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Net neutrality matters

When he outlined his proposal for new rules to ensure an open Internet, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler recalled his own experience as a startup entrepreneur. Three decades ago he ran a fledgling venture that delivered high-speed data to home computers over cable television lines.

His firm faced competition from a venture started by a guy named Steve Case. Mr. Wheeler’s service was hundreds of times faster, but ultimately it went broke while Mr. Case’s operation became AOL.

“While delivering better service,” Mr. Wheeler explained, “(my firm) had to depend on cable television operators granting access to their systems. Steve Case was not only a brilliant entrepreneur, but he also had access to an unlimited number of customers nationwide who only had to attach a modem to their phone line to receive his service. The phone network was open whereas the cable networks were closed. End of story.”

This anecdote illustrates the need for net neutrality rules that reclassify broadband Internet access, including mobile data, from an information service to telecommunications service, which is more tightly regulated. The phone network’s openness in the mid-1980s, which allowed AOL to innovate and thrive in its early years, “did not happen by accident, but by FCC rule.” By contrast, the cable companies could do as they pleased.

Mr. Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal, which is slated for an FCC vote on Feb. 26, has several key components. Among them, it would prohibit blocking access to content; “throttling,” or slowing the delivery of Internet traffic; and paid prioritization—the so-called Internet “fast lanes.”

Broadband providers and other critics say the proposed rules would stifle innovation. If this is so, why do so many Internet firms—especially startups—support Mr. Wheeler’s approach?

The argument that net neutrality should be legislated, not regulated, also rings hollow. The FCC is acting because Congress has not; if it does, that legislation will supersede the commission’s rules.

Net neutrality has been debated long enough. The FCC should adopt the Wheeler plan.

2/20/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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