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Would ending Net neutrality mean a better Web or a digital divide?

Updated: 2014-01-19T04:47:50Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

Nathan Benjamin runs a Kansas City-based company designed to connect builders and remodelers with recycled and reusable windows, doors and other fixtures.

PlanetReuse depends on a website to make those connections — and its money.

“We have a Web-based marketplace,” Benjamin said. “The Internet is very important.”

So it isn’t a surprise that Benjamin, like hundreds of thousands of other entrepreneurs and tens of millions of Web users, keeps a close eye on the latest dustup over “Net neutrality.”

It’s a complicated battle over whether to give some traffic special — and likely paid — priority on the Internet.

Are Internet service providers like Time Warner Cable and Verizon “neutral” common carriers, like the phone company, that must generally provide equal access to everyone?

Or should those companies hold the power to set aside special broadband toll lanes for byte-hogging services like Netflix and YouTube?

Can they block unfavored sites, perhaps those of competitors?

Do Web-surfing customers have any role in those choices?

Ditching Net neutrality might make consumers happy, meaning their streaming videos won’t idle in buffer hell. And being able to charge for dedicated broadband space, giving them a new source of revenue, might tempt companies to invest in more robust networks.

The downside, warn Net neutrality partisans, is that such a path would cut out small guys like PlanetReuse. Their traffic would get routed to a slow lane. That, they fear, would stunt the growth of inventive new applications — yet-to-be-hatched competitors to Netflix and the like.

The answers, which will largely determine how anyone does anything on the Web, remain stubbornly elusive, technically and politically.

Last week, a federal appeals court said the Federal Communications Commission had the authority to regulate Internet providers. In the next breath, though, the court said the agency had improperly exercised that power, ending — at least for now — the FCC’s “open Internet” rules.

Critics said the ruling, left unchallenged and unchanged, would kill Net neutrality.

That, they say, would mandate higher costs for pricey movie streams, trendy websites, almost every Web-based experience.

“Independent film distributors, alarm companies, startups or just about anybody else,” wrote communications consultant Art Brodsky, “are basically at the mercy of the telephone, cable and wireless … companies.”

Other critics said a non-neutral Internet would mean degraded service and a growing “digital divide” between the rich and poor.

Nonsense, providers insisted.

By striking down the FCC rules, they said, the court allowed more room for experiments and investments that will eventually yield better Web traffic management at lower costs.

“The court’s decision will allow more room for innovation,” said a statement from telecom giant Verizon, which brought the suit challenging the FCC. “Consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the Internet.”

Time Warner Cable, Kansas City’s biggest Internet provider, promised the ruling would not mean any changes in how it makes the Web available to customers.

“Time Warner Cable has been committed to providing its customers the best service possible, including unfettered access to the Web content,” its statement said.

While the U.S. Supreme Court may still be asked to settle the issue, the political push-and-shove is escalating.

The appeals court, for example, suggested in its ruling that the FCC could impose Net neutrality by simply reclassifying Internet providers as common carriers.

But such a move would touch off a furious reaction from those providers, who have watched common-carrier phone companies fall behind in the push for new digital technologies.

Those providers would undoubtedly accelerate their lobbying efforts in Congress to obtain protection from the agency, experts predicted.

And the voices of Net neutrality supporters, in turn, might be lost in such a debate.

“I don’t know what the lobby looks like for Net neutrality,” said Aaron Deacon, managing director for KC Digital Drive, a group formed to take advantage of the area’s improving Internet infrastructure. “You have a band of idealists … but they’re not a well-funded lobby.”

Expecting politicians — who recently argued in court over the meaning of the word “recess” — to fully sort out the intricate, competing and changing demands of Web users, service providers, hardware and software makers, and consumers may be asking for a miracle.

“What does Net neutrality mean today?” asked U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. “This is one of those things that changes so quickly it’s really hard to have a legislative or regulatory solution.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, Blunt’s Democratic colleague, also took both sides of the issue.

“My job is to make sure the FCC is using its authority responsibly and not jeopardizing the amazing growth of online commerce,” she said in an email, “while fully protecting everyone’s ability to access and use its potential fairly.”

In 2011, voting on a nonbinding Senate resolution, McCaskill supported FCC-imposed Net neutrality. Blunt opposed it.

In general, Democrats are more aggressive in their support for government-imposed Net neutrality.

“Network neutrality is a bedrock principle of the Internet,” said a statement from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Republicans generally support fewer regulations for Internet providers.

With the court’s decision, “American consumers will continue to have access to the Internet and to the content of their choosing, without the government playing the role of traffic cop,” said a statement last week from House Republicans Fred Upton of Michigan and Greg Walden of Oregon.

For their part, major digital companies have stepped slightly away from the dispute, perhaps reflecting their changing perspectives.

Google, for example, has long led a public fight in favor of Net neutrality. Now that it’s building its own fiber-optic-based Internet service in some markets — including Kansas City — its views appear less aggressive.

A company spokeswoman declined to comment last week, referring reporters to a broad-brush statement from the Internet Association in favor of Net neutrality.

“The continued success of this amazing platform should not be taken for granted,” the statement said. “The Internet Association supports enforceable rules that ensure an open Internet, free from government control or discriminatory, anti-competitive actions by gatekeepers.”

Other lobbying groups said the court ruling might serve as a path to compromise.

They say allowing the FCC to regulate the Internet — albeit in a different way — might satisfy all parties to the dispute.

“This effectively could settle into a de facto Net neutrality peace,” said Scott Cleland with NetCompetition, a public interest group. “The FCC’s ‘general authority to regulate’ broadband would be unchallenged, and the broadband industry’s biggest fear, common-carrier regulation … would be off the table.”

But Deacon, with the KC Digital Drive, said the concerns of providers would have to be taken into account.

Net neutrality, he said, was the central topic of discussion among Kansas City software engineers who gathered last week to discuss the industry.

“People know what Net neutrality is loosely, and they think it’s a good thing,” he said. “They sort of trust people are fighting for it. … But you’ve got to pay for network infrastructure somehow.”

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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