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iamthemob's avatar

Is the recent weak regulatory scheme from the FCC an indication that information will be under increasing control of corporations and decreasing availability to consumers?

Asked by iamthemob (17121 points ) January 23rd, 2011

The debate about net neutrality has recently turned to a discussion of whether the FCC regulations will protect consumers from corporate discrimination as to broadband content delivery. The concern is they won’t.

What do people think about the issue? I’m solely asking about regulations regarding the potential splitting of the broadband pathways into a high premium speed and a lower general speed (right now, internet service providers (ISPs) don’t discriminate on that front noticeably – so consumers requesting streaming videos do not have to pay more for it than someone downloading documents mostly at peak times…or they don’t require premium charges for content service providers (CSPs) such as Netflix greater prices for requiring more priority service to deliver streaming content to it’s many customers).

My concern is that as the infrastructure of broadband is controlled by single or few ISPs so that without regulation, there is nothing to prevent any vertical integration such that those in control of the pathways could create their own CSPs to deliver content at what would be discount rates and therefore defeats competitive development.

That was a lot…let’s see what happens.

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34 Answers

lillycoyote's avatar

I was wondering about this when they announced the Comcast/NBC merger.

What about the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc..

That was what essentially completely dismantled and destroyed the Hollywood Studio system which entirely sustained by vertical integration. It was eventually decided at the Supreme Court level. Is that case and the others of the time, though that one was the Big Kahuna, the consent decrees, etc. … are they a valid precedents and issues of law that have been settled that can be used to stop this sort of thing?

I don’t know why the damn link isn’t working. Try this.

Oh, forget it. This discussion about the Paramount case is better anyway.

Find the wikipedia article but the one above has good links. I give up.

cockswain's avatar

A cyber tea party may be in order.

jerv's avatar

My biggest concern is that many people won’t understand the issues and/or they will have the same attitude as they did/do about the Patriot Act and give their freedom away to whoever declares themselves an authority figure.

What I think is that it is a step towards abandoning our Constitutional Republic in favor of a Corporocracy; back in the old days, corporations had to buy Senators and bribe judges to do much of anything and get away with it, but now they can call the shots more directly with few/no consequences.

lillycoyote's avatar

Well, I don’t think it’s just a matter of it being anti-competative, even though I know that’s what you’re asking about. That was the problem with vertical integration in the Hollywood studio system: a few big studios controlled the means of production, the means of distribution and the means of exhibition. In that case the production was motion pictures. There were a lot of other independent sources of news and information at the time. But I think something like the NBC/Comcast merger would allow something a little more insidious and that is a few big companies controlling the means of production, distribution and “exhibition” of information.

But of course, if I pay Comcast, my current ISP for internet services then that should certainly allow me to access all content on the internet, not just the content of their choosing. But they also have a right to charge according to usage, if I am understanding your question. That is not unusual, to charge customers according to how much of a service provider’s product they use. That’s how utilities work. So how does this get worked out @iamthemob

ETpro's avatar

Your concern is well founded. The free market is good at determining what sells well and what doesn’t, right up to the point where it becomes a de-facto monopoly. The reason some regulation is needed is to prevent monopoly. If the FCC fails to do that, then the voters need to elect politicians who will fire the ineffective regulators and put others in place who will do it. It will be time for another Teddy Roosevelt style Trust Buster to take over.

iamthemob's avatar

@lillycoyote – So much of the problem, as touched on by @jerv as well, is that the issues are so complicated that nearly anyone can say that they’re fighting for “net neutrality” (which is why I’m trying to limit the specific area of regulation/concern, if that can be done successfully).

What it seems the argument from the “free market” ideologists is is that consumer protection is the concept of a tiered broadband pathway system that seems to be the ISP agenda (anyone can correct me on this – please feel free). So there is a standard consumer price that is paid that is all the slower path (slower is metaphorical here) and there is a premium that businesses would be using to provide content to consumers. So Netflix would be charged more because they’re streaming all over the internet to meet customer needs.

To me, this seems anti-consumer and pro-monopoly and vertical integration. I only have one available ISP in my area. That’s it for broadband. So, in the above structure I’d pay a lower price (“good”) for access and to get data. However, the CSPs are paying a higher price – and it’s reasonable to assume that it would be a significant increase because the cost of all their customer usage would get shifted to them. This would increase the cost they charge their subscribers – so theoretically, in the end, you have from the ISP consumer standpoint the status quo at first – as prices don’t really change it’s simply allocated more for the CSP subscription and less for your discounted standard ISP access.

But of course CSPs already in the market might be able to absorb this sudden increase in operating costs. What’s great now is that there’s minimal cost to provide content, so really there are no barriers to entry. Having to pay some initial charge for premium access will potentially require an up-front investment of capital that may not be affordable to some innovators. So we lose competition.

And from a corporate/business perspective, and ISP that doesn’t start creating its own CSP subsidiaries is breaching it’s duty to its shareholders. Because it can provide that service without paying the premium (or rather, the premium is paid by the sub to the parent – so it’s a transfer of funds from an entity to itself). Who knows if this is an operating cost to the sub that also allows it to get a tax break. So that CSP is operating at a lower cost, and can offer lower prices naturally which may allow it to push out all other CSP competition.

Then – we have one choice for content, and the corp. sets the price.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@iamthemob

You wanna go over that again? This time in English? I know an ISP is an Internet Service Provider, but what’s a “CSP?”

cockswain's avatar

Content service provider, in the details of the question. I thought he wrote an excellent answer myself.

jerv's avatar

@CaptainHarley Your comment is precisely the sort of thing that scares me here. I mean, you are a pretty smart fella and yet you can’t even grasp the basics of the Net Neutrality problem. I am a tech-head g33k and even my brain hurts trying to follow along!

One part of the issue is that the corporations will get what they want by obfuscation and other types of bullshitting unless the FCC steps up… but the FCC is a government agency and thus not entirely competent, and anything they do will likely be half-assed at best. We’re screwed either way, of course :p

iamthemob's avatar

@jerv – being a tech head, am I wrong that there’s no concern right now that the current infrastructure for broadband can’t handle the increased streaming pressure?

If so, what sort of capital investment would be required to meet future demands?

That’s the only thing that really matters.

jerv's avatar

@iamthemob That is a concern, but only because our companies would rather invest in their execs than their infrastructure. Notice how much worse we are than the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to our internet and cellular infrastructure?

What sort of capital investment? Look overseas and remember that the US is smaller than the rest of the world, so it’d be cheaper. The catch is that that would require companies to invest in the future and sustainability rather than the present and doing a “pump and dump”. Other nations are willing to do that, but we are not.

iamthemob's avatar

@jerv – I just wonder if there is any indication about the cost of infrastructure improvement and the relative increase in subscription prices it would require when spread across all broadband consumers.

jerv's avatar

@iamthemob Even if they could upgrade the infrastructure for free, they would jack up the rates. I will say that it would have been cheaper to upgrade if they had kept pace with technology for the last few years in roughly the same way that regular oil changes are cheaper than engine replacements.

Also, if you expand coverage, you get more customers. There are remote villages in Africa that get better cell coverage and faster broadband than anything I could get in New Hampshire!

iamthemob's avatar

@jerv – I’m more concerned about cable (but really…thats probably not an issue – considering that the speed of wireless will be fine by the time cable would be burdened by excess traffic – is that a safe assumption?)

jerv's avatar

@iamthemob Cable is so last century :P

iamthemob's avatar

Sadly – so is the U.S. in this sector.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I’m very serious. I try to sort through all the BS and all I get is a headache! What I think ought to be the goal is equal access to all. I base this on my comittment to freedom of speech. Now… someone please tell me which way to bounce in all this to provide the greatest freedom to the greatest number of people.

jerv's avatar

@CaptainHarley Net neutrality is a good thing. Neutrality means that all data and all people are treated the same; no VIPs or “members only” access, and most importantly, no censorship!
If you want to see a non-neutral net, look at China or some parts of the Middle East.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@jerv

GOOD! That means I’ve been backing the right horse. : ))

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley – I still get a headache about it too…so it’s not you…it’s the amount of information and misinformation plus the technical aspects of the issue.

But – really quickly – when you say you’ve been backing the right horse, are you referring to how you come out on the issue (i.e., “this is what net neutrality is, and that’s what I want”) or which side you think is defending net neutrality? If the former, yes you are. ;-) If the latter – I’ll reserve agreeing with you until I know which side it is…

CaptainHarley's avatar

@iamthemob

The former. I will almost always come down on the side of individual liberty and Net Neutrality seems to support that. : )

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley

That brings up an interesting issue…

Part of the problem in the argument is that you have a rightish, conservative element arguing for what they think is “individual liberty” in terms of liberating businesses from FCC regulation and allowing market forces to determine success…but the policy they endorse (no regulation) leads to the opposite in the market in question. So the right is arguing under a rubric of “business rights” when it’s really subliminally “corporate rights.”

Then you have the left, which is arguing an individual liberty, market competition, and business freedom (very pro-small business) position in reality that requires some government regulation to be possible. But the regulation is only to maintain the status quo and prevent monopolistic forces from intruding on market forces. However, it may come off because it’s pro-regulation as liberal big government rhetoric.

So you have people painted as being on the left (and who are in many cases) arguing a position with interests that are fundamentally what conservatives claim, but with a mechanism that is necessarily attributed to the left, and the right arguing a position that essentially replaces government control of the market with corporate control of the market, but it seems like a pro-business stance as the “free market” mechanism is a classic tool of the right.

That’s why they’re able to confuse us so easily, dammit.

CaptainHarley's avatar

@iamthemob

I suspect that’s why I was so confused. Deliberate obfuscation via hijacked terminology is so irritating, don’t you think? : )

iamthemob's avatar

I think political rhetoric is generally irritating. Deliberate obfuscation infuriating.

But to clarify – I don’t necessarily know if there was ever an intent to hijack the terminology to confuse people…it’s reasonable that the ideological commitment of people on either side just leads them to react to attempts to regulate in one way or another, and then it’s all confirmation bias. Enough bias and you build a platform that may seem like you’re trying to confuse people – but really, you’re just confused…;-)

jerv's avatar

When it comes to anything that mixes technology and politics, there are always problems, and there are countless times where we have to guess what our forefathers would think in light of advances that they never envisioned.

I wonder how things would be if all of the stuff we are used to paying flat fees for were prorated like the ISPs want. Imagine if what you pay to register your car were based on how many miles you drive; every road effectively becoming a toll road. I can understand some services charging a premium, but I would prefer that those charges be made by those providing the content.

Bandwidth is cheap, as is proven by other parts of the world that have more of it than we do. I still say that this is a matter of companies preferring pure profit over investing in sustainability. If that were not so then we would be at least half as good as the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to network infrastructure.

iamthemob's avatar

@jerv

As I understand it, the issue isn’t bandwidth necessarily but the type of content. Video and sound need to prioritized so packages of information must be sent first, while documents can wait. So documents, email, etc. gets in line behind right?

I believe that this is the argument ISPs make for wanting to tier the bandwidth – so it’s more like the CSPs will pay to access the “Paypass” lanes while the email will just go through the currency lanes…

jerv's avatar

@iamthemob That is what buffering is for. Also, places less prosperous and more populated than us don’t have the problems we have. There is no technical rationale that I know of that cannot be attributed to the ISPs being too cheap to upgrade to 21st-century standards.

iamthemob's avatar

@jerv

Could you flesh out the buffering thing? I think it may be different…

I feel like buffering is about connection speed…which isn’t about delivery priority. I think the argument for charging Netflix more is that they stream out a lot of content that requires delivery really quickly, in a row, or there’s an interruption. So it’s sent and downloaded first.

If your connection doesn’t download on your end fast enough, that’s not necessarily a result of slower delivery…or is it?

CaptainHarley's avatar

Shit! Now I’ve got another headache! Thanks a lot @iamthemob ! ; )

Here’s what the Electronic Frontier Foundation has to say about Net Neurtrality:

http://www.eff.org/search?text=net+neutrality

iamthemob's avatar

Me too…but it needs to be done! ;-)

jerv's avatar

@iamthemob Properly configured, buffering preloads enough of the data stream to survive a temporary loss of signal without affecting playback; if data stops streaming then it will play until the buffer is empty before failing, and if the data stream resumes before the buffer is empty then you won;t even notice unless you are watching the buffer level like a hawk.
Have you ever looked at the time bar at the bottom of many videos? On Youtube, for instance, the Seek Bar fills up faster than the video plays. Let’s say I am watching a 10-minute video. Every second, it will stream more than one second of video. If my roommate does something that clogs our data connection enough to stop the stream for a moment, I will see the red portion of the seek bar stop, but the video wil play just fine until the slider hits the end of the red bar. That is buffering.
When I lived in NH, I lived where the only option was 28.8Kbps dialup; on a good day, I could load 2.6KB/second. That connection was slow enough that the buffer would empty faster than it could fill. The only way I could stream stuff was to start it, pause it, and let it buffer for a loooooooong time; it would take me literally an hour to load a 3 minute lo-res video. Currently, I have 7Mbps DSL; almost 250 times faster, so I can stream data in faster than I need to and thus fill the buffer while playing.

You are correct that download speed has an effect, but as long as your data comes in faster than you need it, there is no issue and you can actually endure little stoppages. Data moves as fast as the slowest link in the chain. For some, that is the connection in their house, but sometimes it’s the server they are loading from and often it’s somewhere in between; in the equipment owned and maintained by the ISP. When I was in NH, the weakest link was the local telephone system which was too antiquated to even handle 56K dialup. I could tell you a few things about broadband and the phone systems in NH that, if they didn’t go over your head, would make you cringe at the degree of Epic Fail, but suffice it to say that as much as it sucked, it was/is better than some other parts of the country.. which is sad.

Other places around the world have faster, more reliable data infrastructure. Take a look at this . As that graphic shows, we are about the middle of the road when it comes to $/Mbps, but pretty damn low when it comes to average speed. Or maybe you need more proof that we lag behind

If we had the same infrastructure as many other places, we would have cheaper and faster internet; fast enough to negate teh fear-mongering the ISPs are prone to and cheap enough to be easily attainable by the richest nation on Earth.

@CaptainHarley I have long been a fan of the EFF. You ought to read about the raid on Steve Jackson Games in Austin and the resulting lawsuit that the Secret Service lost ;)

CaptainHarley's avatar

@jerv

I have been a follower ( and for a brief time, a member ) of the EFF since its inception. You have good taste! : )

Got a URL for that article??

CaptainHarley's avatar

Kewl! I vaguely remember that case, but wasn’t much into computers back then.

Thank you! : )

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