Net Neutrality — What is It, and Why care?

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Deepwater Currents.  I was working on a couple of things about privacy and security, but my mind kept wandering back to the topic of Net Neutrality.  As some of you might know, about a month ago — September 10th — was dubbed Internet Slowdown Day.  That day was chosen to be a day of protest against proposed changes to FCC regulations regarding Net Neutrality.  I think Net Neutrality is an important issue that everyone should know at least a little about.

Okay, before we go any further let’s talk about what Net Neutrality is.  Net Neutrality is a term coined more than a decade ago, and is concerned with how data is treated while traversing the Internet.  Historically — with a few notable exceptions — data has been treated without preference while being distributed over the Internet.  What that means is the data required to send you that Jacquie Lawson e-card from your aunt Mabel last Christmas was treated the same as the data from thousands of terrified investors trying to dump their Lehman Brothers stock.  I.e. neither data was prioritized due to its content or destination.  This is the basic premise of Net Neutrality — that content is content and it’s not the job (or even the right) of an ISP (Internet Service Provider) to prioritize one over another.  There is a much, much better (as of the date of this writing, at least — Wikipedia articles can and do get changed over time) description available on Wikipedia.

So, we now know what it is, but why might we care?  First, to truly appreciate the gravity of the issue, take a moment to try to imagine the amount and types of data that are traversing the Internet at any given moment (any FCC decision only impacts Internet traffic that starts, ends, or — to some degree — passes through the US, but that still represents a very large percentage of the total).  News, financial, medical, science & research, education, communications of every kind (including political discourse), and a lot of porn, illegal downloads, and YouTube and Netflix data is being moved around on networks that would be affected by any changes the FCC makes to these policies.

There are rational arguments to be made in opposition to Net Neutrality, and I will share the ones that seem the most reasonable to me:

Some applications simply require consistent access to a lot of data.


The core functionality of certain online activities like streaming video and audio, or playing online multi-player games is compromised if a certain QOS (Quality Of Service) is not maintained.  Audio and video playback have caching mechanisms that mitigate the effects, but if your connection is slow enough you will see those dreaded “buffering…” messages as playback is paused to let the content catch up.  While annoying, this is still infinitely better than having the playback stutter if it plays too slowly for the eye and the ear.  Online games, though, just become unplayable at slower speeds because of the competitive nature of them, and because one individual’s poor internet connection affects everyone else’s experience.

There are other examples (like stock market day-trading) where fractions of seconds can mean real money lost, but these are somewhat specialized examples and I won’t go into them here.

On the other hand, email, chatting, most web browsing (on pages not overloaded with Flash video or other media) can tolerate much lower speeds and increased latency (Latency, in computer jargon, refers to the time it takes to receive data, minus the time it takes to transfer the actual data requested.  You can think of it as the administrative overhead involved in receiving data.).

Network bandwidth (the amount of data that can pass through any given network segment at any given moment) is a finite resource.  It seems sensible to manage shortages by prioritizing some traffic over other traffic.

I don’t disagree with the basic premise put forth in this argument.  It’s pretty easy to see that some things require more bandwidth than other things, but I say “So, what?”

Currently — with the exception of the mobile industry — Internet access in the US is billed by available bandwidth.  This applies to both the consumer of Internet services, and to the businesses that provide them. Traditionally this was the minimum available bandwidth, but I see more and more providers in the consumer market trying to convert their products to average available bandwidth.  The former being a guarantee of minimum service, while the latter is more an obfuscating marketing ploy to charge you more money for less bandwidth.  That being said, a plan that promises average available bandwidth is still still charging you by bandwidth.  Even a plan based on the total amount of data “used” per time period (usually a month) is essentially doing the same thing.  You might be allowed to download data as quickly as is possible on that network, but you would soon run into the data limits imposed by the plan and have to stop receiving any data at all (or incur substantial fees).  So, averaged over many thousands of users, this acts to spread usage on the network out to a predictable average.

This means that ISPs are already charging both ends of a connection by the amount of bandwidth available to them, so it really should be of no concern to them what data is traversing their network.  Unless, of course, they are leasing out more bandwidth than they can actually deliver (wink)…  The most common example the ISPs use to justify prioritizing data (and charging premiums) is Netflix.  Reports vary, but it’s clear that people using Netflix represent a very large portion of the total Internet traffic (in the US, at least) by bandwidth.  They say that a company like Netflix is using such a large amount of data that they need to recoup their costs for carrying that video traffic.  For the reasons listed above, this is absurd.  They are already charging you for some amount of bandwidth, it really shouldn’t matter to them how you’re using it.  Ironically, at the same time that Comcast complains to regulators what a burden Netflix is to them, they are busily promoting their own video-streaming services.  Companies like Comcast, AT&T, etc. don’t want you to use less bandwidth by streaming less movies, they would just prefer you stream it from them.

Internet Service Providers own their networks, let them and market forces decide who to charge and how much for their services.


Companies — such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon — have spent many billions of dollars dollars creating, improving, and deploying the infrastructure that the consumer Internet relies on.  It seems reasonable to let them charge what they’d like, and for the market in general to either pay that price or demand lower prices.

Besides, network bandwidth (the amount of data that can pass through any given network segment at any given moment) is a finite resource.  It seems sensible to manage shortages by prioritizing some traffic over other traffic.

While I think this argument is reasonable, I think it ultimately fails to stand up upon closer inspection.

Free markets often do the best job of sorting out these sorts of supply and demand problems.  However, there are times when the power is too great, or in the hands of too few, that regulation by an outside body (usually governmental) is warranted.

So, is the power too great?  We need to go back to when we were imagining what sorts of data are traveling the internet.  Basically, the Internet is one of the — if not the — main mode of data transmission in most areas of our lives.  Yes, many companies still rely on private networks to handle much of their data internally, but how does that data get to their customers, partners, and (increasingly) their employees?  That’s right, over the Internet.  Your bank may have a dedicated network circuit to some centralized location, but how do they communicate to their customers?  How do you check your balance or pay bills online?  Yes, through the Internet.  Do you get some — or all — of your news from online sources?  How about shopping, do you do any of that online?  Many companies and individuals are moving to Internet-based telephone services (though they may not know it), and video services like Netflix, Hulu, etc.  Do you use email?  I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture — a very large portion of of our daily lives, directly or indirectly, relies on Internet communications.

Secondly, there is very little competition for ISPs in most markets.  You get Comcast or Time Warner for cable (looking to merge), and AT&T for very limited fiber-optics.  Yes, there are a number of DSL providers (still not a huge number), but unless you live very close to the right Telephone Company equipment, you won’t get Internet speeds anywhere near those provided by cable and fiber optic.  We also have satellite-based Internet access, but there are only two major players (Dish and DirectTV — also looking to merge) and a smattering of small, regional offerings.  Satellite Internet access is also a special category, as DSL — or even (gasp) dial-up  — is needed to upload data (Upload refers to any data that originates on your computer — from mouse-clicks to the video and sounds that you transmit during a Skype video call.).

As you can see, a hugely important resource (our access to the Internet) is in the hands of a relative few companies.  The overturning of the FCC’s prior ruling regarding Net Neutrality has had the immediate effect of ISPs looking to offer preferential treatment for money.  The ISPs will say that they don’t want to reduce anyone’s current usage of the Internet, but only want the ability to offer “enhanced” services at a premium.  Unfortunately, today’s current standards will look quite paltry in the future, so the distinction is disingenuous.  Can you imagine if something similar was done in the 80’s?  Perhaps companies not willing or able to pay a premium would today still have traffic to their websites and applications limited to (the then speedy) 56kbps (kilobits per second), instead of the many megabits per second (a megabit is 1024 kilobits) most of us enjoy today.

I haven’t even focused on the issues of free speech that this brings up, but that’s obviously of great concern.  I don’t want any third party deciding which news outlets get preferential treatment on the web.  Do you want your ISP to limit how quickly you can access an application or website on the Internet based on the ability of those companies to pay a premium above and beyond what they already pay to have Internet access?  Furthermore, if it comes to pass that ISPs do have the right to give preferential treatment to some destinations, is their a mechanism in place to make sure they’re not using it for other reasons, such as stifling competition or censoring the message of critical politicians?

This is meant to be a technology — not political — blog, so I don’t want to cross the line any further than I already have.  While not a big fan of regulation in general, in certain cases I think it’s necessary to protect the vital interests of a society.  There’s a mountain of precedence for regulating communications industries (television, telephone, newspapers, etc.), and the Internet requires the same.  Agree?  Disagree?  Please tell us what you think below!



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