A Breakdown of Net Neutrality




On May 15, the FCC will vote on a draft proposal governing how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are allowed to control the traffic that passes through them.

This could bring an end to what has been a standard practice since the birth of the Internet.

Right now, when your data (whatever it is) passes between you and the sites and services you access, it is treated no better or worse than your neighbors’ data. This concept is broadly called “Net Neutrality” and is a critical part of what makes the Internet great. A handful of massive telecommunications companies like Comcast and Time Warner want to be allowed to micro-manage traffic as it passes to and from its customers and charge extra for preferential treatment.

To illustrate the danger, I present a brief story I call, “Premium Sidewalk:”

While walking to your neighborhood grocery store, a man in a uniform riding a Segway scooter yells at you to wait just as you are about to cross the street.

“Officer R. B’Trary from the Sidewalk service enhancement team,” the officer says. “What is your destination?”

You tell him the grocery store. His stopwatch beeps, and he gestures that you can now pass just before he whizzes away.

At the next corner, Officer B’Trary appears again to insist you wait. Ten seconds later, you are signaled to proceed. As you approach the next corner, you prepare to launch into a tirade. Before you have a chance, your neighbor Ken walks past wearing a vest labeled “Premium Sidewalk” on the back and crosses the street without breaking stride.

Irritated, you ask why Ken could pass. B’Trary replies, “That is a Premium Sidewalk customer” and hands you a “Premium Sidewalk” brochure listing “Premium Sidewalk” for $20/month. Destinations can also pay for Premium Sidewalk. Apparently the grocery store has not. A shared resource that is paid for in other ways has been altered, not to improve traffic flow or service, but just to extract more revenue.

In order to create “Fast Lanes,” the broadband ISPs will not add more capacity. Instead, they will slow everyone else’s traffic down. Real world examples of what could happen include:

  • Netflix video streaming suddenly becomes uselessly slow while Hulu keeps working. Your brother across the country (who has a different ISP) sees the exact opposite.
  • Your ISP starts offering Internet add-ons like “Skype Premium” and suddenly your Skype calls stop working.
  • Your email stops being delivered reliably to certain regions of the country with the explanation that the recipients have not paid the extra for their ISP’s “email plus” package.

Proponents of “Fast Lanes” argue that they need to be able to charge more for services that consume higher bandwidth, raising fears of bandwidth hogs ruining service for everyone. Speaking as a network engineer, most of these arguments fall flat. Network congestion usually occurs at the “head end” as traffic passes out of the ISP’s network and into other provider networks.

Interconnections between providers and the cost of bandwidth over them are not cheap, so many providers skimp there. Meanwhile, they offer what appears to be faster and faster services to the customer. What good is a 100 Megabit connection, though, when the path from the provider to the greater Internet is clogged? That is where the “Fast Lane” comes in: Take congested connections and give lower priority to everything except those willing to pay extra. Instead of having to buy more upstream bandwidth, the ISP can keep the same undersized pipes in place and get more money for it. There is actually a disincentive to fixing bottlenecks in the “Fast Lane” model because no one will pay for them if the normal lanes work well.

If there were true competition in broadband, then the market could prevent problems, allowing users to choose between any number of alternate providers with better performing and lower cost service. The United States does not have that level of choice in most markets (see www.broadbandmap.gov). Despite some excellent regional broadband efforts, most areas still only have one or two of the same broadband giants to choose from. This creates the classic oligopoly in which a few powerful entities compete on stock price and quarterly earnings instead of performance and user satisfaction.

Since broadband is not governed under “common carrier” rules that apply to everything from trucking and shipping to phone calls in this country, providers have no obligation to treat what passes over their networks equally. Preferential treatment of information and goods generally leads to less freedom and higher costs, which is why so many tech giants (Google, Apple, Amazon, etc.) oppose “Fast Lane” changes. 

The FCC is accepting comments on the issue until May 15. I urge you to research the issue for yourself by reading more, like this article from ARS Technica: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/04/the-fccs-fast-lane-rule-is-awful-for-the-internet-just-ask-the-fcc/

Paul Hirsch is a Senior Network Engineer for Citon Computer Corp. If you have a question for Paul, you can contact him using the form below. 

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