Net Neutrality Thumbnail

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”…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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18 Responses to Net Neutrality Thumbnail

  1. philjourdan says:

    I think it will be as well. Since when has a government fix ever worked? The issue is not what Comcast can do – let them! But they are a monopoly – a government created one. remove that. Government is trying to fix a problem it already created. The solution is to get government out of it entirely. Not give them more say over it.

    This regulation will not stand. Partly because the Commissioners are illegal themselves and mostly because the forces against them will find another way.

  2. Power Grab says:

    Let’s see, they say Obamacare lets the gummint take over 16% of the economy. What percentage of the economy is the Internet?

    Feds just want their “piece of the action”, right? Gummints always take over stuff that is profitable. After it turns unprofitable, don’t they privatize it again?

    Isn’t this a case of not having anything really constructive to do?

    I mean, if you are going to keep encouraging people to abort their babies (or not make any in the first place), how are you going to continue growing? Oh, that’s what the immigrants are supposed to do, right? And 40% of the money they spend here is borrowed, according to one illegal immigrant mom I read. So even if most of the natives have destroyed their credit (for whatever reason), you still can let illegals in to keep the borrowing up.

    If you are going to ship most of the manufacturing jobs overseas, how are you going to replace what would have gone into the gummint’s coffers from all that economic activity? Well, I guess that’s what micromanaging the citizens’ health status and food intake is supposed to do – huh?

    I keep thinking they’re just trying to contract the economy without people realizing that’s what’s going on. That’s supposed to be “green”, right? But it’s not what this country was created to do, IMHO.

  3. Larry Ledwick says:

    Basically the same situation as when the airlines over booked flights all the time on the assumption the number of no shows would on average result in a full plane. Bad news for the person who has a reservation and is a bit late for the flight for the only plane he can catch to get to a funeral on time. He then finds that all the seats are taken, and rebooking on a different flight really does him no good so the reservation was really meaningless.

    There are a great many options which the providers could use to resolve the issue if there was good competition to drive them toward solution. If you want a guaranteed high data rate at any time, you could pay for that service level at one rate (because by definition the provider would have to build out surplus capacity that would/could be idle much of the time except during the big game or prime time viewing hours).

    I do have sympathy for the providers position of needing to build for the worst case usage and all the low usage users end up subsidizing the high data load users.

    The other option would sell a guaranteed base rate at any time, use a load metering rate for higher sustained usage. Pay some small premium for sustained high rate usage but only for that period of time you were streaming. The guy who downloads a hugh pdf file only has a brief demand and does not care much about latency if it is reasonable. The person doing voip or streaming media needs low latency or it is pretty useless. Like high demand electric rates those users who stress the system would pay more for their high sustained data rate.

    Unfortunately there is no real competition in many service areas. In the Denver Metro area where I live, we basically have only 2 major providers either Comcast or Century Link and they offer pretty much the same service levels, so there is no hungry new provider in the area to cause them to be innovative. As a result they have basically identical rates for similar services so their is no push to change because there are very few options to go around them (ie like satellite or microwave links) both of which have issues that make then unsuitable for some types of service, giving a defacto shared monopoly to Comcast & century link.

    The Denver Metro area would be an ideal location for Google fiber due to the high concentration of tech companies but so far no move in that direction.

    With internet access becoming so critical and job necessary for so many people you really can’t unplug or vote with your wallet much in the current situation, but I fear the new net neutrality proposal will turn into a bag of snakes before long.

  4. M Simon says:

    The actual proposal for regulation is 322 pages. You can’t find out what is in it until it passes. Sounds like our “perfect” healthcare law. And the FCC promises a light footprint. But what if they later go into full jackboot mode?

    The answer is that cities should allow more competition.

    BTW you can have full speed from about 12 AM to 6 AM local time. At least in the Central Time Zone.

  5. M Simon says:

    Well that is interesting. I’m in the bit bucket?

  6. M Simon says:

    BTW Comcast used to sell me 250GB a month. Then about a year ago they removed volume restrictions. Likely because volume was not the real problem. TOD was the problem. And going to TOD pricing sounds like long distance circa 1950.

  7. M Simon says:

    And then you have this: business pays for higher BW to serve their customers. But if you throttle customers too much business does not need the BW. The pricing model gets very complicated.

  8. M Simon says:

    Basically the same situation as when the airlines over booked flights all the time on the assumption the number of no shows would on average result in a full plane. Bad news for the person who has a reservation and is a bit late for the flight for the only plane he can catch to get to a funeral on time.

    The airlines have a solution for that. They announce that “our stupid reservations office overbooked this flight, is there anyone who would like to take a later flight so a family with a funeral to make can get there on time? We will comp you for a flight anywhere in the continental US.”

  9. omanuel says:

    The world is an ugly place today. AGW promoters lost the debate. Worse yet, Climategate emails, official denials, and public debate have revealed the first clear evidence of widespread deception and injustice. Today Bob Livingston explained why Justice Cannot Sleep Forever.”

    His presentation begins with a beautiful depiction of:

    1. Genesis: The supernova birth of the solar system five billion years (5 Ga) ago, when the Sun exploded as a ball of light, and

    2. Element Synthesis: Guided by a conscious and intelligent Mind that “brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together.”

    The above quote is from Nobel Laureate Max Planck’s 1944 speech on the nature of matter:

    “There is no matter as such! All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together … We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.”

    See reference [52] in the preprint, “Solar energy.”

    Click to access Solar_Energy_For_Review.pdf

  10. Pouncer says:

    ” Rather like your phone calls, who you call and what you say is up to you.”

    Except, that how much you paid for the call depended on where they were (how far away, or how long the line, or how many exchange and switchboard systems the call transited) and what time of day you called. “Who and what”, fixed price. “When and where”, extra changes may apply, see your service agreement for details.

    Postal service provides another analogy dating back centuries. Right now, there is no requirement that the Post Office deliver all envelopes, cartons, or packages, in the sequence accepted. The USPS, instead, charges different shippers different rates. “Priority” mail, the highest price service, allows some shippers to “jump to the front of the queue” and grab space on the next neighborhood delivery truck, regardless of how much other mail must be “bumped”. Those more interested in economy than scheduling may send packets of mail “bulk” or “3rd class” rates, meaning that the local neighborhood delivery van will bring it to your house when and if there’s capacity in the system. The analogy is so good we can drag in Netflix as a contemporary illustrative use-case. They began by using USPS mail to ship and receive DVDs in red envelopes, remember? The volume of mail that Netflix introduced into the (mature, sunk-cost laden, widely used) postal pipeline was such that the system gave the company bargain prices on both the outbound and inbound (downstream and upstream) packets. The postal service helped recover the cost of running a van down a residential street because Netflix was paying for baseload capacity — almost always somebody on that street would have something needing delivery (at the price the post was charging that company) The postal service price-discriminated FOR Netflix, rather than against, but nobody has ever squawked about how this non-neutrality was unfair to shippers of DVD such as the (late and unlamented) Blockbuster. More recently, Amazon has arranged with the USPS to use mail vans to serve postal customers with Saturday and Sunday delivery — the USPS bid against FedEx and UPS for that business, and laid on special routes and equipment and drivers to serve a VERY BIG and important customer for their services. This is a non-neutral service provided by a US GOVERNMENT AGENCY to one commerical entity, and not even offered to say Dollar General or Walgreens, and not a soul squawks about unfairness or the risks of monopoly or anything.

    The ISP carriers, just like mule train drivers, clipper ship captains, railroad barons, telephone operators, newspaper and magazine subscription sales teams, and airline executives, want the ability to employ price-discrimination to balance load in available capacity — but unlike all carriers of physical packets, the ISPs are accused of unfairness. So the government is dusting off the sort of regulatory regime killed in the 1980s that had applied to Less-Than-Load trucking companies, and will create “freight classes” for packets, with regulated prices to carry each class of packets, along approved routes, at specified speeds … Having lived and worked in the freight industry during and after LTL de-regulation (begun by Jimmy Carter of all people, and accelerated by Reagan) I can assure you from personal experience that UN-regulated traffic is faster, cheaper, less prone to damage and mis-routing, and better for all concerned.

    I’ve never heard any pro-regulation argument from “net neutrality” speakers that ever addresses carriers of physical stuff. And none of the arguments I’ve heard in favor of regulation have failed to leave me nauseated.

  11. M Simon says:

    Pouncer says:
    27 February 2015 at 6:02 pm

    For a look into the regulatory history Pouncer discussed look up the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). It was notorious. They had rates not only for package weight and size but also content. Duck feathers had a different rate than chicken feathers (that may not have been true but it gives you the idea).

    I have been bringing up the ICC in my discussions of NN but few seem to remember.

  12. Pouncer says:

    A cardboard carton of canned fish was a different LTL freight class (and therefore, different price per pound and mile) from a cardboard carton of canned fruit. A carton hauled downhill by truck from St Louis to New Orleans, in competition with a carton on a river barge drifting with the current downriver, was the SAME PRICE as a carton moving uphill, up river, between the same two points, even though of course no barge can compete and “drift” along that back-channel. A protest or any attempt to modify a regulation involved dozens of lawyers and took years; and as always half those who fought such battles were doomed to be disappointed, and see their moneys wasted. AFTER de-regulation, many providers went bankrupt, and in the process of attempting to prioritize claims, the lawyers and accountants found that nearly everybody in the business had been ignoring the rules and attempting to gain market share by undercharging rates set by the regulatory tariffs. So, of course the trucking companies that bought the assets of the bankrupt companies were SUED by the lenders left holding the bag for the liabilities of those same companies, and ANOTHER dozen years and several gross (of?) lawyers got into the freight classification business and attempted to recover funds for their claims — on the transportation costs of cardboard cartons of fruit, or perhaps meat, that had moved from St Louis to New Orleans a decade previously.

    Think about that. The regulations set up to protect shippers and consigners were WIDELY IGNORED by carriers who WANTED to and DID charge LESS than the federally specified tariffs in order to compete in a multiple-provider market. And the government agency set up to monitor the industry had NO IDEA the undercharging was going on, nor had any incentive to lower the federally-fixed rate tariffs rates in response to the actual market conditions.

    And the experts want to put THAT DESIGN PHILOSOPHY into regulation of the internet.


  13. Pouncer says:

    Gawd, I can’t shut up about this…

    The same guy who believes in Global Warming and claims to have invented the internet, Al Gore, is largely at fault here. Gore (correctly) perceived that big companies would build the big “bridges” first, linking city to city and data-center to data-center, gaining their profits on the node of the network with the highest density of potential users. Basic simply network theory. That would, eventually leave the “last mile” problem for a significant number of users who were a proverbial mile or so away from a major node. So Gore was a major cheerleader for a tax on landline phones and later cell phones, to subsidize non-profit (read, government) actions to build out the last mile of data carrying infrastructure. Taxing all segments of voice service to provide a segment of the data commo infrastructure.

    MEANWHILE, Apple and AT&T invented the i-Phone, and then 3G and 4G and wifi and hotspots and satellite services, all leapfrogging the last mile. (Not that having data out to the suburbs, farms, deserts, lakes and national parks ever LOWERED the tax on phones, let alone the tax on the mobile wireless devices that were ALREADY SOLVING THE PROBLEM that the tax was being collected to address, sometime later…) So because the last mile problem went away, and more and more customers were available, more and more providers jumped in with more services, and the last mile of PIPE or that SERIES OF TUBES, ( and dangit I know I’m SHOUTING but I’m just so ANGRY) needed fattening.

    And it’s a repeat of a historical mistake that we already tried in the electrical grid. The network techies who pride themselves upon knowing the difference between Edison and Tesla will, most of them, look at you with cow-like ignorance if you mention a guy named Insull. Insull had the “last mile” problem in wiring low density nodes (the small cities, the suburbs, the farms…) with electricity. He basically invented holding companies and the shared “grid” and the notion of municipal utilities locally licensed to tap into the grid and distribute service to every consumer in the smaller nodes. He invented a “go fund me” or “kick starter” micro-funding, crowd-sourced, investment vehicle for utility customers to buy tiny little shares in their local companies, with an even tinier interest in a package of holding companies (to spread risk) in order to raise TONS of money from TINY little savers in a VERY QUICKLY GROWING AND PROFITABLE market. But when the business cycle flipped over, and stock prices (unrelated to the worth of the physical assets or the worth of the service or the reliability of demand for electrical services EVERY SINGLE NIGHT to keep the lights and radio turned on…) dropped, investors tried to sell their microshares and found out that, at the moment, a dollar coupon wasn’t worth a dime. So Insull was charged with running a Ponzi scheme and literally run out of the country. A decade later FDR looked at the electrical “Last Mile Problem” and spent a zillion dollars of money borrowed (and never intended to be repaid) and taxed (from people who had no choice about either paying the tax or where it might be “invested) on the “Rural Electrification Project”. The most obvious result of THAT effort was to put the Aladdin kerosine lamp people and the DC-wind generator electrical people out of business, reducing the rural market for alternative energy products sufficiently that no non-General Electric competitor could compete, without building new and significant electrical user markets for GE and peers to sell into.

    And were I to meet Gore face to face and tell him I think he’s like FDR, the man would take it as a compliment…


  14. 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.

    From what I remember, jerkwad cable companies like Comcast never really wanted to get into the ISP business, but it was too lucrative to say no (I mean, you already have a 100Mbit+ data pipe running into all these houses, why not make a few extra dollars per month on it, right?). Well, then a high-quality streaming video service with the rights to rebroadcast stuff people actually wanted to watch came along. All of the sudden, we have millions of people who don’t really want the expensive cable TV package anymore, because they can get nearly as good of service from the cheap internet. So of course Comcast wants to make that service artificially crappier to their own customers, because how else are they going to sell their horribly overpriced cable TV packages?

    Of course, as you point out, there are technological ways around it. There is a cost: for instance encrypted VPN tunnels take processor time & aren’t always simple to set up, but they’re infinitely preferable to the FCC’s intrusion. I’d be okay with going back to 50kbit, if it were cheap enough. I can work around it.

    On the gripping hand, I hate all the rubes clotting up my damned internet with their banalities & stupidity, & Obama seems intent on making sure as many of his voters as possible have access. I hope an [snip! – threats to anyone or body parts are not allowed. -E.M.S.]

  15. Richard Ilfeld says:

    Like every other diabolically atipodallly named government program, the “Fairness Doctrine” suprressing virtually all meaningfull dialog was the primary outcome of FCC implementation of the Communications act of 1934. “Net Neutrality” clearly means “as much advantage as possible for the currently ruling group”. If you liked Bell’s long distance tariff system (like ICC freight) you’ll love the net – regulated. Remember MCL? (MCI? -ems) A parallel system eventually forcing deregulation. Perhaps the internet of today will become the legacy broadcast, while the big players figure out a way around. Direc-net anyone?

  16. cdquarles says:

    Fascinating stories.

    Anyway, my ISP is Charter and I get what I paid for. I was offered *up to* speeds and I get *up to* speeds. What’s interesting is that the upload speed delivered is pretty much what the *up to* is advertised but the download speed varies all over the map (and, also interestingly) is affected by what I’m running, hardware and software.

    Oh, yes I remember MCI. MCI fought AT&T long and hard when AT&T wanted to use line-of-sight microwaves to carry AT&T signals. I may be incorrect about this, but I have a memory of AT&T starting ‘cellular’ to get around the regulations MCI used to beat AT&T over the head with.

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