The Federal Communications Commission decision to begin the process of imposing an Internet neutrality rule — network operators such as AT&T would be barred from charging variable prices for different kinds of traffic from content providers such as Google or Amazon — is curious as well as wrongheaded.
The financial crisis that has convulsed the global economy for the past two years should be a potent reminder to communications regulators that the best of government intentions can create horrible, though unintended, consequences. Easy monetary policy by the Federal Reserve, for instance, intended to counter a recession in 2001, helped create a dangerous housing bubble.
Like physicians and Fed governors, the first goal of regulators should be to do no harm. And that is especially true when they are trying to impose a solution in search of a problem. Broadband prices, for one thing, are on the decline. The average cost of consumer broadband has dropped from to less than $20 a month from $50 a month in 2001. And more people have access. As late of 2004, 70 percent of households still used dial-up modems for web access. Today, just 10 percent do with broadband speeds doubling over that period. Tough to find a market failure here.
Of course, the Internet has hardly reached its potential. But future network upgrades by telecom firms to handle high bandwidth applications will be costly. One way to pay for them would be to charge higher rates to Google, Amazon and other corporate users who generate huge volumes of traffic.
Not surprisingly, content providers are in favor of net neutrality and the de facto government-created subsidy it would create at the expense of telecommunications companies. Net neutrality is merely another form of rent-seeking that seeks to manipulate regulators for private gain. The goal: Use the FCC to turn telecoms into highly-regulated utilities that would absorb the cost of future network buildouts — before passing it along to consumers, of course.
The Washington-based Open Internet Coalition, which represents Google, Amazon and eBay, sees things differently, saying the FCC decision advances a regulatory framework that “promotes innovation and consumer choice on the Internet.”
But not only do more and more consumers have access to ever-faster broadband, they have more choices. In addition to the telecoms, America has four nationwide 3G wireless providers and fifth,Clearwire, readying a nationwide launch of a 4G WiMax service.
But the FCC — with the full encouragement of the Obama administration — nonetheless intends to push forward with seeming little concern about the unintended consequences of intervening into a well-functioning sector vital to the American economy. At the very least, the FCC will likely face years of court battles over the rule that could serve to paralyze the sector. Now there’s your systemic risk.