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Home » Digital Divide » Net Neutrality On Demand?

By: Jason Llorenz, HTTP Executive Director

The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter recently called for a more aggressive interpretation of the Federal Communications Commission’s “net neutrality” rules.The particular issue Mr. Porter addresses is Comcast’s development of a new way to access “on-demand” cable programming through the Xbox gaming console, just as they would on the more traditional “cable box.” Porter thinks the government should force cable broadband providers to count these videos against any data “cap” a provider institutes in order to manage traffic and congestion on their networks (Comcast, for instance, now has a 300 gigabyte monthly cap).

The perverse reasoning of “net neutrality” purists is that permitting viewers to watch on-demand video on third party devices like the Xbox without it counting against the data cap will give Comcast an unfair advantage over Internet video companies like Netflix. But this is hardly an apples-to-apples comparison.

As the FCC said in 2010, net neutrality rules are intended to protect the freedom of the public Internet, preventing discrimination against “unaffiliated” bits of data, or data not related to the broadband provider. But unlike its Xfinity Online service, which uses the public Internet and counts against its customers’ data caps, Comcast’s Xbox on-demand service isn’t using the Internet. Instead, the company has essentially extended the reach of its traditional cable network to a new device. In its net neutrality rules, the FCC specifically exempted “managed services” like traditional cable video and telephone service to promote this type of innovation.

Mr. Porter’s opposition to this new offering is risky. If broadband providers are forced to count cable video service against the data cap, families will be forced to constrain their use only because of a government-imposed rule. Worse, if that useage counts against a cap (not all cable providers offer a full 300 GB per month), this could push a family toward, or over, their monthly cap, and in danger of overage fees. This is precisely the kind of regressive cost shifting that HTTP and others have urged the FCC to avoid.

Access to broadband, and expanding digital literacy are among the keys to economic progress for the Hispanic community. Of course, companies like Netflix would greatly benefit if the government forces families to pay more for a competitor’s service. While we all share the goal of an open, transparent Internet, getting the details wrong could create new cost barriers for families — especially more cost-sensitve, less broadband-enabled Hispanics.

Jason A. Llorenz, Esq. is Executive Director, the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP). Follow on Twitter: @hispanicttp.

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