While Title II is the best net neutrality option available in the face of a lumbering broadband duopoly, it still doesn’t fix the fact that the vast majority of customers only have the choice of one or two broadband options. It’s this lack of competition that not only results in net neutrality violations (as customers can’t vote down stupid ISP behavior with their wallet), but the higher prices and abysmal customer service so many of us have come to know and love. Stripping away protectionist state laws can help a little, as can the slow rise of services like Google Fiber. But even these efforts can only go so far in blowing up a broadband duopoly, pampered through regulatory capture and built up over a generation of campaign contributions.
One solution is the return to the country’s barely-tried implementation of unbundling and network open access, or requiring that the nation’s subsidy-slathered monopolists open their networks to allow other competitors to come in and compete. There are many variations of this concept, and it’s something Google Fiber promised in its markets before backing away from it (much like their vocal support of net neutrality). Obviously being forced to compete is an immensely unpopular concept for the nation’s incumbent ISPs. Given that those companies dictate and often literally write the nation’s telecom laws, these requirements were eliminated in a number of policies moves starting in 2001 and culminating in the FCC’s Triennial Review Remand Order of 2004 (pdf).
This was amazingly presented at the time as a way to improve competition and spur investment, but primarily resulted in a bloodbath as dozens of consumer-friendly, smaller independent ISPs and CLECs were killed off, perpetuating and further cementing the noncompetitive duopoly we have today.
One of the few small ISPs to manage to run that gauntlet and survive it was California’s Sonic.Net, which has since proceeded to not only build a sizable regional network of its own in California, but to manage to treat consumers well while doing it (Sonic has been praised by the EFF repeatedly for consumer-friendly data disclosure policies). In a blog post last week, Sonic.net CEO Dane Jasper notes that neutrality issues are just a symptom of the lack of competition, and to fix these we’re going to need to start thinking differently:
“Lets call it like it is: in most of America, we’ve got a broadband duopoly at best. And it’s simple economic theory and best-practice capitalism that in an unregulated near-monopoly, you will see manifestations of policies, practices and behaviors that are not always customer friendly. If we accept that high speed Internet access is essential for modern life, the fact that we need a set of controls that assure that an entrenched operator won’t use their captive audience in an unreasonable way shouldn’t come as a surprise.