Julian Sanchez floats a troubling idea. Adamant and stalwart net-neutrality advocates like Free Press and Public Knowledge have come out with great fervor against the Google-Verizon proposal that would exempt from neutrality regulation wireless traffic that is Internet-Protocol-based, or IP-based, along with "differentiated" IP-based services; the latter, explained Google's Eric Schmidt and Verizon's Ivan Seidenberg on a recent press call, might include such innovations as 3D-streaming of the Metropolitan Opera. (Because that's what most people do online. Watch opera.)
What if, worries Julian, by limiting the profitability of those two classes of IP-based products, net-neutrality advocates drive attention away from the 'Net altogether, pushing R&D dollars and other investment toward non-IP-based delivery mechanisms like, say, satellite-to-mobile delivery of streaming video content?
Maybe Netflix or Hulu Plus want to be able to offer a deal where your subscription price includes priority delivery of their packets to your smartphone or tablet, making non-WiFi video streaming feasible even if you haven’t sprung for that kind of top-shelf bandwidth for all your wireless data. If neutrality regulation forbids that kind of deal, even with respect to these kinds of “managed services,” one possible effect is to skew investment away from building out next-gen IP networks and toward these kinds of niche services, which strikes me as inefficient. Indeed, it’s precisely the effect Public Knowledge seems to fear, and there’s no obvious reason to suppose that it’s going to be a big problem within IP-based broadband services, but not affect the choice between alternative modes of digital content delivery.
But it seems like there are actually a number of very good, and not all that speculative, reasons that we can be comfortable believing that companies like Google and Verizon will keep on investing and innovating in IP-based traffic. The first is that they did so for decades while neutrality was a core Internet operating principle. Add to that that there's room to grow when it comes to IP as a platform, like we're seeing with the way IP version 6 is fuller-featured than the IP version 4 that currently prevails.
But beyond that, there's the consumer. Us. Julian's right that delivering Ultra Hulu 3D via satellite, just to avoid neutrality regulations, would be inefficient for providers. Unless considerable effort were put into making these new digital delivery services beautifully and seamlessly integrated into smartphones or laptops, it's highly likely that non-IP niche delivery services would also be super annoying for users, too. IP traffic is easy, accessible, and very often free. Betting against the idea that providers would continue to innovate in the Internet Protocol space is betting against the Internet. The Internet has proved itself pretty resilient.
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