Net neutrality plan would lead to two-speed internet: Don Pittis

The FCC's recent musings on ending net neutrality could spell the end of what makes the internet great — that it's an all-you-can-eat buffet for some, but an occasional delicacy for others, Don Pittis writes.
Joey Chestnut holds the world record for eating 69 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Gluttony like that is a decent analogy for internet bandwidth, which is an all-you-can-eat buffet for some but an occasional treat for others, Don Pittis writes. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

There is a moment in most people's lives when all-you-can-eat restaurants lose their appeal. For some, it's knowing that too much food is a bigger problem than too little. For the better off, it's being able to afford to buy what they like, when they like.

Eating out becomes a matter of quality, not quantity. Since it became popular at the end of the last century, the internet has been a bit like an all-you-can-eat restaurant. This week it looks like the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, America's equivalent of Canada's CRTC, wants to change that.

Of course it is easy to carry the analogy too far, but essentially, all-you-can-eat is only rarely an effective market strategy. As a business plan, it only works under a certain set of conditions.

My teenage son and his pack of eight-foot-tall friends occasionally head out for the all-you-can-eat experience. For the most part, they are always hungry and always a little short of money. When that group walks in the door, all-you-can-eat restaurant owners must cringe. If everyone who bellies up to the food bar is an eight-foot-tall teenager, the restaurant owner will go broke.

So one condition of all-you-can-eat is that while some eat inhuman quantities, others must eat less than the price of admission, effectively subsidizing the big eaters.

'Commercially reasonable' fees

Overall the food must be cheap to serve, so eaters must be filed past the troughs in large number. And it must be cheap to make, which generally means it is not of the very highest quality. The FCC's plan is still not clear. Despite a clarifying blog from the commission chair Tom Wheeler, only commissioners have seen the proposals, and they got them just yesterday.

But it appears the FCC is caving in to pressure from the high-end specialty restaurants who want to squeeze out all-you-can-eat and offer caviar and champagne and choice cuts of beef to those who can afford to pay more. For those of us who can afford it, this may not be a bad plan. Generally, our problem is that we get too much internet rather than too little. Under the new plan, we can afford to buy luxury services like Apple speciality TV if we want them.

At the same time the telecom and cable companies who provide the pipeline will get paid "commercially reasonable" fees for the bandwidth they provide. In the past, they have complained that too many of the companies that use their pipelines have been like eight-foot tall teenagers, gobbling up bandwidth, subsidized by everyone else.

So much for the well-off. But while the giant service providers and the well-heeled service consumers may benefit from a two-speed service, this is not where the true innovation of the web has happened.

Just as my son and his friends are vigorous enough to take advantage of all-you-can-eat restaurants, it is the young and relatively poor who have always been at the leading edge of the all-you-can-eat internet.

It is kids in the glow of screens sending reams of data. And it has been the small companies without Apple-sized budgets that have continually transformed the web into something new and wonderful.

The FCC, and countries like Canada that will inevitably follow them, must be wary of creating a two-price system that will kill the culture that made the internet great.


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.


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