Despite the efforts to make common carriage and structural separation of wholesale and retail services a forbidden topic of discussion (go read the piece Greg Rose and I wrote last year on how industry rationalizes policy by controlling the debate), the old and highly successful idea of structural separation for carriers continues to undergo a significant revival. For starters, the Europeans have recently embraced structural separation as a policy goal, and have consequently begun kicking our rear ends in broadband speed, price and overall adoption. For another, some of us do not forget that structural separation used to be the law under the Computer Proceedings, and that this old form of open access is what gave us the internet in the first place. Finally, the argument advanced that simply because we have more providers in the market, the underlying rationale for structural separation goes away, as always struck me as poor policy driven by ideology.
I am pleased to see that David Weinberg has now written this excellent piece on structural separation. This marks the second internet “thought leader” to offer well-written and challenging pieces pleading the case of structural separation, the first being David Isenberg’s Making Network Neutrality Sustainable. Both these authors make the case for the next logical step in the Network Neutrality fight — going back to a set of rules that will prevent the network operators from interfering with the content that flows over the network by altering the economic incentives of the carriers.
Not surprisingly, we can anticipate two responses, the standard antiregulatory response (“Regulation is bad, hmmmmmmKay….Cause, if you do the regulation, then, that’d be government, and big government is bad, hmmmmmmKay….so regulation is bad, hmmmmmKay……”) and the economic response about how such a scheme destroys producer incentives so networks don’t get built. The chief problem with the producer incentive argument, however, is that the empirical evidence in Europe and Asia appears to prove the opposite case: a combination of structural separation and government subsidy facilitates deployment and maximizes incentives and revenue throughout the value chain, while focusing strictly on incentives for core network providers (e.g., the AT&T’s and Comcasts of the world) produces inferior results by every metric other than network operator profits.
My key takeaway here is that we continue to see a revitalized public policy debate that moves beyond the timid counsels of the edge-based industry players who define their “ask” in terms of what the incumbents have defined as possible, and despite every effort by the incumbents and their supporters to convince the broader public that “network neutrality” is dead and lawmakers should not worry their pretty little heads about it. Yes, we are in a legislative lull at the moment, as the public policy pendulum swings away from the incumbents and towards a more aggressive public policy more in line with the broadband success stories of Europe and Asia. But as Weinberg and Isenberg have shown, the public education and public debate remains quiet lively and continues to advance.
Stay tuned . . . .