network-approved mediums worthy of prioritization? As a new venture, it likely won’t have the market power to secure the network operator’s blessing as warranting a QoS channel. If the new technology requires QoS to work, then, it might never get a chance. But if consumers get to choose what they want QoS on, then some users can try it, and this new technology can take root and grow.
This is why focusing on the choice of the end-user really matters. The world Schmidt suggests, where certain “types” of traffic can get prioritized without discrimination might work for Google; but at the cost of up-and-coming yet-to-be-thought of innovators who’d like a shot at QoS.