The Ford-Sununu Netflix Internet Plan For Fairness And Confusion

Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Harold Ford and John Sununu penned an op-ed for the San Jose Mercury News this week that has something to do with Netflix and the internet and fairness. It's possible that there is a point buried somewhere in its ham-fisted analogies and confused understanding of how broadband services work, but I'm struggling to see it.

Netflix, they write, eats up a lot of bandwidth with its unlimited streaming content package, and broadband users who don't subscribe to Netflix end up being indirectly charged when those movies are downloaded:

Obviously these massive transmissions over the Internet are not really free. Someone is paying for them. That "someone" is the millions of broadband subscribers, whether or not they are Netflix customers.

How is that fair?

Netflix argues that the marginal cost to the network providers of streaming a half-hour TV show to a residential customer is "one penny." This ignores the hundreds of billions of dollars in sunken network investments needed to create that one-penny marginal cost efficiency at the customer's end.

Netflix is getting a "free ride," they say, and the solution is "an approach that is more socially responsible and fair." Steadfastly avoiding anything that approaches specificity, their prescription is "a fairer pricing model" for internet service providers "and a more realistic long-term investment strategy."

Okay, so the problem lies with the ISPs? Apparently not, because they conclude the op-ed with another dig at Netflix:

No one questions that Netflix provides a valuable service to its customers. But many increasingly question a service that forces tens of millions of non-customers to pay for something they never use.

As Matt Yglesias points out, the argument they're making, which still isn't all that clear, really has nothing to do with Netflix. The popularity of the Netflix all-you-can-download package is due in large part to the fact that ISPs choose to sell broadband plans that allow unlimited data usage. If ISPs wanted to charge customers who use up lots of network capacity by watching online movies or visiting YouTube or guzzling data in some other way, they would. But they don't.

Ford and Sununu are the honorary co-chairs of the anti-net neutrality group Broadband For America, and it's possible that their op-ed was intended to be an oblique hit on the FCC's net neutrality rules. But the rules don't prohibit ISPs from charging more for faster internet access, which seems to be what Ford and Sununu are advocating and inexplicably criticizing Netflix over.

So that's what we're left with: an op-ed so bizarre that you can't even make up a point for it.

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San Jose Mercury News
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