To say at this point that the internet is ubiquitous is an understatement. What began as a function largely only used by the government and military, then was derided as a “temporary fad”, is now considered a milestone of human achievement. More importantly, nearly every part of life in the modern world involves the internet in some way. Job applications, civil engagement, and financial matters are all handled online. However, while the place the internet has in our society is irrefutable, there remains a great deal of controversy over how it should be managed. In the past few years the debate over “net neutrality”, the idea that the internet should be regulated in the same way public utilities are, has come to the forefront of American politics. This idea, and the debate it spurred, offers an interesting proposition to planners; if the internet is a utility, what part do planers have to play in ensuring it’s efficient and equitable dispersal? To begin a discussion on that question, which very well may come to the forefront of the planning profession in the coming years, we must look at the arguments of both sides on the net neutrality debate, not to mention research on the concept of “public internet”, and use these sometimes disparate views and arguments to form a cohesive base from which to launch future discussion on. The internet is here, and it’s time for planners to step into the ring on how it should be handled.
Of course, one cannot begin to discuss the debate around net neutrality without first defining what it is as a concept. This especially important given the amount of misinformation that had tainted the ongoing debate. This applies to both sides, with those for claiming that without net neutrality corporations would be able to organize websites into “premium packages” like cable providers do with movie channels. Meanwhile, those against claim codifying net neutrality into law would give the government unchecked ability to censor and control the internet. Both extremes are damaging to a reasonable discussion on the future of the internet, whether as a public utility or remaining a privately provided service. In an article for the journal Review of Industrial Organization in 2017, Keith N. Hylton gives a succinct definition of net neutrality as a regulatory norm in which, “Providers of content transported through the networks of broadband internet firms cannot be charged different prices by the broadband firms for the service of transporting their content.” To give an example, a streaming website such as Netflix could not be charged more by ISPs, even though their content puts more strain on the ISP to transport to the user. This extends equally to smaller websites, such as free image hosting sites, which also can be more strenuous than other sites. The intention of this is to prevent ISPs from throttling, or slowing down, the flow of data to websites that are unable to afford additional charges.
While the current debate often frames this as a new concept, in truth the precedent for Net Neutrality began in 1960s. At the time, AT&T held a monopoly over communications in the U.S. and had a philosophy of exerting total control over what was on their network. Nixon’s FCC was concerned that they would hinder competition from up and coming companies that ran on their network, or that they would take up predatory business practices against those using their network since there is no alternative. By 1976, the FCC had prepared a basic set of guidelines in dealing with such situations. These rules, known as the “Computer Inquiries”, were mainly designed to protect those on the network from those running the network (Wu, 2017). This acted as the running precedent for the FCC’s decisions regarding communications technology, including the internet. However, this did not stop ISPs from attempting to find ways to circumvent this precedent, which came to a head in 2015 in which Comcast as well as other ISPs attempted to force Netflix and other streaming services to pay more due to the high strain of the data they sent on their networks. The response by Obama-era FCC chair Tom Wheeler, following wide-spread public outcry, was to codify and strengthen the existing precedent, giving net-neutrality the force of law. These laws were summarily repealed in 2017 by current FCC chair Ajit Pai. That is where the current state of net neutrality lies on the federal level. However, several states have begun taking measures to preserve the net neutrality rules within their jurisdiction, and a legal battle is expected over this before long.
This tumultuous history in mind, one can begin to analyze the current state of the debate on net neutrality, and moreover how it relates to the concept of the internet as a public utility. A poll conducted by The Hill in 2017 found that 83 percent of voters were in favor of maintaining the FCC’s net neutrality policies, rather than overturn them as chairman Pai eventually did. The argument for this repeal, its supports claim, is rooted in economics rather than any political alignment. Supporters of the repeal, including Ajit Pai, pointed to a perceived lack of economic consideration at the FCC, feeling that prior to enacting the net neutrality policies, the commission had not done enough to consider the economic ramifications of their decision.
However, in response to this, and in particular to an article often cited by Pai, college professors Dwayne Winseck and Jefferson Pooley refute this claim. In 2017 their article for the International Journal of Communication, entitled “A Curious Tale of Economics and Common Carriage (Net Neutrality) at the FCC: A Reply to Faulhaber, Singer, and Urschel”, they review how the previous FCC under chairman Wheeler’s consideration of economic issues, including during the implementation of their net neutrality policies. In it, they point out that while the FCC under Wheeler had moved away from releasing economic analysis reports as the prior FCC had done in spades, these had been replaced with other means of outreach and analysis that are quite familiar to planners; workshops, seminars, and round tables. They also point out that prior to Pai taking over, the FCC employed sixty economists, alongside consultants and federally funded economic think-tanks. With his in mind, the common claim that the FCC somehow neglected to consider economic ramifications in 2015 does not hold much merit.
Opponents of net neutrality have also argued that such policies would harm the profitability of ISPs. In a 2015 paper for the Journal of Regulatory Economics, Joshua Gans analyzed the effects of both “weak” and “strong” net neutrality regulation, relative to how surplus funds would be allocated and its effects on investment in both ISPs and content providers (CPs). Ultimately it was found that under net neutrality, surplus is moved to CPs, while investment in both ISPs and CPs is unchanged. Taking this paper on its own, one could jump to the conclusion that net neutrality opponents don’t have a leg to stand on. However, to do so would be to vastly oversimplify the debate. A single study does not completely disprove the point of opponents of net Neutrality, nor does it automatically corroborate the arguments of net neutrality proponents.
Proponents of Net Neutrality often make an argument both from an economic angle, and a social welfare one. From the economic side, the argument is that net neutrality promotes competition and dissuades monopolies, as the Nixon-era communications rules were intended to. From a social welfare standpoint, the argument is that net neutrality prevents predatory business practices on the part of the ISP against CPs. The argument against this from those against net neutrality, of course, is that competition among ISPs will prevent such practices, and rather than implementing net neutrality the focus of the FCC should be to fight monopolies, instead of regulating how they do business. These arguments have, likewise, been held under a professional scope, and show, perhaps unsurprisingly, that neither side is entirely correct.
Regarding the argument that net neutrality will protect content providers, a 2017 article in Management Information Systems Quarterly examines the effects of competition between content providers and ISPs under Net Neutrality conditions. Authors Guo, Bandyopadhyay, Lim, Yeng, and Chang sought to find out if Net Neutrality as it is currently understood in the U.S. would really benefit content providers in the way that its proponents and previous research suggest it would, or if ISP competition on its own would be able to serve that purpose. To do this, they created a game-theory model by which to simulate the actions of ISPs and their consumers. What they found is that under “packet discrimination”, the proposed alternative to net neutrality in which ISPs can charge based on their impact on the network, ISPs and the more dominant CPs are ultimately better off. However, smaller CPs, they found, typically have higher profits under net neutrality than packet discrimination. However, they found something else that flies in the face of one of the key arguments of Net Neutrality proponents: according to their model, social welfare is reduced under net neutrality.
They are not the only ones to come to this conclusion. A number of other studies have been conducted that find similar results, some of which cited by Guo et al. in their own paper. Meanwhile, others have argued that any social welfare gains that might result from net neutrality can also be gained through modification of the packet discrimination model, without any of the unintended consequences that may stem from Net Neutrality. This argument is debatable, as one can also point out unintended consequences of packet discrimination (the possibility of censorship, for one), however it does make it clear that those for net neutrality are not entirely in the right either.
Where do planners fall into this debate, then? Or should they even have a place? After all, one can argue that the realm of urban planners is not information technology, but that of transportation, housing, and utilities. However, as the debate about how much the government should regulate information technology goes on, the concept of the internet being treated as a public good comes more and more into focus. As early as 2002, the concept the internet being treated as a public utility, in the same vein as water or electricity, has been a topic of discussion. Writing for IEEE Communications Magazine that year, Thomas M. Chen lays out how he envisions such an evolution of the internet. In his vision of the future, internet access points are as ubiquitous as an electrical outlet, and just as convenient to use, requiring no complicated set-up. Obviously, he could not have envisioned wi-fi, but it meets his description almost perfectly. Regarding the net neutrality debate, he also provides an interesting insight, envisioning a system by which both public and private ISPs coexist in the same market. Public ISPs would provide the baseline services, whereas private ISPs would provide specialized and competitive service, such as high-speed internet.
While the idea of a public internet service may bring to mind the infamous “great firewall of China”, this new take on net neutrality, concocted years before the term entered the public vocabulary, provides planners something to think about. In a day and age where the United Nations has called access to the internet a human right, and more and more social justice organizations such as Pacific Standard call for the internet to be made a public good, planners will inevitably have to weigh in, just as this line of thinking will inevitably create a new dimension in the net neutrality debate.
If such a policy were to be adopted, what would it look like. In his article, Cheng described a system of ISPs that operate similarly to power plants, providing service for large areas from fixed locations. To continue that analogy, the means of connecting to this network would take the role of power lines and outlets. However, what should be used for this? There is of course, the obvious answer. A series of publicly run and operated wireless routers, providing city-wide wi-fi.
However, there are flaws with this, specifically for those in rural areas, or those in areas where wireless connection is difficult even under the best circumstances. On the other hand, Cheng’s original vision, that of ethernet cables being installed in homes and public places the same way outlets are, is also an option. However, this would require a far more expansive reworking of existing structures and would only be efficient if added to new buildings, or would require homeowners to pay for it themselves. Obviously, this would negatively affect lower income people, who ironically would stand to benefit most from public internet. In addition, there would be the issue of “selling” the idea of internet as a utility to the public and finding ways to assuage fears of China-esque censorship. In finding a new option in the net neutrality debate, a host of other debates and considerations appear. All of which would fall into the wheelhouse of the planner, from finding the most efficient method to implement the new framework, to advocating for the less fortunate to reap the benefits.
The net neutrality debate is not, as Chairman Pai might have hope for, finished. Just recently California joined a number of other states in setting their own net neutrality rules, even stricter than those implemented by the Wheeler FCC. However, when considering this debate, planners should look ahead, to see where it may eventually lead. If, as Cheng argued in his paper, the internet is inevitably heading towards becoming a public good, then it is up to planners to step into the ring and begin to prepare for when it happens. If we do not open up discussion now, then we run the risk of being unprepared for the next evolution of the internet, and with it, our digital society.