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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 19, 2014 at 10:32 AM

Net neutrality more myth than reality?

Before we take up arms to defend “net neutrality,” let’s look at whether it’s more myth than reality.

It’s a noble concept. We should aspire to have equal access and fair treatment, online and off. The Internet should remain an open, unfettered sandbox for innovation.

These principles should guide regulators and lawmakers as they consider rules balancing public interest with the reality that the Internet is largely operated by private companies for profit.

By pursuing these principles, we may also prevent Comcast, Verizon and other Internet service providers from killing what’s been a golden goose. There’s always a risk they’ll manipulate prices and service in their favor, or censor information crossing their networks.

But it’s naive to think net neutrality means everyone pays the same price to use the Internet.

That’s never been the case. Since the rise of the commercial Internet, it’s been a place where you pay more to get faster and better service, whether you are a consumer or a company on the other end of the pipe.

Yet listening to the rhetoric over the past week — since the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to float new net-neutrality rules — you’d think it was a pristine stream from which everyone can freely drink as much as they’d like.

At least until the FCC, Comcast and Verizon dam it up and leave average folks and poor startups with just a trickle of bandwidth.

Then you’ve got Netflix — the biggest hog at the trough, whose traffic load is pushing the Internet to its limits — talking about discrimination because it may have to pay more for bandwidth. It’s like hearing the fat kid who decimated the buffet scream about his civil rights when he’s cut off. Oh, the injustice!


In reality, there’s already a class system in place on the Internet, and you’re discriminated against if you don’t pay up. Just look at your broadband bill — the more you pay, the faster your service.

Look into the guts of the Internet, and you’ll see a hodgepodge of network companies that have always charged corporate customers different rates depending on the quality and speed of their connections.

There’s disparity among companies serving up content as well. Those who pay for more and better equipment and connections have websites that load faster and perform better.

Wealthy companies can afford to stash their content around the world, so it loads faster.

Even the individual packets of information flowing across the Internet may be treated differently, depending on what sort of files they contain.

Prioritizing network traffic is a big business. Seattle’s F5 sells $1.5 billion a year worth of software and hardware that companies use to prioritize and manage traffic.

Where it gets sticky is in the last mile, where Internet service providers make the final delivery to your home.

This is where we’re debating whether it’s OK for ISPs to create high-speed toll lanes for companies like Netflix. The FCC proposed this option last week, causing all sorts of outcry.

It makes sense for ISPs that are spending to keep up with the tsunami of traffic from Netflix and other streaming-media services.

Those services now account for 59 percent of North American Web traffic during peak hours, according to Sandvine, a broadband-tools company.

Streaming video traffic is likely to get much heavier in the next few years, as we stream ever more content and move toward ultra-high-definition, 4K video.

ISPs will figure out a way to cover the cost of handling this traffic. If they can’t collect tolls on big deliveries, they’ll probably move from tiered pricing to metered charges, so your monthly broadband bill will vary depending on how much you consume.

Fast lanes would be preferable as long as the overall roadway kept expanding, so everyone kept moving at the same pace.

One risk, though, is that companies on the fast lane will hog the finite amount of capacity, and everyone else will suffer.

For a real-world example, drive around Seattle.


City leaders thought it was a good idea to create fast lanes for buses. But instead of building more lanes, they took away general-purpose lanes that everyone used and gave them to buses.

Buses do carry a bigger load and giving them fast lanes helps them move faster during rush hour. But not everyone uses buses, and most of the day the special lanes are hardly used and not necessary.

In the end, traffic worsened, making Seattle a less pleasant place to live, visit and explore.

A nicer example is the way universities and the federal government, starting in the late 1990s, built a fast lane for research purposes.

Called Internet2, this continues to operate in parallel to the regular Internet with all sorts of public benefit.

Maybe ISPs should work with Netflix and Google to build an Internet3 dedicated to entertainment traffic.

The problem is nobody trusts Comcast and other ISPs. Especially since they’re selling streaming media and other services that compete with others using their pipes; they may be tempted to give their offerings special treatment.

Yet consumers are paying for uniform delivery of whatever they want to download. Ensuring these speeds is part of the FCC’s proposal, but one that will be hard to monitor and enforce.

Fast lanes weren’t allowed under net-neutrality rules the FCC established in 2010, but it turns out those rules were built on a house of cards.

The FCC never had much authority to enforce the rules, a federal court ruled in January, because the agency decided back in 2002 that it would take a hands-off approach to broadband.

Last week, the FCC started over with a new proposal that nobody seems to like or even understand. It also floated the idea of reclassifying broadband as an essential service, like phone service, that needs stricter regulation.

Now we have four months to comment on the proposal. If FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler can sort this out in a way that achieves consensus and upholds the principles of net neutrality, perhaps his next job should be secretary of state.

Comments | Topics: Comcast, FCC, Google


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