A rational debate on Net Neutrality

A rational debate on Net Neutrality

Summary: The subject of Net Neutrality has become so politicized that it's almost impossible to have a rational debate on the subject. Even the term "Net Neutrality" has become a political slogan that is often deliberately vague to hide its true meaning.


The subject of Net Neutrality has become so politicized that it's almost impossible to have a rational debate on the subject. Even the term "Net Neutrality" has become a political slogan that is often deliberately vague to hide its true meaning. Is it even possible to have a rational debate on Net Neutrality? That's what I'm going to try and do here and this won't be your typical Net Neutrality article that takes one side or the other because it will slap down the villains on both sides of the debate. I'm going to try and step back and share with you my thousand foot view of the whole war on Net Neutrality.

How the Internet really works: The Internet is based on users only paying for their on-ramp access and nothing more. This is the way that the Internet has always worked on a "best practice" and contractual basis. The "Internet" also isn't the single entity that people often perceive it to be; it's actually an inter-network (hence the name Internet) or a network made up of many private networks that route Internet data amongst each other on a contractual basis. Large carriers who own chunks of the Internet don't charge other large carriers in exchange for using each other's infrastructure and this is called settlement-free peering. In other words, you carry my traffic and I'll carry yours and everyone pays for their share of the Internet infrastructure.

If there's an imbalance in the amount of traffic that one carrier passes through on behalf of another carrier, the larger carrier carrying more of the data will charge the smaller carrier. On very rare occasions the smaller carrier will balk and refuse to pay and the connection between carriers is severed and customers will get cut off from each other. Ultimately one side or the other blinks and sometimes it's the bigger carrier quickly caving in because they're afraid of the legislature stepping in to regulate the unregulated Internet if the stalemate doesn't get solved in a very high-profile case where customers are cut off. But at no time do carriers ever get to directly charge customers who are attached to other carrier's networks for their Internet for traversing their network because revenue is already shared when the smaller carrier pays a portion of their revenues to the larger carriers or it's settlement-free because of mutual sharing.

The myth that the Internet has always been a dumb pipe: One of the most common arguments I hear is that the Internet has always been and continues to be a dumb pipe and there is no intelligent packet prioritization on the Internet. That simply is false and there have long been contractual agreements QoS (Quality of Service) packet prioritization for business customers. These agreements allow customers to pay a premium to permit a certain percentage of traffic (usually a small percent) to get traffic prioritization across a carrier's network.

Global Crossing for example has a premium service for its customers which it actually extends to other partnering networks using settlement-free contracts. Some of these partners are in Asia and they prioritize Global Crossing packets in exchange for Global Crossing prioritizes their packets in return. This is identical to the settlement-free connectivity I mentioned earlier only this extends the concept to cover prioritization as well. This is end-to-end QoS service which covers off-ramp QoS service without the customer directly paying the off-ramp remote network.

If we had to pay for access to other networks on the Internet, then we might as well go back to AOL or CompuServe circa 1994 when you had pockets of proprietary networks that no one else could reach and that's the last thing we want. The minute you start demanding payment from customers of other networks, the Internet becomes fragmented because it's becomes a metered closed Network. Even if you could afford to pay, it would be a logistical nightmare to keep up with all the various entities you have to pay.

Just like how we don't directly pay to route and connect to other carriers on the Internet, we wouldn't directly pay other remote carriers for prioritization services. We pay our own carrier once for connectivity (and premium prioritization service if we choose to do so) just once and let our carrier work out the dirty details with the other carriers on the Internet of whether they need to exchange money or not. This is how an intelligent but fair and open Internet works.

<Next page - Dealing with Internet Carrier abuse>

Dealing with Internet Carrier abuse

How the incompetent Telco villains started it all: When former AT&T/SBC Chairman Ed Whitacre opened his big fat mouth about how he was going to violate Internet best-practice and start charging companies like Google for access to his DSL customers, it sent shockwaves throughout the Internet. Whitacre had handed Google and the stupid network proponents all the ammunition they needed to neuter the Telcos and ban intelligence on the network. The Telcos were effectively proving themselves to be the double-dipping villains that people have always perceived them to be while making powerful enemies out of neutral parties. This turned neutral parties like Amazon.com, Microsoft, and all the other content providers against the Telcos and in favor for Net Neutrality (at least in spirit). For example, Bill Gates was actually more neutral on the subject.

In reality the content providers were in a much better position to slap fees on the Internet infrastructure providers like AT&T for the honor of carrying their content and this isn't just theoretical since ESPN has already proven that this can be done. Not only did Ed Whitacre not have the power to push Google around, he's lucky that Google didn't slap him around. Had Google wanted to demand a per-user share of DSL subscription fees from AT&T for "carrying" a premium version of Google Video or else find themselves cut off from Google.com, there's absolutely nothing to prevent them from doing that and AT&T would be dead in the water if they couldn't access the most popular search engine on the Internet.

Ed Whitacre's threats to charge foreign customers at the off-ramp from other networks were not only naive since he didn't have the power to push Google around; it fundamentally goes against the way the Internet works. If Whitacre tried to force the charges by blocking access to Google, he would have not only angered his own customers but he would have broken the law and incurred large FCC fines (which were proposed to be $500,000 per infraction by the now defunct Telecom bill). But regardless of whether AT&T has the power to charge for off-ramp access, it's none of the Telco's business what Google, Amazon, or any other content company pays their Internet Service Providers at their end of the pipe. It's just stupid, naive, and ignorant of them to think this way.

But as if they learned nothing from the Ed Whitacre fiasco, the Telco lobby kept running their mouths off in public televised debates about how companies like Amazon.com didn't pay their fair share of the bill for Internet traffic. But the reality is that they will never successfully convince people that it's OK to charge for off-ramp access, they will never change Internet best practice, and they will never have the power to do so. All they're doing buy running their mouths about how Internet Sites aren't paying their fair share on the Internet is perpetuate their villain reputation in the eyes of the public and harden support for the other extreme.

Reasonable anti-abuse controls on Internet Carriers: Let's take a hypothetical worst case scenario and assume that an Internet carrier would not actually block VoIP providers like Vonage but merely "mess" with them and flip a few packets here and there to jack up the jitter so they wouldn't violate the no-block clause. That would effectively make Vonage or any other VoIP services noticeably inferior and make the carrier's own service look good by comparison. Because they're technically not "blocking" their competitor's service, no laws have been broken.

Well we can certainly make deliberate degradation of traffic below "best effort" illegal. If we're afraid that this subtle but evil activity is too difficult to detect, we can make this a one million dollar infraction and offer the whistleblower half of that fine as a reward for cooperating with Government inspectors. If a carrier secretly reduced a certain service below "best effort" delivery for the purpose of harming a competitor, one of the network engineers or auditors will have to know about it and they can blow the whistle secretly and collect a big reward. If there is a bigger conspiracy to harm competition with these devious practices, we can send the perpetrators to jail if necessary. With such a system in place, it's highly unlikely that carriers will risk such penalties.

If we wanted to regulate the Internet - and I'm not suggesting that this level of regulation is necessarily needed at this point in time - what we might do is ban charges on remote-customers coming from other networks for off-ramp prioritization. This means AT&T can continue to offer its own business/home customers prioritization services but they can't offer out-of-network companies like Google, Vonage, or Microsoft prioritization.  This way Carriers will never be in a position to pressure external customers in to buying prioritization services.  AT&T can still indirectly offer prioritization to out-of-network companies like Google or Vonage, but the prioritization agreement must be worked out with Vonage's Internet carrier and that could be fee-based or settlement-free prioritization.  This simpler scheme would work on a much larger scale covering all premium customers on both networks without ever hassling the end user/customer.  Unfortunately, the Net Neutrality legislation in the form of Markey and Snowe-Dorgan explicitly bans any kind of charges on "Enhanced QoS" packet prioritization with no exception which criminalizes perfectly fair and legal activity.

<Next page - Does the Internet have to be stupid to be neutral?>

Does the Internet have to be stupid to be neutral?

Whenever the word "neutrality" is spoken, how could anyone be against it? When neutrality is put in the context of a fair and free Internet, how can anyone be against that? Of course we all want a neutral, fair, and free Internet but does that automatically mean that the Internet has to be stupid and devoid of any intelligence in order to achieve that goal? Does intelligence and differentiated services in the network automatically constitute criminal discrimination? That is what the Net Neutrality proponents want by pushing legislation like the Markey and Snowe-Dorgan "Net Stupidity" amendments in the House and Senate last year.

While Markey and Snowe-Dorgan didn't actually directly ban Enhanced QoS, they banned any charging of its services effectively forcing it to either be a bundled service where everyone pays for it whether they want it or not or it meant that QoS wouldn't be offered at all. The real purpose of Markey and Snowe-Dorgan was to indirectly ban QoS by preventing anyone from charging for it so they can claim they're not trying ban QoS. But the hardcore Net Neutrality lobby like the DPS Project wants a ban on all intelligent routing on the internet because intelligence on the Network in their view automatically constitutes abuse. So when these groups use the warm and fuzzy slogan "Net Neutrality", they're really talking about "Net Stupidity".

While Google publicly denounces how evil it is to bundle services, here they are forcing that very practice. During a Net Neutrality debate at the VON conference in March, Google's Richard Whitt (Washington Telecom and Media Counsel) espoused the virtues of consumer choice and how bad it was to force the bundling of services. When I asked him why did Google lobby so hard for the Markey and Snowe-Dorgan amendments last year which would have forced the bundling of Enhanced QoS since no one could buy the service a la carte, I got a good chuckle out of the crowd and Whitt didn't really have an answer for his hypocrisy. Then I grilled Whitt on the fact that it would be far more reasonable to simply ban off-ramp QoS charges and force best practice settlement-free prioritization and Whitt responded by saying that "perhaps this was the actual intent of Market and Snowe-Dorgan".

Of course Google's or Whitt's interpretation of the "intent" of the legislation is meaningless in the eyes of law because the law explicitly bans any charging for QoS. Here's the actual text of the legislation:

If the provider prioritizes or offers enhanced quality of service to data of a particular type, to prioritize or offer enhanced quality of service to all data of that type (regardless of the origin of such data) without imposing a surcharge or other consideration for such prioritization or enhanced quality of service.

While those Net Stupidity amendments were narrowly defeated in committee, there is a new congress that is far more likely to pass it if they were ever given the order from their lobbyists to do so and that is alarming to me and the pioneer of the Internet Dr. Robert Kahn. Kahn who is the father of the Internet recently called "Net Neutrality" a slogan and spoke out that he is totally opposes any legislation (1:47:35 of the video) that bans intelligence on the Internet. Kahn also stated that he disagreed with his former colleague Vint Cerf.

Vint Cerf who later joined Kahn's team on the other hand never bothers addressing the actual fundamental issue of intelligence on the Internet and simply toes Google's company line and misleads the public. During a public debate with the Grandfather of the Internet David Farber, Farber asked Cerf (28:30 on audio) how he proposes to regulate and ban a new International protocol that they deem "discriminatory". Cerf responded (29:00):

Well I would respond on that one. What we’re concerned about is the access part of the net, not the core, not the backbone. But it’s discriminatory access to the network itself. Over that part of the channel we do have reasonable jurisdiction. The access component is here on American soil.

That response from Vint Cerf either indicates that he has not read the actual Net Neutrality legislation he and Google is pushing so hard for or he is misleading the public.  There is absolutely nothing in Markey or Snowe-Dorgan that says anything about an exemption for the core or backbone of the Internet and it simply bans any surcharges on Enhanced QoS.  Cerf later goes on to publicly endorse Congressman Markey as someone who "gets it" on the subject of Net Neutrality which in reality is Net Stupidity legislation.

Ironically, a certain Vint Cerf fan Mitch Ratcliffe who attacked me for my criticism of Net Stupidity claimed that Net Neutrality only worried about ensuring no prioritization on the Backbone of the Internet which was completely shot to pieces Cerf's quotation above. But it doesn't matter if they contradict each other or not because neither Cerf nor his fan Ratcliffe seems to understand how to read a simple paragraph in the actual Net Neutrality legislation.

Others like Tim Berners-Lee (prototyped the HTTP protocol) loudly proclaim his support for Net Neutrality without ever specifically naming a bill that he favors. On multiple occasions Tim Berners-Lee has said that he thinks charging more for additional bandwidth or prioritization is perfectly legitimate. Here are two quotations:

Quotation one "We pay for connection to the Net as though it were a cloud which magically delivers our packets. We may pay for a higher or a lower quality of service. We may pay for a service which has the characteristics of being good for video, or quality audio."

Quotation two "Net Neutrality is NOT saying that one shouldn’t pay more money for high quality of service. We always have, and we always will."

So again, Berners-Lee either never read the actual Net Neutrality legislation, didn't understand it, or he's misleading the public. Since Berners-Lee has been specifically asked to answer this contradiction on multiple occasions, refuses to debate the specifics or recommend a specific piece of legislation, and he obviously isn't a stupid man that he can't understand it, Berners-Lee has the strangest position on Net Neutrality. Berners-Lee has even done promotional videos with the Net Stupidity lobby but he completely contradicts their cause with his repeated support of differentiated intelligent services on the Internet. But even in the video Berners-Lee contradicts the Net Stupidity proponents. It almost seems like Berners-Lee is torn between his own common sense that we need an intelligent network with differentiated services but he hates to alienate his Net Stupidity fans who hold him up as one of the symbols of their struggle. Is that a harsh assessment of Tim? If the hypocrisy was only once or twice then maybe it is. But Tim is the one that refuses to clarify his hypocrisy or debate the issue.

My position has always been that we need to support true Net Neutrality. I described in my opening arguments how the Internet works on settlement-free connectivity and settlement-free prioritization arrangements where users get to access anywhere on the free and open Internet. As Dr. Kahn the father of the Internet says, we don't have to ban intelligence on the Internet in order to be neutral. What I am opposed to are the Net Stupidity proponents who hide behind the slogan of Net Neutrality and hide behind the fine print of the Markey and Snowe-Dorgan legislation. Like Dr. Kahn I oppose any bans on intelligence inside the Internet.

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  • There is no pending "net neutrality" legislation

    Markey and Snowe-Dorgan amendments died with that 109th Congress.

    Since QoS is perfectly legal today, perhaps carriers could implement it quickly so as to prove (to governing bodies) that those customers that want QoS can have it and that it won't interfere with those users who prefer not to purchase that feature.
    • It's on hold. Remember that Markey is in charge now

      It's on hold. Remember that Markey is in charge of the very committee that narrowly blocked his amendment within the 109th Congress so he can do it at any time. It's simply on hold now as a poison pill to block any Telecom deregulation that would permit them to compete against the Cable TV companies. Google doesn't want any the Telcos to enter IPTV because it threatens their own Video service which they know can't scale to medium or high definition.
    • Also note that Markey wants to ban less than 2 mbps as broadband


      I guess Markey thinks a T1 can't be called broadband.
      • Compared to other countries, no it can't

        America is increasingly at a competitive disadvantage. We used to just have black rotary phones. I guess you would call that phone service, too? I mean it's good enough, right?
        • Say what?

          It doesn't matter if other countries had 500Tbps internet connections, a T1 is broadband, period. The definition of "Broadband" is: Pertaining to or denoting a type of high-speed data transmission in which the bandwidth is shared by more than one simultaneous signal. A T1 has 24 signals traveling over it, I may be wrong here, but I am pretty sure 24 counts as 'more than one'.
          • Re: Broadband

            The entire bandwidth of a T1 is consumed by a single signal at any one time, hence it is really baseband (government definitions not withstanding). The 24 channels are multiplexed (only one at a time is on the wire, each consuming the entire bandwdith). Cable Internet service is actually broadband since there are multiple signals at the same time, and no single signal occupies the entire bandwidth.

            24 is more than one, but the 24 are not at the same time.
          • yes...

            A T1 does use 24 channels which ride on their own respective lines. But they are multiplexed to act as a single line. CATV or DSL would have been a better example of broadband I suppose, as both use multiple signals on a single line. Although DSL is just barely broadband since it basically has the audio carrier at a lower frequency, then the data at a slightly higher frequency. CATV on the other hand can have in upwards of 110 analog channels, or a lower number of analog with digital mixed in.

            But the issue here is defining broadband as speed, rather than its actual definition.
          • Broadband Definition

            It is interesting that, by the government (FCC) definition, baseband ethernet is classified as broadband. The only broadband ethernet (10Broad36) was never popular or widely deployed.
          • Yes, that is the technical definition

            The definition used by the public means high-speed Internet access. You can blame cable and other ISP's for making broadband mean high speed to the public.

            Technically you can have broadband that is slower than dialup because the definition of broadband doesn't denote data speed at all. Broadband only means you have more than one frequency. You were incorrect to say that broadband includes high-speed.

            The United States is behind other countries in access speed. That deficit is only going to get far worse in the next few years.
          • You cannot compare

            the USA to other, smaller countries. Yes, most european countries, and some asian (japan for one) have faster internet access. However, they are also *VERY* small countries (physical size, not population). Its very easy to make high sped internet cost effect if you have a small, dense country. The USA is VERY rural, and cannot be compared to these countries. I work for a company that designs and builds fiber optic equipment for the CATV industry, I know exactly what goes into building a network. Yes it would be nice to have fast internet to everybody in the country, but unless the federal government wants to dump billions into the project, it is not going to happen.
          • I wasn't debating against that at all

            I merely pointed out that the deficit will rise.

            That includes the deficit between city and rural populations inside the United States.

            Ethernet over Power sounds like it has the potential to fix this deficit. This would drastically reduce the cost of infrastructure since 99.9% of the population has electrical cabling running to their home/business.

            I am in complete agreement that it will be more difficult to get high-speed Internet to everyone in the United States. We have shear scale of size to contend with.
          • Already dumped billions. Should have it by now

          • Total bunk...

            Total telco lobby/industry rubbish. If country size is to blame, why is Canada kicking our butt in broadband penetration/price? The real reason is lack of any meaningful competition in the brodband internet industry in this country. The US doesnt have to invest billions. It just needs to force the increasingly monopolistic cable industry to be clasified as a common carrier and lease its lines to 3rd party providers. If the free market were actually allowed to floursh, prices would drop, speeds would increase, penetration would be greater.

            I hold little hope of this happening however due to the total and complete lack of ethics our politicians show in the face of industry lobby.
          • Canada...

            ...has good broad band in their major cities, and its determined by the province, not the country as a while. Sure the city of Vancouver has great broadband, but if you move east into the less populated areas, that no longer holds true.

            The fact of the mater is if you live in an area with low population density (which most of the USA is) then it cost a LOT more to get a high speed connection to you, as the revenue from the area is much much lower.
          • and most other country's make you pay buy how much bandwidth you use

            and most other country's make you pay buy how much bandwidth you use not pay one price use as much as you want.

            and most sites only let you download at anywhere from 1mb/ps to 1.5/mb/ps to have a tb/ps connection it seems to me would be a

            i have a 12mb/ps connection and in my net travels i have never used more than 1.5 2mb/ps at the most at any one website.

            so higher bandwidth on the end-user side with out the content provider giving faster downloads is just a waist.
            SO.CAL Guy
          • Quote from Consumer Federation report

            Apologists for the poor U.S. broadband numbers are quick to attribute the low penetration level
            to this country?s relatively low population density. In Martin?s Financial Times article, he states:
            ?Given the geographic and demographic diversity of our nation, the U.S. is doing exceptionally well.
            Comparing some of the ?leading? countries with areas of the U.S. that have comparable population
            density, we see similar penetration rates.?
            Martin blames U.S. geography for our poor broadband performance, but the facts tell a different
            story. For the 30 nations of the OECD, population density is not significantly correlated with
            broadband penetration. Indeed, the leading broadband nation in the OECD, Iceland,
            has one of the lowest population densities in the world.
            There is no valid theoretical reason why population density should be correlated with broadband
            penetration. What Martin is likely trying to convey is the phenomenon of ?economies of density.?
            In theory, it should be less costly on a per-line basis to deploy broadband to an area that is highly
            populated than one that is sparsely populated ? all other things being equal.
            But population density is not the relevant metric to capture this phenomenon ? as people tend
            to cluster in cities, regardless of the overall geographical area of a particular country. The relevant
            metric is ?urbanicity,? or the percentage of a nation?s population living in urban areas or clusters.
            Broadband Reality Check II September 2006 11
            When the relationship between urbanicity and broadband penetration is examined, there?s only
            a very weak, statistically insignificant correlation. Countries like the Netherlands
            and Switzerland have lower percentages of their population living in urban areas than the United
            States yet have higher broadband penetration rates. Similarly, countries like New Zealand and
            Germany have higher percentages of urban population than the United States but lower broadband
            penetration levels. Geographic factors alone cannot explain why the United States lags behind.
          • You're comparing countries smaller than one state!

            No valid comparison there. Why not compare just the state of Texas, or California to the countries that you mention? I'll bet that the results would be different.

            I guess that comparing apples and oranges is only good if you want to skew the results........?
            Spoon Jabber
          • Re: You cannot compare

            [i]Its very easy to make high sped internet cost effect if you have a small, dense country. The USA is VERY rural, and cannot be compared to these countries.[/i]

            But you can compare. The DC-Boston corridor, a megalopolis with about 46 million residents, compares rather nicely to a small dense country. S. Korea has 48 million residents in a larger area.

            The access speeds are much slower in the US than other countries even when you compare apples to apples.

            none none
          • Re: Canada...

            [i]The fact of the mater is if you live in an area with low population density (which most of the USA is) then it cost a LOT more to get a high speed connection to you, as the revenue from the area is much much lower.[/i]

            That may be true, but there are areas of the US as large and dense as some of the countries beating us, and we can't get better service there, either.

            Like the megalopolis in my post above this. If the DC-Boston corridor split off into it's own small, dense country, by your account it would have all the properties needed to get cheap, high-speed access.

            Which means it already does have all the properties needed. So why don't the residents there have access like they do in S. Korea?

            none none
          • Billions = $3/person/billion

            On the topic of costs, with 300 million or so Americans, amassing a few billion dollars would not actually be an insurmountable barrier. The economic barrier is the billions we have already put into infrastructure deployment for what is now terribly obsolete infrastructure, but which the various carriers (telco, CATV, et al) need to depreciate in order to keep the financials looking good. We have the means to deliver higher speed service whether we use broadband, which I take to mean a multiplexed media using frequency division multiplexing, or baseband such as single signal Ethernet and time division multiplexed T1 or mixed media as in baseband voice and carrier based data in a mixed DSL/voice line, or even some other technology like Ethernet over Power (darned if I even know how that one is encoded...) Regardless of which you choose, our biggest disadvantage is that we were the rabbit who was wqay ahead, and now we are taking a nap while the turtles cruise on down the highway. That's the result of market forces, not the government.