Forget Net Neutrality — What About Net Vitality?

April 27, 2015

I published the following on Forbes 4/24/15:

It’s been a pretty robust one-two punch for advocates of net neutrality lately. First they won a resounding victory at the Federal Communications Commission, and now a TKO of the ComcastTime Warner Cable merger (I’ll have more to say on that later). But if you’re an Internet consumer rather than policymaker or pundit, do we really know how much better or worse the Internet actually will operate now?

One of the frustrations I have had in the fight over net neutrality is that somehow net neutrality itself seems to have become the ends, and not the means. Pro-net neutrality advocates declared the day that the Federal Communications Commission adopted its net neutrality rulemaking as “Internet Freedom Day.” But it felt to me a lot like George W. Bush standing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln under a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished” ten years before U.S. combat troops left Iraq. Sorry, buddy, not quite done yet.

I have expressed my doubts previously whether net neutrality (or more accurately “Title II” common carrier regulation) is the answer for our Internet future, given the barren history of Title II regulation to spur innovation or creative investment in telecommunications. But far more importantly, I’m concerned that net neutrality’s shock troops (now joined if not led by the FCC) aren’t even looking at the right maps on their mission. And a fascinating new study might provide some of the fodder for more holistically defining the true measure of a healthy Internet.

Today The Media Institute is releasing a new study from Harvard Law Professor and longtime communications policy expert Stuart Brotman which uses what he calls the “Net Vitality Index” to assess the success of the Internet sector on a country-by-country basis.  The study is based on five years of research and identifies 52 factors developed independently as a means of evaluating the world’s leading countries in the Internet “ecosystem.” Brotman’s scorecard rates the “top tier” of world leaders in “Net Vitality” as the United States, South Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom, and France.  This holistic rating is linked to an assessment of not only Internet network speeds, but the relative dynamism of Internet applications, content and devices as well.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 21: John Oliver attends the TIME 100 Gala, TIME’s 100 Most Influential People In The World at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 21, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for TIME)

Conventional wisdom, which has driven a fair amount of the debate on net neutrality, is that the U.S. is woefully behind much of the developed world in the quality of its Internet service. But those rankings tend to focus myopically on broadband speeds, in which the U.S. has rated no better than 10th according to some surveys, lagging behind even Latvia and the Czech Republic. The Media Institute study, based on publicly available data from sources like the United Nations, The World Economic Forum, Gartner and others, suggests that that assessment should be more multi-faceted. Brotman places the United States among the world top tier of world leaders even on network quality, and in fact rates the U.S. as first in the world in categories such as investment in telecommunications as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, cybersecurity, and network readiness. All of these are criteria that are critical to the functioning of a successful Internet market, and should logically be considered by policymakers and market observers in assessing how “good” our telecommunications networks are operating in the U.S. And all of this has taken place in a world without common carrier regulation.

Of even greater importance in the study is the work that moves beyond the networks themselves to apps and devices. As the study recognizes, “the value of broadband is realized when it delivers useful applications and content to end-users.” And of course, those applications and content are only accessible through innovative devices, with increasingly complex capabilities. As Brotman points out to me,  how can you measure the health of the Internet without taking into account the contributions of Google, Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, and Instagram among many other app and/or device innovators? Yet somehow all of this extraordinary creativity has taken place in a world without net neutrality’s heavy regulatory hand. For those who remember the emergence of cable television, could you imagine trying to assess the value of cable to the public in the 1980s or 1990s without evaluating the contributions of ESPN, CNN, Disney, Discovery, or The Weather Channel? Does that make any sense?

So what do we do with the Net Vitality Index? As a threshold matter, Brotman hopes that it will help broaden the conversation about how we assess how well the Internet market is operating in the U.S. and globally. Brotman has surfaced his findings not only in the U.S. but in international symposia from Vienna to Dohar, Qatar and there is a great deal of interest in the framework. And I share Brotman’s hope that we absorb and synthesize these real-world facts into a thoughtful political apparatus that closes the gap between what Brotman calls “political time” and “business time.” The Internet in the U.S. is and has been plenty “vital” and can continue to be as it undergoes constant and rapid change. Can policymakers move as fast and as smartly as that market?

About the Author

Howard Homonoff is a media executive, management consultant, lawyer, and academic.

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