There is perhaps no telecommunications policy issue as contentious, or as poorly understood, as the issue of broadband network management. At the most basic level this issue boils down to a technical one: do modern broadband networks need to be “managed” by ISPs, or will big “dumb” pipes suffice in ensuring a high quality broadband experience?
Unfortunately, to date this debate has been little informed by knowledge of exactly how advanced networks and the different types of applications that run on them work. In a new report, A Policymaker’s Guide to Network Management, ITIF Senior Analyst George Ou explains how advanced networks actually work and documents how, if ISPs are to provide customers a good Internet service and operate their networks efficiently, they must be able to allocate bandwidth between users and apply network management tools to shape traffic from multiple applications. However, Ou argues that ISPs can and should do this in a fair and non-discriminatory manner.
Unfortunately, these solutions have come under heavy criticism from many advocates of net neutrality who long for the idealized golden days of the early “dumb” Internet that, in fact, never was. They fear that using efficient network management techniques may enable the network operators to abuse their power, stifling free speech and civic expression and erecting unfair barriers to new market entrants. Moreover, some net neutrality proponents fear that any improvement in the efficiency of the Internet will eliminate the motivation of ISPs to build bigger pipes. However, many if not most of these fears stem from a lack of understanding of the history of the Internet, the economics of the ISP industry, and the science of network engineering.