How the Carriers Lost the Net Neutrality Debate

It seems wireless carriers can do no right these days. They are dragged through the mud for carrier-exclusive devices and reluctance to perform expensive network build-outs to improve performance, while in the same breath critics talk about their servies being too expensive. AT&T in particular is simultaneously lambasted for an overburdened network then prodded for not allowing bandwidth-hogging voice-over-IP applications on their flagship iPhone.

So-called network neutrality debates have given the carriers yet another black eye. Net neutrality is the concept that data carriers, be they wireless or cable cannot provide preferential treatment to traffic on their networks. Initially, this sounds like a great idea, and companies like Google and associated lobby groups use words like “freedom” and “open” to describe their pro-net neutrality stance, painting the carriers as big brother-esque baddies with their hands on a censorship button, or perpetrators of greedy acts of corporate malfeasance, slowing everyones’ traffic down but those willing to pay for “special” access.

The carriers responded with boring technical discussions about bandwidth and quality of service, and from the standpoint of public perception and pending government legislation, have likely lost the debate on net neutrality. Based on current rumblings from Washington, mobile carriers in the US will likely soon have their networks effectively regulated by the government as a public utility.

While I’ll spare you my opinion about who is right or wrong in this debate, the process that led to the outcome is instructive for anyone involved in technology. Google and the pro-neutrality forces made the debate about freedom, big brother, truth, justice and the American Way, while the carriers stayed firmly in the world of bits and bytes. While the cell phone carriers had many valid technical arguments, backed with data about network performance and fancy charts and graphs, emotion won out, and the pro-neutrality forces had a far more interesting and emotion-provoking story to sell to the public.

Whether pitching a new enterprise system or the latest smartphone; emotion, a compelling story and personal appeal are far more likely to win friends and influence people than dry discussions about the bits and bytes. While most will see through a pitch that’s little more than smoke and mirrors, having your technical “ducks in a row” while appealing to emotion is a surefire way pitch any idea.

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