OK, there’s been a lot of news lately about a proposed government regulation of the internet and the issue of “net neutrality”. All sorts of talking heads are saying all sorts of silly things.
If we do have net neutrality, it will be the end of the internet as we know it.
If we do NOT have net neutrality, it will be the end of the internet as we know it.
If we have net neutrality, costs will skyrocket, or not.
Fox News even had a ‘security expert’ on claiming it would cause all sorts of security problems as government regulation would cause old software to be used and suppress carriers from upgrading their networks, and cause a more complex network. (A bit off the mark, IMHO, though it sounded good to the anchor…)
So what’s the real dope, in a thumbnail?
Historically we have always had “net neutrality”. That just means that a carrier just carries packets and does not care what is in them, or where they come from. Rather like your phone calls, who you call and what you say is up to you. This is a good thing for a giant list of reasons, but not the least of which is that we (meaning me) don’t need anyone looking inside my packets and deciding what I ought to be doing, or how much of it, or with whom.
In a few cases, there have been attempts to not be ‘neutral’. Comcast, for one, completely banned bittorrent traffic at one point. Yes, it is often used to share “peer to peer” music or other things that are not in the public domain and in a way that is counter to some country law or another. It is also critical for all sorts of software sharing among those of us who do computer support for a living. Nothing like being in a hotel in BumFrack Walloon and needing to download a patched version of software for a client and finding out the hotel is blocking bittorrent… (so you have to resort to ‘other means’). Similarly, there have been attempts to block The Onion Network, and a few other things. But, by and large, the net has been mostly ‘neutral’ (China excepted…)
So why NOW is there a row over it? Simple. Netflix.
Comcast was pissed because folks were using the cable network to watch Netflix instead of the limited, controlled, paid content from Comcast. They wanted a cut of the action and did not want the competition. They, rightly, claimed that they built their network, so ought not to be subsidizing the competition. They wrongly argued that they were not being paid for their network and Netflix ought to pay up. (Their customers paid for internet access; not for occasional access throttled to some places with extortion money paid…)
The basic problem is this: Providers of premises connections (your Internet Connection) sell you a fantasy. They say you have bought, say, a 10 Mb connection. (That is, 10 million bits per second) And it is, but only in small bursts and if your neighbors are not using what THEY bought too. So they sold you a size ten pipe, but it connects together 100 of them (that ought to be a 1000 sized pipe) into a 100 sized pipe, since most of the time most folks won’t be using all that speed they bought. (Compare this to wireless that is sold by the total MegaBytes per month, not the speed alone). Then folks decided to actually use what they had bought. Often at the same time, to watch Netflix movies.
Now, in my book, if I bought a size 10 pipe, then I ought to be able to use my size 10 pipe for a size 10 flow of information all day every day. That, frankly, is the nub of the problem. They sold me a size 10 pipe, but figured I’d only use a size 1 pipe most of the time and most of my neighbors and me would only use that 10 size for short bursts once in a while.
So both Comcast and AT&T would love to be able to say to Netflix: You pay us a bundle of that money you are getting or we will cut your service to our customers down to a crawl. The problem with that, of course, is that Netflix is paying THEIR service provider for a full sized pipe to carry all their traffic; and you, the customer, are paying AT&T, Comcast, or your service provider for a pipe big enough to carry Netflix to you any time you want. You both bought nice big fat services and expect them to work, as advertised and sold. The problem being that your carrier didn’t expect you to actually use what they sold you.
Now, the twist. AT&T and other carriers have decided they want to be in the television delivery business. So they also want the monopoly pricing power to make sure the competition costs more than their product costs. Why let Netflix come into your home for $10 / month when they want to sell a product for $100 / month? They would really like to stick it to Netflix enough to get the Netflix price up to $100 /month too.
So who’s right?
IMHO the ‘root problem’ was the carrier decision to build a backbone that was no where near enough capacity to run everything at high speeds, then to sell peak performance not actual average. It is that marketing decision to build for low average, but sell peak, that was the basic lie in the design.
Why do we need the government involved? Well, really, we don’t. Folks can easily change providers if the one they have gets in their grill too much. But most folks want to think someone else can just fix it for you. And, in some cases, it really is the case that government needs a bit of involvement. (At my house, I have only wires from AT&T on the pole. I can buy my service from several ISPs (internet service providers) but the wires from the telco to my home are owned by AT&T and they can and will play with the service level as they see fit for their own purposes).
Is the fix worse than the disease?
We’ll see, but I think it will be. All we really need is a simple requirement to be ‘net neutral’ and leave everything else alone. What we will get is that as soon as it is a ‘regulated industry’ we will be ground into the dirt with massive regulations. They only ever grow, and will become oppressive over time, subject to capture by the oligopoly players (i.e. AT&&T, Comcast, etc.) and never keeping up with innovation; stifling it instead.
To the extent more intrusive things like “deep packet inspection” and QOS protocols (Quality Of Service) are implemented on networks and used to throttle some providers over others, or block some traffic and protocols, we will do ever more what folks in places like China do today. Encrypted tunnels. Clandestine data paths. Hidden ‘dark nets’. Just like the bittorrent protocol mutated to get past various attempts to prevent it.
Maybe that’s a good thing, as that means ever more traffic will be hidden from prying eyes. But it is also annoying, disruptive, and far less efficient in network use. Oh Well.
IMHO, the ‘best’ solution would be simply to require the common carriers (who are already under FCC regulation) to be net neutral providers of service, and let increased prices for premises service reflect the greater build out of the backbone for ever higher service usage. Leave the internet that flows on top of their services completely alone.
Essentially, have them build what they ought to have built, a full speed backbone, and charge accordingly. I’d also have them authorized to sell a ‘by the Mbyte’ service for folks who do not intend to use things like Netflix and just do low volume usage but with a guaranteed peak rate. (That is, a legacy type network with peak greater than average by a large amount, but with a guarantee of service rate with limits on volume to match average usage to the build structure). That way folks who just check email once a week pay for just that, and those who watch Netflix 10 hours a day, buy a full speed pipe (what is advertised today, but not delivered to all) and pay for that unlimited access.
We already have all sorts of ‘tiers’ of service (companies pay a lot more than private persons, with various speed and volume levels) so having a bit more honesty about what you are buying at retail is not a big burden.
It’s just that those providers don’t want to admit they sold what can not be delivered (full advertised speed to all customers) and they would like to have alternative video providers by the short hairs as that gives them a grip on the competition that they would like to suppress.
Unfortunately, that is not what we will get from government declaring they regulate the internet. We will get volumes of red tape, expense, and ever more reduction of what we can do with our liberty, and ever more ‘inspection’ of our traffic (as if NSA sucking it all up was not enough…).
As people respond with more protected packet types, do not be surprised to find things like VPNs and encrypted traffic forced through protocols and methods that leave it wide open to government (and perhaps telco) snooping. (The end game of that is some kind of steganographic hidden network inside what looks like normal traffic so the snoops can think they are watching, but not seeing the bittorent inside that B&W movie from 1950…)
I would be most happy with a “Common Carriers must be network neutral” and nothing else, I’m quite certain that once Government gets a nose in the tent, it will bring in the whole camel of expense, snooping, and more. Likely, that’s the reason for the “controversy”; to enable that action “for the greater good”…