Net Neutrality: The Story of The Seven Pipes

1/13/10Follow @rowe

Today at 4:30 at the Media Lab’s Bartos Theatre, the FCC will hold a public workshop to discuss net neutrality policy. What is the importance of net neutrality to the innovation community?

We can learn a great deal about this by examining the stories of the seven pipes going into most American homes. Most homes are connected to pipes that carry water, electricity, telephony, cable TV, sewer, gas and Internet. (You can think of the Internet as a separate pipe, anyway, even though it usually comes in over the cable or telephone line.) Yet only one of these pipes has historically offered everyone the chance to innovate on top of it. We should be able to learn something about the importance of open innovation by examining the “innovation histories” of these seven pipes.

Lets start with water, gas, and sewer. Perhaps Xconomy readers can point out some innovation in the last couple of decades in these areas. There sure aren’t many.

How about electricity, telephony and cable TV? These sectors often sport a degree of competition, usually with two to three players offering alternatives in each geographic market. But competition is not the same as open innovation. Electric utilities, for example, have struggled for years to broadly adopt a single modest innovation: the ability to pour power back into the grid. Telephony saw some minor innovations about 20 years ago—things like caller ID and *69—but nothing since. Cable TV saw the addition of a few more channels, and a few more pixels, but nothing that fundamentally expands what it does for us.

And then there is the Internet. Open competition on the Internet “pipe” has spawned so much innovation that industries are being turned upside down. Ask folks in the music, news, broadcast media, and telephony industries, to name a few. Have you been to a travel agency recently? How often do you physically walk into a bank? Many people believe the Internet changed the course of the most recent Presidential election. Oh, and it has placed the greater part of all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Enough said.

Some might say this comparison is unfair—that the other pipes could never have had this kind of impact. Of course, we’ll never know. But if you think that this level of innovation could have been achieved if the Internet were, like the other pipes, managed by a single large, benevolent service provider, one need look no farther than AOL to see what that really did look like.

In the early days, AOL was the Internet, except that it was under the aegis of a single, large, benevolent service provider. And AOL was great. We all remember chat rooms. But there is no comparison between the innovation AOL spawned and what the “open Internet” would later bring.

Companies providing Internet service would like to be able to control what flows on our Internet pipes, giving preference to their own services, and squelching others’ offerings. That would be a recipe for turning the Internet back into AOL. Recently, the FCC has started to put in place policies to prevent that. Let’s support this move. We don’t want a future in which the Internet pipe works like the other pipes.

Xconomist Tim Rowe is Founder and CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center. Follow @rowe

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  • http://www.cictr.com Tim Rowe

    At last night’s FCC forum Stanford Law School professor Barbara van Schewick delivered a brilliant, clear presentation on this topic. Unfortunately, I can’t find a copy of it online.

    One of her key points: without net neutrality, network providers choose the applications that can be provided by innovators and exposed to users. While network providers may have good ideas, and often good intentions, they only have a few ideas, and their decisions will be colored by their own view of the world (e.g. bias toward profitability, bias toward avoiding overlap with other services they provide, etc.).

    This results in a stilted world not unlike my AOL example. In a net-neutrality world, innovators *independently* choose what services to offer (however crazy they may sound), and users independently choose which they actually want to use. She argues that the network providers can never match this.

    If someone comes across a link to Barbara’s presentation at last night’s FCC forum, please post the link. It does a much better job than I could at presenting these arguments.

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  • http://www.integral-networks.co.uk Network Cabling

    Thanks for this – a really interesting read. Its funy when you look back, AOL really WAS the internet!