Muni broadband can defend net neutrality, but winning isn’t guaranteed

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Net neutrality and municipal broadband are two separate issues that overlap in a couple of ways. First, there’s an assumption that muni broadband systems will abide by net neutrality principles, even if not required (but there’s a bill in the California legislature, AB 1999, that would require it). It’s an easy pledge to make now, but it’s not a certainty that muni systems could or would swim against the financial tide if the economics of the business changes significantly.

And the economic structure of the Internet will continue to change, as it has for the past thirty years. Small broadband providers, muni or not, only control traffic up to a certain point. Traffic could be shaped, throttled, blocked or prioritised on the other side of that point, reducing the value of a neutral last mile. Another consideration is the value of privileged access to users, particularly by content providers that rely on advertising. Sharing that revenue could make it possible for big, non-neutral incumbents to drive down the retail price of Internet service, making it impossible for independents to compete on the basis of virtue alone.

Another area where net neutrality and muni broadband overlap is on the political side. The big incumbents – cable and telco – lobby hard against muni broadband in both Sacramento and Washington. Those same lobbyists are working against net neutrality, and paying large amounts of money to legislators who are involved with both issues. There’s a similar, parallel effort to influence state and federal regulators.

There isn’t the same unity – throw weight, I’d call it – on the other side. There’s a core of people who care equally about freedom to use the Internet and freedom to provide the service, but for the most part advocates are involved with one issue or the other. When end-of-the-session horse trading begins, it’ll be much easier for cable’s and telco’s unified, deep pocketed lobbying fronts to cut a deal. Whether their passion is muni broadband or net neutrality, separate, single issue groups will not be happy with the result.