Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Net Neutrality: David Versus Goliath?

I was thinking about words and names and it occurred to me how misleading they can be. Social Security is a good one. Who feels secure about their retirement years because of the Social Security checks they may or may not receive? It should have been called Pin Money or maybe Chump Change. It is a damn shame that so many people will retire with little in the bank and must rely on so-called Social Security.

And then there is Net Neutrality. At first I thought NN had something to do with not touching the badminton net. Then I realized it had something to do with the Internet, and it made total sense – the Internet should be neutral. The Internet should not be for or against Tom Brady. But then I read on and realized NN is all about a war between ISPs (Internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T) and all those content providers (like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and thousands of others).

The issue took on significance when President Obama’s FCC initiated a rule that concluded that Internet service is a basic need. It’s like weed – we all need a little from time to time. No, that’s not true. It is like the pavement between your house and your job. We all need to get to work. Your sexy neighbor with the big smile and hot red car should not have better access to that concrete than you. Be proud of that Lada and drive it right down the middle of the road!

The FCC enacted the Open Internet Order in 2015 to treat Internet service more like a road or a public utility. And thus the issue got hot. President Trump’s FCC reopened the case and is wondering what to do about it, so it is approaching a boiling point. I like the article I just found by Nelson Granados https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/nelsongranados/2017/05/31/the-net-neutrality-debate-why-there-is-no-simple-solution/&refURL=&referrer= ) 

The article is pretty unbiased as indicated by the title – The Net Neutrality Debate: Why There is No Simple Solution. Granados concludes that NN is much like any government regulation – the basic premise might be correct but the unintended side-effects need to be considered. On the one hand, the right amount of NN means more fairness to content providers. Too much NN means a lack of progress, investment, and innovation on the part of ISPs.

When Granados says there is no easy solution, he basically means it is not easy to find the exact point of net benefit to society with NN. As in many cases, the answer lies not in the perception of government versus the company but rather impacts on one set of companies (and consumers) versus another set of companies. As you can imagine, both sets of companies are lobbying the government when it comes to NN. The ISPs (e.g. Comcast, Verizon, AT&T) want lighter regulation. The content providers (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Netflix, and many more) want tougher regulations.

In this blog post today I don’t pretend to know enough about which side is right. Perhaps you will educate me. But what I do think is curious is how many people are phrasing this as a David (content providers) versus Goliath (ISPs) confrontation. And of course, we are supposed to favor tiny sweet David over huge ugly Goliath. So today’s post is a look at the relative size and wealth of some of these companies.

I got the data from the Internet and mostly from Forbes.com. Most of it is for year 2016. So here goes…CP means content provider and ISP means Internet Service Provider.

The largest companies in terms of market value are CPs – Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook. The largest ISP (AT&T) is valued at $255 billion with Verizon at $199 billion. The main point here is that there is no David and no Goliath if the biggest CPs are duking it out with the largest ISPs.

I will admit that this data may be misleading. For example, saying that AT&T is a CP might be misleading because it operates in numerous business activities. The same goes for Alphabet which owns Google. But the data are relevant in the sense that these companies lobby, and the entire wealth/sales of the company is an indicator of what they are capable of spending on government support. The column presenting each company's sales data is not more helpful in the David/Goliath breakdown. ISPs AT&T and Verizon have huge sales but so does CP Amazon.

I had a limited purpose today. NN is not a David/Goliath story. It is more a government regulation story. We consumers don't really care who wins but we want two things. We want continued investment and innovation from the Internet. We also want fairness in the sense that some content providers are not elbowed out of competition simply because they are friends with the right people. We want our Internet cake and we want to eat it too. Hopefully a public discussion will move the regulatory needle so we at least get a nice brownie with some ice cream on top of it. 

                                             Sales      Market
                                             $Bil        $Bil
CP          Alphabet                90         583
CP          Amazon               136         423
CP          Facebook               28         411
ISP         AT&T                  164         255
ISP         Verizon                126         199
ISP         Comcast                 80         178
ISP         Charter                   29         101
CP          Priceline                 11          88
CP          Netflix                      9          64
CP          Salesforce                8           58

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