Study: Net neutrality end would curb broadband advances

Researchers assert that ending Net neutrality would discourage improvements in Internet service

University of Florida researchers using game theory analysis recently found that ending Net neutrality would discourage improvements in Internet service to allow high-quality applications such as IPTV. The results are also contrary to claims by some industry groups lobbying Congress on Net neutrality.

Researchers Kenneth Cheng and Subhajyoti Bandyopadhyay spent six months researching two questions: Who would be the winners and losers if Congress abandoned Net neutrality? And would the demise of Net neutrality give broadband Internet service providers greater incentives to expand capacity?

"Conventional wisdom dictates that if ISPs were allowed to charge more [to content providers such as Google and Yahoo], there would be more incentive to expand their service capabilities," Cheng said in an interview. "It turns out that this is not the case."

The researchers concluded their study earlier this month and presented the findings at three academic conferences, said Cheng, an associate professor in the university's department of decision and information sciences in Gainesville, Fla. He said the study was "pure academic research" and was not funded by any lobbying or industry group, including those party to the hotly contested debate before Congress.

Bills on both sides of the issue are pending, including legislation backed by industry groups that would allow Internet providers to charge content providers such as Google and Yahoo, giving them preferential treatment in return. Opponents back legislation to set the current practice of Net neutrality into law, ensuring that Internet providers could not block or degrade services or favor one site over another.

The U.S. House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing last Wednesday in which Democrats criticized the Federal Communications Commission members and called for stronger Net neutrality rules at the FCC. The debate has gone on for at least three years, but has been enlivened since Democrats took control of Congress in January.

When the research project was first conceived, Cheng said he and his co-researcher had theorized the opposite would happen from what their findings revealed. "We were surprised by the results. We had to check if there were any mistakes in the math, and so we checked and re-checked and math doesn't lie," he said. In the end, the findings are "quite intuitive," he added.

The analysis found that the incentive for Internet providers to expand and upgrade their service declines if Net neutrality ends, Cheng said. "ISPs, in fact, have more incentive to expand capacity under the status quo, and if they are allowed to charge content providers, it's in their best interest not to expand," he said.

Bandyopadhyay explained in a statement: "The whole purpose of charging for preferential treatment to content providers is that one content provider gains some edge over the other. But when the capacity is expanded, this advantage becomes negligible."

He gave an analogy in which drivers are willing to pay a toll to subsidize road improvements and are rewarded with exclusive use of a faster lane. If the road is upgraded from two to four lanes, with one express lane, the driver paying the toll might then say that three lanes is all he or she needs. The willingness to pay a toll when a road is expanded gets lessened, he said.

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