Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Facets of Net Neutrality

In its original conception, "Network Neutrality" as I understood it was about a lack of privilege amongst competing traffic sources: that Google, Viacom, the atheism reddit, the Anglican Council, and the Time Cube site would all be subject to equal traffic slowdowns in the face of congestion.  A bit of thought would suggest that treating individual packets equally was not, in fact, desirable: you probably don't want your VOIP call and each individual P2P connection to be subject to the same rules, really.  You'd rather the call got through even at the expense of delaying a few packets of your (or your neighbor's) download.

Certain large ISPs have been trying to twist it to mean they can charge on both sides, for content providers to be allowed to send data to "their" customers, though the customers are already paying (quite profitably for the companies) for their own access.  They would be charging everyone for access, so it's "neutral," right?  This is an anti-neutrality stance trying to co-opt the word so that it sounds like a good thing.

Pro-neutrality forces (in the first sense) argue that requiring content providers to pay for carriage, or for "premium" speeds, would completely destroy the internet as we know it.  Also, many of them believe they are preserving existing neutrality, but this turns out to be incorrect.  A content delivery network (CDN) essentially is an implementation of pay-for-speed, because the content provider pays for their content to be stored closer to end-users, which reduces load time for those users.  Although the end-user's ISP doesn't receive payment directly, the content provider's payment to the CDN also funds the overall system by paying for the CDN's own connectivity at the ends, and infrastructure in the middle.

I think the value of the Internet is in two things: uniformity of access for end-users, and fair division of capacity.  Uniformity of access is simply that any connection should be able to carry packets from any content provider, so that the view of "the Internet" from any one ISP is the same view as from any other.  Otherwise, "the Internet" would cease to have meaning, as it reverted to the days of online services like CompuServe, Prodigy, and AOL.

Fair division of capacity is exactly what it says on the tin, that speeds and latencies should be balanced among customers of an ISP.  I shouldn't be able to start a download and prevent Netflix from delivering video to my neighbor, and a bunch of people on 6Mbps connections shouldn't be able to deny service to 1.5Mbps subscribers.

The real emotional punch that gets brought into neutrality discussions seems to come from the leonine terms the ISPs would like to apply: around one-tenth of the current (often secret) usage limits, for as low as six-tenths of the price, as in Time-Warner's experiment last year. Though the current arrangement is apparently profitable and growing more so over time: the cost of carriage is falling faster than inflation is diluting revenues.  The fear is that ISPs will establish these terms "in order to build out next-generation networks" and then not follow through on that investment, artificially limiting their service and allowing inflated payments that do nothing but lift the artificial restriction—in order to offer what is on the market today.

Promises, after all, are cheap.

This fear is only exacerbated by the incumbent ISPs' wars against municipal broadband.  City-owned networks are being opposed in many states as 'unfair' competition.  In at least one case, the city in question embarked on its network building course because the ISP claimed they would never offer higher speed.  Yet as soon as the city decided to offer higher speed itself if nobody else was going to, the ISP frantically began upgrading their infrastructure, hurrying to complete it before the city's project was finished, so they could argue that the city network was 'unnecessary' due to the ISP offering its (new) high-speed service.

This fear is further exacerbated by the regular broadband reports showing that countries with more competition amongst ISPs, regardless of urbanization, have the fastest speeds and highest limits on data transferred, where applicable.  If larger companies truly did have more efficiency and more benefit to the customer as they claim, then the average US broadband connection should meet—or exceed—the average connection in Japan.  Instead, large companies' performance suggests they are the major impediment to improved service.

For the Internet to continue its course of innovation and convenience for the American consumer, protection of uniformity of access and fair division of capacity are sorely needed.  Placing these responsibilities into the hands of existing large ISPs who have been actively demonstrating their complete lack of commitment to the principles, or their customers, except when threatened en masse with an alternative network, is clearly the wrong course of action to ensure the result.  It is putting the fox with feathers stuck in its teeth in charge of the hen house.

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