Network Neutrality 2

After rereading the previous post, I realized that I was addressing the previous comments on that Slashdot thread. So here is a better statement of my ideas on the network neutrality question.

The issue that sparked (in tech circles at least) the network neutrality debate was ISP throttling of Bittorrent. Bittorrent is a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol which works by breaking a file into parts and allowing people to download from other people who have already have downloaded that part of the file. One of the big advantages is that while a server slows down when tons of people download a file, Bittorrent actually speeds up. However, it causes a consumer with a home connection to use far more bandwidth than would normally be used.

Most consumer internet connections are designed around a very specific use case: lots of small files with lots of time between bursts (normal browsing) and few larger files (downloads). With this model, ISPs could sell more connections than they could handle under a full load. 10 users would be sold 15Mb connections when there is one 45Mb connection to back it up. This works because not everyone would be running sustained downloads simultaneously.

However, recently internet usage has changed so that everyone would be using a full connection simultaneously. The backend connections are being saturated and ISPs now have to add additional capacity to handle it. The single biggest factor in this is streaming video. Between YouTube offering 720p and 1080p videos, Netflix switching to a mostly streaming movie service, and Hulu offering TV shows, the average home bandwidth usage has gone up tremendously. The Bittorrent issue that used to normally affect only techs, suddenly became mainstream.

High level ISPs handle a tremendous amount of traffic and usually have peering agreements which allow them to transfer between each other for free. So Google and Comcast probably don’t pay each other anything for the traffic. Comcast and a company called Level 3 Communications had such an agreement, but Level 3 started using a lot more bandwidth and Comcast started charging fees. Level 3 claims that they have an agreement that the traffic doesn’t cost anything, and Comcast claims that they have to put more infrastructure in to handle the said traffic. It makes sense until you ask why Level 3 suddenly has so much traffic. They recently signed a contract with Netflix to act as their ISP.

Bittorrent, Hulu, Youtube, and Netflix happen to compete with TV and On Demand services that many ISPs such as Comcast also offer. It is obviously in Comcast’s interest to keep people from being able to access services like Netflix quickly and inexpensively. However, Netflix depends on the internet connection which Comcast provides. Suddenly, the “fees” are seen in a different light. If Level 3 is charged more for Netflix traffic, they have to charge Netflix more, Netflix charges consumers more, Comcast wins.

The fundamental question is one of infrastructure. As a civilization, we use certain things in common which become very important to our daily lives. Roads, the airwaves, train tracks, etc… This infrastructure is beginning to include the internet. Infrastructure usually requires a large capital investment to create, and many other companies depend on open access to thrive. When infrastructure is controlled by the same company that provides products over that infrastructure, competition and innovation will frequently suffer. Given this, how is the openness of the infrastructure maintained?

This is network neutrality in a nutshell. The idea that an ISP should not be able to charge more for, block, or throttle competing traffic. I agree with the idea in essence, if Comcast et cetera had blocked all competition and tried to do their own, we would probably not have services such as Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, Google, Facebook, and many other services that we use daily.

The question is how to enforce this openness. Or whether it even needs enforcing. It must be noted that all of the above mentioned services have appeared under the existing system. It is possible that the streaming video question will work itself out likewise. But if it did not, should we try to regulate openness?

The current network neutrality debate is over the FCC’s ability to regulate this aspect of the internet. Their legal right is questionable at best, so allowing them to simply assume this authority is setting a bad precedent. If the FCC should be regulating this, congress should explicitly authorize them to do so.

The wider debate is whether the government should have any role in regulating ISPs whatsoever. While most people can switch ISPs if their ISP starts blocking or throttling a service they want, it is quite difficult to switch governments or to get a government to relinquish a power once taken. Also, the government does not have a great track record with keeping pace with innovation themselves. Allowing the FCC or other agency to regulate the internet may prove to be a chilling effect on entrepreneurs.

There is also the potential, as unlikely as it would seem, that the government could use regulatory control to limit free speech. There are fringe groups on the right and left which would like to use network neutrality to be able to block speech they disagree with. Fortunately the mainstream of both political parties appear unlikely to sanction such a usage of power, but there is precedent in history for unusual power being wielded in time of war or other national crisis.

I personally think that allowing the industry to self regulate is the lesser of two evils.

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