Net neutrality and politics don't mix

Net neutrality and politics don't mix

Summary: The FCC under Chairman Michael Powell slapped down Madison River communications along with a $15,000 fine in March of 2005. Net neutrality didn't exist and it certainly played no role in the FCC slap down of Madison's monopolistic practices. Had the ISP simply given prioritization to their own VoIP traffic (considering it's their pipe) or given prioritization to companies that pay for priority service but not explicitly block or go out of their way to de-prioritized Vonage VoIP traffic, then why should there be a problem? This is exactly how the Internet has worked all these years. Those who pay extra get bandwidth priority, those who don't get best effort on packet delivery and the key word here is "best effort". So long as the ISP doesn't deliberately sabotage a VoIP competitor or deliberately slow them down to the point of being unusable, then no one should have a problem with this. What we don't need is a massive set of new regulations that ban the ISP from offering premium services at extra cost.

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TOPICS: Google
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[Update: 12:00 AM June 9, 2006] The amount of political rhetoric coming from the Net neutrality crowd is at a fever pitch.  From MoveOn.org to SaveTheInternet.com practicing their brand of scare the public to a self-interest driven "do-no-evil" Google, the consistent message we're getting is this:  [More scare mongering here]

  • Internet Telco providers will control what you see on the net
  • There will be a two tiered Internet
  • Google or other websites might respond at a snails pace or work at all
  • Voice over IP telephony providers will be shut out

Would Google support "Search neutrality" regulation to ban search companies from providing premium search result placement at extra cost? What's needed is an intelligent and balanced debate on this topic, but the issue as represented by many in the media has been largely one sided.  Instead of seeing this as a battle of large corporations between companies like Google and AT&T, we are suppose to believe that it is just the "evil" Telco companies and the "evil" politicians they paid off opposing Net neutrality against the people.  If we are suppose to start with this premise, then we may as well not even have a debate since we've demonized any and all opposition to begin with.  [Update:  David Berlind posted a response to this].

Net neutrality is largely technological issue with very little to do with politics.  Do we honestly believe the politicians are capable of regulating the routers on the Internet when they have no clue how the Internet actually works?  This is the first time I've officially weighed in on this issue and I'm going to address this debate from a technology standpoint which has largely been missing.  I'm going to start by address the fear mongering point by point.


Internet Telco providers will control what you see on the net:
Oh really?  What part of the Internet do they control now and what services and websites are being filtered?  Sergey Brin of Google thinks that AT&T and Verizon's proposal to offer faster network performance to companies that pay more is tantamount to censorship.  But Internet Service providers are already providing traffic prioritization today in various forms and the Internet as we know it hasn't come to an end.  Anyone who's ever bought an Internet connection knows that ISPs will provide SLA (Service Level Agreements) for traffic prioritization at extra cost.

In the case of broadband access, some of us pay $15 a month for 1 mbps Internet service.  Others pay $25 a month for 3 mbps Internet service from the same ISP.  For businesses willing to fork out $90 a month, they even get to have "business class" DSL service where they get a much better ratio of backhaul throughput to the aggregate throughput of the customers sharing the same backhaul.  Oh and what about priority shipping of packages?  What is the difference between paying for priority shipping on a physical package versus an IP package?  Is this what they're referring to as "a two tiered Internet"?  Gosh imagine that!  Pay more money and get better throughput, of all the nerve!  [Update: Net neutrality extremists want to ban charges for premium services]

There will be a two tiered Internet:
Google provides better search placement for additional cost at the expense of companies who can't afford to pay, should this be illegal too?  Would Google support "Search neutrality" regulation to ban search companies from providing premium search result placement at extra cost?  Oh and what about Akamai Internet caching services?  Akamai provides premium throughput and caching to optimize content downloads for those who can afford it and if you can't, too bad.  Should this be outlawed too?

What about companies like FileShack.com?  They cap download performance for nonpaying customers at a pathetic 100 kbps while customers who pay extra get to download any content at much higher speeds.  Should we also ban them from offering two classes of service for the haves and have-nots?  Why not spread the wealth and spread the bandwidth so that everyone gets a bigger piece of the pie?  Hey let's take this to its logical conclusion and ban all forms of premium services.  Why should we have first class seating on airplanes where tons of space is "wasted" so that some poor soul like me has to be crammed in to the back of the plane?  I suppose if this were the Soviet Union, we would stop all the "inequities" so that we can all stand in line together for long periods of time while no one ever seeks to improve the status quo since there are zero incentives.

Google or other websites might respond at a snails pace or work at all:
Do we honestly believe that any ISP will make destinations like Google inaccessible?  I would dare say that the first ISP that tries this will be the first to go out of business, before the FCC even has a chance to have a hearing to fine them.  Anyone who uses this type of scare tactic hasn't a clue on how network traffic prioritization works and the politicians are even less likely to understand.  Traffic prioritization typically never hurts applications like web surfing.  It makes absolutely no difference if a webpage comes in bursts of packets and some minor few second delays so long as it comes in at all within a few seconds.  One tenth of that delay however would absolutely kill time sensitive applications like online video games and Voice over IP communications.

The fact of the matter is, games and VoIP don't require a lot of throughput, what they need is a lot of priority.  VoIP and games typically require a slow but consistent 40 kbps stream with low latency.  The technological challenge of providing quality VoIP and smooth gaming services is relatively trivial since they don't require a lot of bandwidth and they don't overly displace other forms of traffic.  The exception to this rule is video conferencing which requires high throughput and low latency.  Any priority given to VoIP and Games will not adversely affect HTTP (web) traffic in any significant way and you will still be able to load any webpage in a reasonable amount of time.

Demanding true Net neutrality would be sheer madness if no prioritization was ever allowed.  What would at least be debatable is application neutrality where classes of applications would be treated equal within the same class but still permit traffic prioritization for applications that need it.  But in a free market society, application neutrality should never mandate no prioritization at all to paying parties since no one would ever be allowed to differentiate their service.  So long as no one completely blocks a service or go out of their way to deliberately de-prioritize a competitor's traffic to make it unusable, why would anyone have a problem.  That shouldn't mean that an ISP has to go out of their way to prioritize someone's traffic at no cost.


So what is all the hoopla about with Google?  Google and companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, and YouTube all want a piece of the multimedia pie in the form of Video content delivery since everyone seems to love watching video over the Internet these days.  Should AT&T or Verizon be allowed to offer fast track services for Google or anyone else willing to pay extra money?  If not, what is the difference between AT&T offering higher throughput to Google versus Akamai offering caching service to Google?  From a business perspective, there's absolutely no difference because money buys you better performance in either case.  From a technical perspective, the Telco solution is sheer stupidity in the sense that it's the most expensive way to deliver the same broadcast content over and over again using precious unicast bandwidth every single time.  Akamai or any caching solution doesn't rely on faster Internet connections, they simply have strategically located content caching engines that allow you to bypass the traffic jam altogether such that traffic prioritization becomes moot.  The Telco's solution of allocating more dedicated bandwidth at significant cost with minimum scalability would simply collapse from its own stupidity because no one would use it.  In light of this, do we actually need a politician to save us?

Furthermore, there's an even better solution than Akamai since it's free.  BitTorrent fundamentally works on the caching principle of never transmit the same file over a traffic jam more than you need to but it's different from Akamai in the sense that the caching engines are recruited from the users themselves.  Anyone who wishes to download a popular file essentially agrees to share some of their upstream bandwidth in exchange for fast downloads.  This means the more people there are, the more cache sources there are.  Even a small server (or even an individual) with very limited bandwidth has the power to deliver content to millions of people and bypass all the toll booths from the Telcos and Akamai!  It is not the politicians delivering this capability to you; better technology is.  As powerful as Google or Microsoft is, they could easily build or buy their own integrated Torrent client and chop video up in to 30 second segments so that people will only need to wait half a minute to start watching higher quality content.  Matt Sherman who runs a blog out of San Francisco points out that the video quality on services like Google video or YouTube is often worse than TV quality in the 70s.  With more intelligent technology like BitTorrent, bandwidth would no longer be scarce and much of the fight over bandwidth would be moot.

Voice over IP telephony providers will be shut out:
Ah but didn't those evil Internet Service Providers recently try to squash competing VoIP providers like Vonage by blocking their VoIP traffic?  They sure did but guess what happened to them?  The FCC under Chairman Michael Powell (appointed by the same party that is now being demonized for opposing certain provisions of Net neutrality regulations) slapped down Madison River communications along with a $15,000 fine in March of 2005!  Net neutrality didn't exist and it certainly played no role in the FCC slap down of Madison's monopolistic practices.

Had the ISP simply given prioritization to their own VoIP traffic (considering it's their pipe) or given prioritization to companies that pay for priority service but not explicitly block or go out of their way to de-prioritized Vonage VoIP traffic, then why should there be a problem?  This is exactly how the Internet has worked all these years.  Those who pay extra get bandwidth priority, those who don't get best effort on packet delivery and the key word here is "best effort".  So long as the ISP doesn't deliberately sabotage a VoIP competitor or deliberately slow them down to the point of being unusable, then no one should have a problem with this.  What we don't need is a massive set of new regulations that ban the ISP from offering premium services at extra cost.

While the Republicans blocked certain provisions of Net neutrality, that doesn't mean they're going to let the ISPs run wild.  The Republican alternative was to "require the Federal Communications Commission to vet all complaints of violations of Net neutrality principles within 90 days.  It gave the FCC the power to levy fines of up to $500,000 per violation."   Now this sounds a lot like the Madison River case where the FCC did their job before any talk of Net neutrality, only this time all complaints have to be vetted by law and the fine is half a million dollars per infraction!  Do we honestly believe any ISP would ever dare block another port again?  If the FCC did their job before, why would anyone believe they're less inclined to do their job now with the new proposed law?

In summary, I hope I've added some balance to this important debate, and everyone needs to step back and look at the issue with an open mind.  Net neutrality is a very complicated issue and deserves more than the mindless scare tactics.  [Update: I've posted a sensible Net neutrality solution].

Topic: Google

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151 comments
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  • Competition

    What is best for everyone involved in the content delivery process, has to be what is best for customers - not any one group of providers. What, as you indicate, customers' want is choice; customers' want to pay the most competitive price, and that will be the one which is competitively provided and precisely matches their service requirements (i.e. n-tier).

    Additional technical regulation should be avoided wherever possible, because what is really required is more effective competition in the marketplace. Increased competition will naturally result in the right price/cost or supply/demand models.
    Fandorin
  • Ignoring reality.

    In a perfect world where there multiple ISPs and technologies competing for consumer dollars what you suggest might be workable. But that is not the world we live in.

    The vast majority of of locals in the US are served by one ISP (if at all). In that situation you take what is offered, or STHU and go away. I happen to live in just such a local, my ISP is my local telco and there is no competition of any kind. They have changed "our" agreement in major ways 4 times in 5 years. In each case I complained and the responce was, "will this the last month you will be with us then"?

    Currently, they have a new "faster" service (more bandwidth) offer, but there is a catch. Only those customers that have their phone and long distance service with them are eligible for the new service. They are promicing (threatening?) that in the near future they will be offering TV over the DSL connection, but again the only people that can get it will be those that buy all services from them in a bundled package.

    You suggest people in general believe the telcos are "evil". I would respond by saying yes, you are right, and it's a lable they worked at very hard to earn...
    No_Ax_to_Grind
    • I don't know why the telcos are favoring consumers...

      ... in this case; you're right that they don't have a very good track record. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that they will become service providers in competition with Google et al. Which means regulation will have to be watchful.

      But concerning this issue, true as what you've said might be, it is not directly relevant to the issue of whether the telcos should charge those using extra capacity or everyone else, whether they use the services or not.
      Anton Philidor
      • You missed the main point.

        I am willing to pay for faster speeds, but I want that speed to apply to any site I go to or any service I decide to buy and I don't want to be forced into buying long distance from them.
        No_Ax_to_Grind
        • Different issue.

          This has to do with special pipes available only to certain service/content providers, and not a speed increase available to all customers at all sites.

          I'd agree that customers should have access to all speeds, though even there tiered pricing is worthwhile to me. I wouldn't pay for the fastest speed for myself.
          Anton Philidor
          • It's the only issue.

            Again, I don't want to pay for something I can't use the way *I* want too.

            As I explained above, I am dealing with a monopoly and as such it must be tightly regulated and indeed forced to provide "equal" service to all points *I* choose.

            I can not simply go elsewhere if I don't like how they run things. There is no alternative.
            No_Ax_to_Grind
          • Huh?

            Where do you live? Timbuktu? I'm not being facetious But are we referring to cable, satellite, DSL or what? Surely you have choices from thsoe varieties right?
            Shelendrea
          • Only one choice

            My local Telco is the only game around and is my ISP. (I tried satellite and it was horrible. One rain cloud anywhere and I was off line.)
            No_Ax_to_Grind
          • Further...

            I am far from alone. Geographically 70% of the US has only a single provider.
            No_Ax_to_Grind
          • There's two customers here

            No_Ax, you're heading in the right direction, but I don't think you're seeing (or expressing here) the bigger picture.

            There's two customers here: the consumer who gets broadband access from the telco, and the independent service provider, ala Google, that gets broadband access from the telco. OK - Google may be a bad example since they've bought truckloads of dark fiber all over the US the last 4 or 5 years.

            Despite all the rhetoric you may hear, Net Neutrality boils down to viewpoints over one major point:

            The Telcos' viewpoint is they want the Internet "free from regulation" so that they can charge whatever the market will bear for whatever service they offer.

            The independent service providers' viewpoint is they want the Internet "regulated" so that the telcos can't price the ISP out of the market, and failing that, the telcos can't artificially degrade the service the ISP's are getting in order to make similar telco services look better to consumers.

            Your points about being forced to accept an inferior bundled service from the telco is fallout. It's a classic monopoly grab on the telcos part. Underprice your competitors in order to grab a major piece of their traditional market, while inhibiting new competition in your own. Kinda sounds like Microsoft, don't it? That's the irony of this thing - Microsoft is finding themselves on the short end of the monopoly stick in this case. So your argument here against the telcos kinda taints your arguments against Linux elsehere in the Talkbacks. This is exactly what we Linux backers are arguing about when it comes to MS vs. Linux :-)
            NetArch.
          • And both pay based on bits moved.

            I pay a monthly fee to the ISP to move my bits. (Do we agree so far?)

            Google also pays a monthly fee to the ISP they are connected to. (Do we agree on that?)

            If I want to move more bits I have to pay for a bigger pipe. If Google wants to move more bits they must do the same.

            In other words, both customers are paying the ISPs to move their bits. What is in the bits makes no difference at all in costs, only the volume and that has already been paid for.

            As far as MS is concerned I don't agree, you DO have alternatives, I have exactlly one choice for my connection.
            No_Ax_to_Grind
          • Again, it's "best effort" No Axe

            "I pay a monthly fee to the ISP to move my bits. (Do we agree so far?)

            Google also pays a monthly fee to the ISP they are connected to. (Do we agree on that?)

            If I want to move more bits I have to pay for a bigger pipe. If Google wants to move more bits they must do the same."

            You're absolutely right. That's exactly how it is now. You pay for higher bandwidth DSL or Cable service, you get better service. However what you're not entitled is better back haul ratios until you pay for "Business class" DSL service. You're not entitled to packet prioritization until you pay for T1 class service with prioritization. This is exactly how things are today today, and it works.

            What you're entitled to is no ports or destinations get blocked or deliberately slowed down. If any ISP pulls that nonsense on you, they will now get slapped with a $500,000 fine per incident. Why is that not sufficient for you?
            georgeou
          • No_Ax, I agree with you here...

            No_Ax, I agree with you here; I was just poking a little fun re: MS since you always do the same :-)

            The following is for George:

            The telcos have already proven that they will intentionally degrade service when given the chance - even when it was illegal. What do you think the whole sorry mess DSL was 3-6 years ago? Telcos were intentionally dropping packets - they were intentionally dropping service orders (and trouble tickets) for DSL lines that they were leased force to lease to competitors under Equal Access rules. It amounts to the same thing.

            Don't think for a minute that just because a telco got their hand slapped for blocking VoIP packets to a competitor's service and had to pay a fine that they'll play nice and watch potential income just slip by. They'll just degrade the service by artificially injecting jitter into voice streams:
            http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20051025/145250_F.shtml
            NetArch.
          • No_Ax, I agree with you here...Edit

            No_Ax, I agree with you here; I was just poking a little fun re: MS since you always do the same :-)

            The following is for George:

            The telcos have already proven that they will intentionally degrade service when given the chance - even when it was illegal. What do you think the whole sorry mess DSL was 3-6 years ago? Telcos WEREN'T intentionally dropping packets - they were intentionally dropping service orders (and trouble tickets) for DSL lines that they were leased force to lease to competitors under Equal Access rules. It amounts to the same thing.

            Don't think for a minute that just because a telco got their hand slapped for blocking VoIP packets to a competitor's service and had to pay a fine that they'll play nice and watch potential income just slip by. They'll just degrade the service by artificially injecting jitter into voice streams:
            http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20051025/145250_F.shtml
            NetArch.
    • No limitations

      I agree Bit.

      The telecoms will do anything within the letter of the law in order to increase the margins. They abide no ethical or moral constraints.

      Ususally true competition will serve to protect consumers from abusive practices. However most of these telecoms in most areas enjoy a monopoly or duopoly. If they can discriminate against content competitors in favor of their own services and content then they eventually will unless they are limited by law.

      I think Ou is smart enough to understand this reality based on previous experience which indicates that he must have an agenda. What is your agenda Ou?
      Tim Patterson
      • So a cable company monopoly is better?

        Noticed that the cable companies are increasing their rates where the telcos are not a substantial competitor? (Albeit providing increased speed.)

        The telcos are the new competition based on cheaper prices. They do have to be permitted to create a duopoly, because the alternative is worse.

        They also have to be regulated closely, as you say.
        Anton Philidor
    • Since you have DSL, you might want to check into resellers

      Like you, my tuny rural town's only broadband choice (beside wireless) is DSL from SB...errrr....I mean, AT&T.

      After your contract runs out, they of course want you to switch to the higher month-to-month pricing, but this year I found out that sonic.net and dslextreme.com offered DSL in my town. Of course their promo prices were slightly higher than AT&T's, but when faced with having to pay month to month prices, they were a great deal.

      This year, I got tired of playing haggle with the AT&T reps and told them to cancel my service at the end of my contract. I was going to switch to sonic.net, but my wife called At&T back and they offered her the new promo pricing (19.99 for 3000/512) for another year.

      So you should check into the avaiablity of DSL resellers in your area. I found out that there were resellers in my area quite by accident as they don't advertise too much.

      A couple of them I know of off the top of my head are sonic.net, dslextreme.com, and speakeasy.net.
      toadlife
  • Missing the point

    I think George is missing the point. We all pay for our bandwidth. That includes all the services on the Internet such as Google. Now imagine if my ISP Verizon gets to double dip by charging protection money to Google if they want full speed access to me and other the Verizon customers. I paid for bandwidth, Google paid for bandwidth, and now Verizon want additional money from Google to utilizes the bandwidth we both paid for. That's the net neutrality that we should be fighting to keep.
    Mike Page
    • Additional pipes

      The telcos are charging for additional capacity used only for streaming video and other profitable services. If you never used those services, you would be affected only if "net neutrality" becomes law and you have to pay to subsidize Google's profits.

      No benefits, just extra costs to you and extra profits for Google. Who needs your money more, you or Google? That's the only and entire question in this issue.
      Anton Philidor
      • You pay it all in the end - and only the accountants come out ahead

        Ultimately there's no such thing as shifting the cost to the content provider, because that will just force them to charge you more.

        And it doesn't just shift the cost to the content provider and back. It creates costs too. Just think of the extra expense that both the ISPs and web sites would incur if ISPs had to keep track of what sites owe them for what bandwidth, and the web sites had to keep track of what they owed to all those ISPs. It'll all get charged back to the consumer, and the only ones benifitting will be the accountants who gain job security. It wouldn't suprise me at all to find that they were the ones behind the whole idea of user-end ISPs charging web sites for bandwidth.
        johnay