yellow bits

Aug 7 2010

Misunderstandings and Misstatements on Net Neutrality (This Gets a Little Technical)

This is in reference to a post I saw on RedState: http://www.redstate.com/neil_stevens/2010/08/07/tech-at-night-net-neutrality-free-press-fcc-google-verizon/

Watching and listening to this debate unfold in the mainstream media and in the blogsophere has been incredibly disheartening to a technologist. There is so much misinformation and misunderstanding about the proposals laid out that it would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high.

Let’s start with some facts:

1) The Internet is an evolution of a U.S. GOVERNMENT project initially know as ARPANET. The U.S. Military fearing a Russian nuclear strike that could obliterate portions of the country wanted to develop a packet-switched network rather than the traditional circuit-switched networks at the time. A circuit-switched network is kind of like what the telephone system was a few years ago before the move to digital. A caller would have his connection rerouted at a central point and connected to the receiver. An attack targeting networks based on central point could end communications. The Internet “routes” traffic across the network in a semi-intelligent way.

Later the U.S. Military opened up the network to universities and colleges and was eventually administered by the National Science Foundation and become known as the NSFnet.

Finally, a certain future presidential candidate introduced legislation that opened up the Internet to commercial applications, and we now have what we know as the Internet.

2) The Internet is primarily based on the TCP/IP protocol which controls the how the packets of data are constructed and how they are sent across the Internet. For years, this was plenty adequate because the traffic of the Internet was largely text-based. Waiting a few extra milliseconds for an e-mail to reach you wasn’t an issue.

3) The Internet as we all know has become much more sophisticated, partly because IP-packets are data agnostic—they don’t care what is actually embedded inside of them, which is both their crux and beauty. NOBODY envisioned a real-time video conferencing system when TCP/IP was first designed, but the system was flexible enough that a IP-packet could encapsulate video data. These were literally a bunch of nerds and engineers trying to figure out the easiest way to send nuclear research data to one another, which could be anything from mountains of numbers, to pictures, to ultra-high speed video, etc.

NOBODY envisioned that entrepreneurs would come up with a product like YouTube, or a file-sharing over BitTorrent, or Skype calls.

And in the grand history of the world, we are at the relative infancy of the Internet, which is why we need to think carefully about these kinds of matters rather than resort to political-charged slogans about government take-overs of the Internet.

The Debate

So in an attempt to engage these same people, let me clarify some of the issues at debate:

1) Internet Service Providers are, for the most part against net neutrality because they believe that they should have the ability to manage their own networks.

Many conservatives have embraced this, because these companies have put up the capital and risk of building the physical cables and wires that carry the Internet’s traffic. (Not to mention any regulation seems to be an anathema to their philosophy—you know—like how the FDA inspects and regulates food).

While that is absolutely true that many ISPs built their networks, what is also true is that many of these ISPs are natural monopolies. For huge portions of the country, myself included, there may only be one or—if you’re lucky—two choices of Internet access. Comcast is the only service provider in my area, period. And it is also true that many of these same companies have franchises and/or licenses granted to them by state and local governments, because the PUBLIC owns the land that much of their cables are buried and maintained in.

In any good capitalistic system, competition is the key to innovation not just profit-incentive. So take Comcast in my area again for example, they have absolutely no incentive to upgrade or enhance their networks because of lack of competition. I’ve been stuck at a relatively anemic 3 megabits per second for the last few years. While that is blazingly fast compared to 56K modems from 15 years ago, it’s a turtle compared to the 100 megabits per second that users in Japan enjoy.

Megabits, TCP/IP, ISPs, etc. No wonder this issue is confusing. So one of the question for the average consumer is what the heck does 100 megabits per second offer that 3 megabits per second doesn’t? A whole slew of things that I can list right now, but even cooler are the lists that I can’t name yet.

Just an example would be Blu-ray streaming over the Internet. Right now to enjoy high-quality HD movies streamed at qualities that are near indistinguishable from the movie theater experience, a consumer would have to get out of the house, drive down to their local retailer, purchase the Blu-ray, drive back, put the disc in, switch the TV over to the correct input, wait for the Blu-ray drive to boot up and finally enjoy their film.

100 megabits per second means that a typical Blu-ray (between 25-50 megabits per second) can be streamed straight over the web. No long drive, no extra manufacturing costs, no wasted gas, and near instant access to the film. Of course any decent economist can see there are some creative destruction going on here, which leads to structural unemployment, etc., but that is a different debate.

But what ends up happening from a network point of view is that certain kinds of activities crowd out bandwidth from other activities. You may have encountered this at around 7 p.m. at night when everyone else in your building is on the Internet, and some kid down the hall is downloading the entire Lady Gaga music video collection.

So Comcast absolutely SHOULD have some say in managing the traffic on its network. Comcast should have some say in dividing bandwidth between users and certain applications, so when you place that digital call, it isn’t ruined by the neighbor next door downloading porn. I doubt any real net neutrality advocate would disagree with that.

However, the debate gets much more complicated because ISPs have advocated tiered-pricing for priority traffic and the ability to block certain kinds of traffic (as they have in the past, without warning). On top of natural monopoly incentives, some companies have profit-incentives to disallow or block traffic on their networks.

For example, back to my ISP Comcast, which is in final negotiations with government regulators to to purchase NBC Universal. With absolutely no regulation, what is to stop Comcast from slowing down traffic from ABC, FOX or CBS? Or framed differently, NBC gains a competitive advantage of NOT having to pay Comcast for tiered access. Does it really do the public at large any good to pay extra to watch David Letterman on Comcast than Jay Leno?

Further, the unstoppable march of technological innovation has produced a whole set of media products that are entirely delivered over the Internet. Today, not tomorrow, we can already watch Netflix on our iPads; we can watch Hulu Plus on our iPhones; we can read the New York Post on our Kindle e-readers; we can stream music over 3G to our cars. ALL of this data is delivered over the Internet. And while it may seem like no force on Earth is going to stop this march of innovation, the uninformed and reactionary anti-net neutrality group just might.

The Internet is the paper, pen and printing press.

And many opponents of Net Neutrality are correct in that the Government should not censor the Internet, and NEITHER should the people who own the pipes. But that is NOT what the FCC is advocating, and it is NOT what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is advocating.

Straight from the horse’s mouth, these are the principles that the FCC is advocating:

• To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
• To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
• To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
• To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

(You can read their entire statement here: http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-05-151A1.pdf )

ISPs have argued that they need tiered-pricing, so that the heaviest of users both on the sending and receiving end, pay for the bandwidth they use. Not a terrible idea, especially when it comes to scarce resources like wireless spectrum, but those home ISPs, are just plain being disingenuous when it comes to talks about variable costs and scarcity. Much of the Internet’s traffic capacity is wholly unrealized and PURPOSEFULLY off. During the 90s in the midst of the Internet boom, ISPs built incredibly amounts of fiber connections across the nation. After the bust, they simply turned most of it off. Turning it back on, it almost as simple as flipping a switch.

When people talk about innovation, that is great! But the ISPs aren’t the ones doing a whole lot of innovating, it’s the companies that USE the Internet are. In the few years that my average Internet speed has went from 1.5 megabits per second to 3 megabits per second, Google came along, Facebook came along, YouTube came along, the iPhone came along, etc.

Now, the threat to innovation are becoming the ISPs. AT&T already has tiered-pricing for iPhone 3G access. What does that mean? Well, I don’t think I will be streaming many movies on my iPhone or listening to a whole lot of music on the go if I’m on a tiered-plan’s paltry 2 GB per second; that’s about one and a half Netflix movies streamed. (Fortunately, I’m grandfathered into their unlimited data plan.)

Finally, the FCC has made some missteps on how to deal with the net neutrality issue (initially classifying it as a data service under the Bush administration), but the issue that the FCC is battling right now is whether to classify the Internet as a “telecom service” or a “data service.” As a “data service” like say your cable video, the cable company gets to decide what channels to offer. As a telecom service, the FCC has broad authority to say to ISPs “You have to let all traffic on the Net flow free” like a phone call.

Please understand this: The FCC’s position is that they want you to be able to say on the Internet like you can on the phone.

Anyway, the point of all of this is that the debate on net neutrality has nothing to do with keeping the Internet politically neutral or a super-regulated Internet, but finding the right balance of regulation so that 1) broadband speeds get faster and 2) traffic on the Internet remains agnostic, so that it promotes innovation and best of all democracy.

The irony of this post is that Facebook, Google, Microsoft, ABC, NBC, CBS can probably all afford to pay Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner these kind of fees (they will of course be passed on to consumers), but a blog or a website like RedState.com might not be able to afford to pay these ISPs to prioritize their traffic or unblock their traffic from a “liberal ISP.”
  1. rhapsodyartist posted this