Being the CTO of Being Libertarian, an IT contractor, and a network administrator, I’ve been asked a lot about my views regarding Net Neutrality. Normally, I would say the government needs to leave the internet completely unregulated. However, much like the minimum wage argument being a side effect of government involvement in the form of the Federal Reserve, Net Neutrality is resolving a symptom of the crony capitalism of the Internet Service Provider (ISP) market.
What do I mean by this? How many ISP’s can provide the internet to your residence or business? Most people in the USA have one quality choice, two if they are lucky. I can not tell you the number of times a company has come to me for IT services and I find the ISP is just not up to par. For example, a doctor’s office I was trying to service could only get AT&T DSL at 6Mbps (and wasn’t all that stable and the fastest I could get was 12Mbps). Meanwhile, merely one mile away at my house, I was pushing 60 Mbps and could, at the time, get up to 120Mbps. My provider Wide Open West was unable to service 1 mile down the road, not because they couldn’t technologically do it, but rather because it was in another municipality and there was a whole other bunch of regulations to figure out. I was then told it would be at least 6 months and around $3,000 initial cost to be able to have them roll out to that office, for an internet that would cost a mere $40 per month but be a lot more stable. I tried calling Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum): similar result. Our only solution was AT&T or a bonded T1 or partial T3 internet at a whopping $300-$1,500 per month for what we needed. So we ended up struggling, having multiple AT&T technicians come out to rewire their and reconfigure their DSLAM’s in the area, until it was finally reasonable. We waited a whole year and a half for AT&T to finally allow 24Mbps internet in the area after the initial contact with my client to manage their network.
You’ll find this weird issue with certain ISP services ending right where a new municipality begins often. I had this issue with my favorite ISP Wide Open West. When I moved from my childhood home to another municipality a mere two miles down the road, we found that we were not able to retain their service, so we went with the more expensive AT&T U-Verse, then Insight cable, which was gobbled up by Spectrum, and we were ecstatic when 2 months after Spectrum had bought our ISP, that a W. O. W. salesman came to our door, and we jumped back into their services as we loved the quality, competitive spirit and pricing they offered. All this after almost three years because we had no choice due to where we lived.
However, W. O. W. is a unique actor; they prefer to be a smaller ISP servicing fewer areas than the big ISPs; when I asked why, they told me it’s so they can roll out more competitive technology. Which is very true, as most ISPs are now advertising 300Mbps in my area, and W. O. W. is offering up to a whopping 1,000Mbps for comparable prices. W. O. W. doesn’t put artificial data limits, a.k.a. “data caps,” and they have never once throttled my internet connection, unlike Comcast and other ISPs. Because they are trying to be competitive they even call me up or send a letter saying, “we doubled everyone’s internet speed free.” So one day I was paying the same price, but getting twice the speed I originally ordered. That’s the beauty of a competitive free market.
The situations I described are actually not all that uncommon, believe it or not. There is just an incredibly small amount of ISP competition, and sadly the amount of said competition is shrinking. Entities such as Comcast, Spectrum, and AT&T are gobbling up smaller companies, as well as making cronyist deals to ensure a monopoly or oligopoly in many areas.
I looked into what it would cost to become my own ISP and be able to run my own lines to neighbors for a fee. It was more burdensome to deal with the ISP’s to allow space and the municipalities to allow me to provide the service than it was to actually get the equipment and hardware to allow us to become our own neighborhood ISP. In fact, it’s been documented that these big ISP’s go out of their way to destroy smaller ISP’s. According to Ars Technica down in Corrigan and Weston Lakes, Texas, a small ISP with 229 customers was destroyed.
“Telecom Cable LLC had “229 satisfied customers” in Weston Lakes and Corrigan, Texas when Comcast and its contractors sabotaged its network, the lawsuit filed last week in Harris County District Court said.
Comcast had tried to buy Telecom Cable’s Weston Lakes operations in 2013 “but refused to pay what they were worth,” the complaint says. Starting in June 2015, Comcast and two contractors it hired “systematically destroyed Telecom’s business by cutting its lines and running off its customers,” the lawsuit says. Comcast destroyed or damaged the lines serving all Telecom Cable customers in Weston Lakes and never repaired them, the lawsuit claims.
Luna says he did not oppose Comcast’s entry into Weston Lakes. Before Comcast began construction, Telecom Cable “made special efforts to mark its lines and equipment to prevent any inadvertent damage. Using an RF modulated transmitter and inductive connection to the cable, Mr. Luna located Telecom’s underground lines and marked the lines with industry-standard orange paint, as well as ‘buried cable ﬂags’ for prompt and easy identiﬁcation,” the complaint says. “Mr. Luna also mailed a map of Telecom’s system to the Director of Construction at Comcast’s Tidwell ofﬁce.”
But then Luna was notified of service outages and “rushed to the job site” where he “found his severed mainline cable” along with Comcast contractors who were installing their own cable, the complaint says.
“The foreman acknowledged that Telecom’s cables had been marked—freshly marked, in fact—but the crew had inexplicably ignored the markings, purportedly because they assumed that the fresh orange paint marked an ‘abandoned’ cable plant,” the complaint says.
Luna says he repaired his own company’s cable and then made “futile” attempts to contact Comcast and a Comcast contractor.”
At the end of the ordeal, customers jumped ship and went to Comcast due to the amount of time it would take to repair the mainline. So, when you read stories like this, it’s kind of scary for the small ISP market, and understand why, between being gigantic enterprises and using these shady tactics, it’s no wonder competition is shrinking instead of growing.
But a large part of it is due to a large number of regulatory issues: not enough protections for the small ISP’s, and too many regulations that make it too difficult to enter the market, which amounts to cronyism in many local markets. Don’t believe me? Look up how many Internet Service Providers are in your area using www.broadbandnow.com, then look up the reviews for the ISP listed. Are the reviews on sites like www.dslreports.com, positive or negative? How do your neighbors, especially those more tech savvy, feel about the ISP? Is your ISP the butt of many jokes with your IT friends (sorry, Comcast subscribers).
We simply don’t have enough competition in most markets. That’s why ISP’s like Comcast can have such negative press regarding their customer service, even having quite a few reach national attention in the USA, and yet they are still able to retain their business. If we could go back to where there were many ISPs competing with each other just trying to give their users the best product possible, just like it was when my father first hooked up a 256Kbps DSL line and put filters on our phones in the late 90’s or early 2000’s when we finally got rid of dial-up, we wouldn’t have these issues of Net Neutrality, because having a neutral network would have been a no-brainer. Now that we have a small number of gigantic ISPs, we have to worry about things such as data caps, bandwidth throttling, and fast lanes for certain ISPs. All in all, I reluctantly support Net Neutrality for technological reasons rather than ideological ones. It treats the symptom but not the cause of the problem.