I got to say I am really surprised with the response from Tom Wheeler today (emphasis mine):
Broadband network operators have an understandable motivation to manage their network to maximize their business interests. But their actions may not always be optimal for network users. The Congress gave the FCC broad authority to update its rules to reflect changes in technology and marketplace behavior in a way that protects consumers. Over the years, the Commission has used this authority to the public’s great benefit.
The internet wouldn’t have emerged as it did, for instance, if the FCC hadn’t mandated open access for network equipment in the late 1960s. Before then, AT&T prohibited anyone from attaching non-AT&T equipment to the network. The modems that enabled the internet were usable only because the FCC required the network to be open.
Companies such as AOL were able to grow in the early days of home computing because these modems gave them access to the open telephone network.
I personally learned the importance of open networks the hard way. In the mid-1980s I was president of a startup, NABU: The Home Computer Network. My company was using new technology to deliver high-speed data to home computers over cable television lines. Across town Steve Case was starting what became AOL. NABU was delivering service at the then-blazing speed of 1.5 megabits per second—hundreds of times faster than Case’s company. “We used to worry about you a lot,” Case told me years later.
But NABU went broke while AOL became very successful. Why that is highlights the fundamental problem with allowing networks to act as gatekeepers.
While delivering better service, NABU 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.
The phone network’s openness did not happen by accident, but by FCC rule. How we precisely deliver that kind of openness for America’s broadband networks has been the subject of a debate over the last several months.
The example Mr. Wheeler recalls is not directly about the loses that the consumer faced, but rather the focus is on how a technology company (his own) lost a battle with AOL. When Mr. Wheeler refers to “network users” in this context he conveniently conflates the consumer and technology startup as the same thing, and this is not necessarily the case. Where I do agree is that the cable companies have done everything they can to overleverage their position and in the words of Morpheus “…they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys”. This for me is balance that needs to be addressed.
People on the other side of this discussion note the danger of stifling innovation, but this is not my primary concern, capitalism tends to find a way regardless of what road blocks you place a head of it. In fact if we look at the internet (and cable access) as currently constituted the explosion of the web is directly related to how access is already enforced/allowed and no one can deny its amazing success. What the longer arc of history does clearly show is that the everyday person is often run over by the demands of a few, in my humble opinion, net neutrality should hold the consumer experience (especially our most vulnerable citizens) as the primary focus.