Net neutrality: more complicated than you think
Aug 18, 2010
6 minute read

On the technology sites I frequent, TechCrunch and Hacker News, there has been an uproar over Google’s joint proposal with Verizon, in which traditional Internet service providers would be subject to net neutrality regulation and wireless providers would not. I think the outrage over Google’s alleged betrayal of Internet users is ill founded. Most of the criticism I’ve seen is not informed by a serious attempt to grapple with economic reality. The real story is much more complicated. It’s so complicated, in fact, that I’m not sure I can make any rigorous statements about net neutrality, but I will try to outline some of the issues.

Let’s start with the most important question: why did Google decide to start being evil? People seem to actually be asking this childish question. The answer, of course, is that good and evil is not a useful framework for analyzing Google’s actions (though if they open concentration camps I will take this back). Google is motivated by profit. It faces incentives. I outlined Google’s strategy for profit-maximization in A Theory of Google. The basic conclusion of that post is that Google benefits from widespread, cheap, and high-quality access to the Internet.

If that’s true, then why doesn’t Google support net neutrality for wireless providers? It’s almost as though they haven’t given this any thought. Except that their chief economist is Hal Varian, who is one of the top scholars of the industrial organization of information-intensive markets and coauthor of one of the seminal books of the field, Information Rules. Varian and his fellow Googlers must have some reason to believe that net neutrality could hinder the development of the wireless Internet (though it appears not all of the rank-and-file are on board).

The first step to understanding the economics of net neutrality is to recognize the large fixed costs that accompany any network industry. The presence of large fixed costs means that the simple price-equals-marginal-cost condition for efficiency no longer applies. If all customers were charged MC, the firm would go out of business. It could not cover its large fixed costs. Even if the costs were sunk, the firm would “go out of business” at the margin, refraining from adding capacity on which it would only lose money. In general, large fixed costs imply that price and/or quality discrimination is a necessary feature of an efficient equilibrium (that is, if consumers do not all have identical demand). Read Michael Levine to see how this is the case even in competitive markets!

Another feature of industries with high fixed costs is that they tend to be monopolized or at least highly concentrated. Economists use the term “natural monopoly” to refer to those cases in which the monopolization is due purely to fixed costs and not to any coercive factor. In fact, traditional ISPs, in addition to being natural monopolies, are also coercively monopolized due to municipal franchises that grant them exclusivity. They therefore do not face even potential entry into their markets. A monopolist ISP might favor its own properties on the web, which is what worries net neutrality advocates. But if the monopolist ISP is free to charge whatever prices it wishes for its service, it can’t gain from pushing its own properties, or at least not at the consumer’s expense. Its incentive is to make the Internet as valuable as possible for its consumers so that it can maximize its profits on its monopoly. Remember the logic of double marginalization. If the municipal franchise results in regulated prices, then the monopolist ISP may have a strong reason to favor its own content. It leverages its monopoly position to reap profits through unregulated content rather than regulated Internet service.

A third factor intrinsic to Internet service is congestion. Transferring data on a network reduces the ability of others to do the same. This is a negative externality that can be remedied through a Pigovian tax, or better yet, through a Coasian solution. After all, property rights are well defined and transactions are already occurring. The externality can be resolved by a change in the terms of the contract.

The challenge, then, if you are socially benevolent, is to find a way (1) to efficiently incentivize investment in Internet service infrastructure, (2) to minimize the ill effects of the tendency of the industry to be monopolized, and (3) to reduce congestion, thereby making existing bandwidth capacity maximally valuable. This is not easy. The efficient solution would be something like the following. Consumers would pay for Internet service in two parts. First, they would pay an access fee, which varies from consumer to consumer in proportion to how much they value the Internet. Second, they would pay for the data they consume on a metered basis, with peak rates being higher than off-peak rates to efficiently allocate traffic. There would be no restrictions on the price or quality of service, though violations of service agreements would be prosecuted as fraud. Because the value of Internet service to consumers vastly exceeds the fixed costs associated with running an ISP, my intuition is that all monopolistic municipal charters should be abrogated and all markets contestable.

If that’s the ideal world, it’s not clear whether net neutrality brings us closer to it or further from it. Because we do not observe the ideal pricing structure, net neutrality regulations hamper firms’ ability to ease congestion by de-prioritizing what they believe is the lower-value traffic (remember, if optimal pricing exists, congestion is self-regulating). On the other hand, because some firms are coercive monopolies and face regulated pricing, net neutrality can improve welfare by taking away an inefficient monopoly rent.

Perhaps the most subtle way that net neutrality could be harmful is by aiding collusion between ISPs. If the firms have a sunk investment in infrastructure, regulations that make it more difficult to recover the value of new investments will discourage entry and expansion. Existing firms can carve up the current market and keep prices artificially high.

Google’s position, that traditional ISPs should be regulated and wireless ones should not, is defensible. Competition is more vigorous in the wireless sector than in the wired, and pricing is less regulated. Furthermore, the wireless industry is further from optimal capacity, so we ought to be sensitive to the incentives to invest.

I don’t mean to endorse Google’s proposal; rather, I wish to suggest that critics take the time to learn something about what it is they are criticizing. It’s dismaying to me that so many non-economists think they understand the effects of net neutrality. Skim some of TechCrunch’s recent posts on the topic: they are, frankly, asinine. It reminds me of a quotation from Murray Rothbard:

It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.