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George Ou, I respectfully disagree with you on net neutrality

 I have buckets of respect for my ZDNet colleague George Ou. He is that rare technologist with a gift for peering through the haze, and offering concrete explanations of the conceptual and the opaque in the tech world.

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I have buckets of respect for my ZDNet colleague George Ou. He is that rare technologist with a gift for peering through the haze, and offering concrete explanations of the conceptual and the opaque in the tech world.

Yet George Ou's views skew more toward market-based solutions and remedies than proactive governmental and statutory remedies for infractions that may not have happened just yet.

Applying his perspective to the net neutrality debate, George likens the right of a phone company to boost connection speeds for favored content customers to that of an overnight delivery service to promise faster delivery to premium accounts that pay extra for it.

Update: George Ou says: I absolutely do NOT believe in an honor system of “take the Telco’s word”. Before there was ever any talk of Net neutrality, Madison River Communications tried to block Vonage and the FCC under Chairman Michael Powell slapped down Madison with a STOP this crap and a $15,000 fine. Under the new bill in congress without the extremist Markey amendment, the FCC must vet all complaints and fine up to $500,000 per incident. I wrote this on Wednesday’s blog here http://blogs.zdnet.com/Ou/?p=242&page=3 and I repeated it here http://blogs.zdnet.com/Ou/?p=243 in the very first paragraph. FCC mandatory reviews and a $500,000 fine per incident sure don’t sound like “take the Telco’s word” to me.

Update: George then makes the point that he believes these potential abuses can be best addressed by mandating that all ISPs disclose all network traffic metrics to the public.  As a matter of fact, one of the most frustrating things about Internet Service providers is getting honest metrics and downtime statistics out of them.  Forcing them to disclose their performance metrics, backhaul to last mile throughput ratios, QoS policies, and other pertinent data would shed light on any suspicious behavior or incompetence.

I for one, would support such disclosures. They would, at the least, provide substantive documentation that would be useful in discussing any untoward favoritism. 

George then adds that if everyone is contending for the same bandwidth on an Internet backbone at the same moment in time, then the priority-service packets should never exceed half the total available bandwidth.  He feels no network provider that uses their senses would violate such a policy, because that would cause service to degrade to the point that many customers would be alienated.

Here's where I differ. I don't think the designation of priority packets should be permitted. That opens up at least the possibility of favored Internet access to content partners. Plus, because of hubris, as well as the law of unintended consequences, I think that network providers may overestimate their ability to maintain system-wide quality for those packets that have not been blessed with what I could colloquially call "most favored packets" standards. 

George then adds: "Furthermore, if a Telco builds additional infrastructure on top of what they already have for the purpose of transporting Internet traffic, they should not be permitted to designate that entire new infrastructure for priority service and must reserve at least half of that new resource for general purpose 'best effort' service."

Once again, I disagree. I find the notion of quotas objectionable. If all packets were treated equally, true, that might be a form of socialism, but I don't trust carrier-content provider dealmaker cabals.  

George also finds major fault with the now-defeated Markey bill, which would have banned surcharges for premium service. I have no problem when a network provider raises monthly subscription fees in markets where speeds have been boosted, but I don't think there should be surcharges for different speeds.

So I am guessing that George and I have a reasonable disagreement driven as much by political philosophy as anything else. I believe that regulation is necessary to curb the type of impulses laid bare in the statements of AT&T  CEO Ed Whitacre and others. An impulse that left to its own devices, would nickel and dime and fee customers well past the point of irritation because institutional investors are yelling for a point or two more of return. I also believe regulation is necessary to level the playing field between those power packet creators and the small Internet content and service providers who lack the capital, dealmaker connections, or both, to play equally. 

But then, that's just an honest difference. George is, by my read, a far more enthusiastic free marketeer than I am.

There are those who would cut the broadband service providers far more slack than George would, thoughGeorge also seems They seem to think we should trust the phone and cable companies at their word that they will not block or slow down content or services that does not happen to be offered by their favorite content partners. Or, for that matter, by those broadband Internet access providers themselves.

I disagree vehemently.

The broadband access providers choose their words carefully. They say they won't "block" or "slow down" any content. Oh yea?

Just an hour ago, I attempted to access ESPN360 over my Comcast connection. I am not a soccer fan but I heard that this World Cup content was not enabled on Comcast- my Internet service provider. And as I show you at the top of this post, that's right.

And that should never happen. If a Web site offers content- even content stored on a caching server rather than entirely through the choke-hold-prone public Internet, it should be available to every Internet user with a connection that has the physical capacity to display that content. 

My guess is that ESPN360 and Comcast did not come to a licensing agreement. It was ESPN360 that refused to pony up. But apparently, they get along swimmingly with Verizon.

Right now, these cases are rare, but without protection of law, I fear they will become endemic.  

Then there's the matter of what constitutes a "slow down." Say I am a cable broadband service provider running at 4 mbps. Then I upgrade my downstream to, say, 7mbps. I promote the hell out of it, offering showcase streaming media content that can be seen at 7mbps. I make the 7mbps a new tier at say, $9.99 extra a month.

That's OK, but what if those new tier's subscribers are proscribed from viewing content that's not optimized for 7mbps? And far worse, what about those 4mbps subscribers who not only won't be able to see the faster speed but will be locked out of the slower speed as well?

There's a prospectively far larger issue. Telephone and cable companies are for-profit enterprises that, as has repeatedly been shown, feel the primal need to get their way whenever they can- and protect that right by political muscle.  When they are blocked from every cent of any subscription increase they want to impose on their customers, they have a record of going through the backdoor by imposing fine-print fees on you and I.

Just like the banks, I should point out. 

An argument could be made that if these broadband access providers try something that runs afoul of the FCC, then the FCC can smite 'em. But one thing is for sure: without the specitivity of a strong, "thou shalt not" net neutrality law, the fee-meisters and the regulators may differ on interpretation of what is being charged, for what purpose the fee exists, and who must pay.

And as to the argument of some that well, we need no more laws on this issue until egregious violations occur, how about the concept of net neutrality laws as deterence. These companies have it in their DNA to push fees and charges to the max. They need to fear doing this without damn good reasons to do so. Not just because the institutional investors and analysts would love for them to.

Liken it to what will probably happen on the road any day of the week. The speed limit is 45 mph. Maybe there is a bit of slack to go 52, but if you are going 58, you think about how you would much rather use the $241 at Home Depot rather than to pay a ticket- and you back off.

Because there is a law. 

Predators- whether four-legged or corporate- must be introduced to deterrence. Without that, the predatory instincts take over.  

Maybe without the fear of being charged with a net neutrality violation, that extra $5.63 the DSL provider's board is debating will go through, wind up in 3-micron small print on your next bill stuffer, and get added to your next invoice. 

Because there isn't a law. Yet.