Net neutrality - the great debacle
Letters If you like to see a debate with subtlety, complexity and nuance, stop reading now.
The issue dubbed "net neutrality" could make its final stand on the floor of the Senate this week, with provisions being tacked onto the mammoth update of the Telecommunications Bill. It's an issue bedeviled by bumper-sticker sloganeering, but the more closely one looks, the more issues it raises. Things are very definitely not as they seem.
[ For our recent articles, see How 'Saving The Net' may kill it , The New Paranoid style in American politics , and if you need a quick primer, the Farber vs Cerf "Great Debate" summarised here .There follow some opinions - solicited and reader responses - to those articles. ]
The background is that IPTV is looming, and telcos want to monetise their expensive investments in fibre by offering an IP-based alternative to cable companies, offering both movies and TV, but also high-speed internet as part of the bundle. These operators, primarily AT&T and Verizon - but it could also be your local municipality - know that bandwidth-hogging applications such as BitTorrent jeopardise the quality of voice or video.
We recently characterised the debate as one of fear against hope. On the side advocating pre-emptive legislation, there's fear that the vertical integration of the large telcos will lead to abuse detrimental to third parties. Lobbying by the internet giants such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft is behind the campaign.
At least both sides agree that the legislation is pre-emptive and prophylactic.
Against the pre-emptive legislation is the hope that existing regulatory mechanisms - from the FCC to the Anti-trust Division at the Department of Justice - will stop such abuses dead in their tracks. After the telco crowd spends billions wiring up a home, just why should a Google or Yahoo! be allowed to run its IPTV service over billion dollar fibre - isn't that a subsidy?
The weakness of this argument is that the US has a poor record legislating against anti-trust abuse. The telecoms lobby has successfully written sympathetic laws at every level of government. Only last year the FCC permitted the 'Baby Bells', or ILECs - which are both monopoly DSL wholesalers, and DSL retailers, from the obligation to share their lines when current contracts expire. It's a move that will hasten a speedy death  for the independent ISP in the United States.
But at least the telcos have the technical arguments on their side. By outlawing traffic shaping and QoS agreements, most of the "net neutrality" drafts put before representatives so far would cripple the future of video and VoIP on the internet, and sentence everyone to life in the slow lane.
Reg readers welcome our coverage with some relief, and it's heartening in turn to read so many nuanced opinions.
Generally, I prefer to keep legislation out of it and, if not, generally to leave the legislation as it is, so the market has a chance to work," says internet veteran Peter Dawe, who founded the first commercial British ISP Pipex, and the first European interconnect, Linx.
The US anti-trust law seems sufficient to deal with the problem. If there is one, as the market hasn't decided yet.
That's something echoed by serial entrepreneur Michael Robertson. We asked him if he was concerned by potential telco abuse.
I'm not worried about this at all. I invite the competition. Business has always been about dominance and it should be no different on the net. Each participant is striving to dominate so they can extract profits from somewhere along the channel.
I find it ironic that the same people who discriminate between users to build their services and compete with all comers do not want others to have that same right.
Dominic Sweetman disputes Richard Bennett's account of the birth of TCP/IP, particularly the "end to end" principle, which Bennett characterises as a cargo cult:
TCP/IP's 'end-to-end' nature (what used to be called a @connectionless network layer") - far from being the consensual fashion of the time - was ferociously denounced by communications experts. They basically said it was just the sort of rubbish you'd expect with a communication system invented by computer people: it obviously wouldn't scale.
TCP/IP worked, probably because the computer people didn't trust the network, so they wanted something robust against all sorts of network malfunction - the DoD wanted something robust against enemy action for Arpanet, which kind of kicked it along.
For what it's worth, the points Bennett makes now about the weakness of the IP-based internet are exactly those made by communication gurus at Logica when I was a youngster there in 1978. They were wrong. Things do come around again: just because something was wrong in 1978 doesn't mean it's necessarily wrong in 2006. But it behoves anyone trying to buck the wisdom of history to acknowledge the history and get it right first.
That might be a little unfair - it perhaps misreads Bennett's point that the internet had to adapt to survive, and needs to do so again.
Bruce Johnson is one of many who argues that more bandwidth will solve the problem.
You can simply build more capacity. If the telcos can't do that selling their bandwidth for the price they're charging, well, charge more for the bandwidth.
Mike Bostrom finds it more complicated. Although he says more bandwidth fixes the problem to some extent, he agrees that SLAs (Service Level Agreements) are desirable:
What I *am* against, is that the network operators themselves are setting up an infrastructure (both physical and legal) to be the sole - or at least leading - providers of such services. That is, they would control the largest media distribution services in addition to the connection and delivery technology.
Under such a setup, they have major financial disincentives to provide equal access to the network, even if they had capacity in the form of dark fiber. We both know that most operators have such untapped resources at their disposal but inactive (How else could Google have been able to buy that same available but unused capacity?)
I have no doubts that as soon as the operators have set themselves up as the only working providers of the new services, the profiteering will start.
As a nice encapsulation of the paranoia we identified, here's David Sloane, who writes:
The problem is not engineers, or political activists. The problem is greedy executives at entrenched telecom oligopolies who want to charge more money for the same quality of service they're providing today. Bennett conveniently leaves out the fact that the tiered-Internet we're talking about involves increased cost for the same service being offered now.
That's the fear, you see. But he offers a concrete example:
My company uses two AT&T data centers and AT&T internet connections at our offices. We don't have to leave the AT&T network for these sites to talk to each other, so performance is generally good. We also talk to our clients over the internet. But we're only paying for internet access, not 'smart' internet access or Preferred or Gold or whatever.
Maybe some of our clients will upgrade to Internet Gold service with Level3, so we'll need to upgrade to Internet Prime Advantage service with AT&T. Their costs go up, our costs go up, and the service we actually use has improved not one iota. Sure, AT&T has to set up lots of fancy prioritisation and monitoring systems to support this new paradigm (and billing systems, and sales processes, and marketing materials), so they have to pay for it. But in the end, we're all just going to waste a lot of resources so Google, Microsoft and everybody else on the planet can't use the AT&T pipes 'for free'. This seems like a bad plan, for the engineers and everybody else.
Don't get me wrong - there are prioritized services which can (and should) be developed and sold by the ISPs, but these should involve some additive value over the current offerings - MPLS and video/voice application prioritization are a good examples. But they have almost nothing to do with the average user of Google or Microsoft or Yahoo! web sites. These services are only useful in private or VPN networks, where there is a common carrier for all endpoints.
Back to Mike Bostrom, who says he sees nothing wrong with prioritising traffic, but adds:
I am not in favour of network anarchy. I just shiver at the thought of using differential pricing based not on services used, but on services offered.
This all naturally relies on the assumption that the current connection is by itself sufficient to power the service(s) in question. It would not, as such, require any new SLA.
What I would really want, is a two-tiered *connection* service: one speed for domestic traffic (real symmetric connection, not DSL; say 10M) and another for foreign traffic (1M/1M). The majority of traffic costs for operators comes from foreign traffic anyhow, so that variable would not change in this equation. On the other hand, having honest, FAST connections within the country would allow to experiment with all kinds of new service types.
Yes, I do realise that what I want is fiber to the curb. Put the dark fiber in use and allow real connections. Hell, with IPv6 and Mobile IP we're going to need that anyhow, so we might as well start now and at least try to get ahead of the pack once more.
In the process the consumers would get more than decent connections to run their own servers on, without paying the current extortionate fees usually associated with anything above 2M/512k asymmetric lines.
And in order to prevent the assholes from ruining the experience for everybody, we need some really smart QoS. Something that works across ISP boundaries too.
But relief that the issue is complex is clearly palpable. Phew!
Bill Nicholls writes:
This is a good writeup. It needs more exposure. I was uncertain about net neutrality, but now I have seen the technical issues laid out, it's clearly wrong.
John Graham adds:
Thank you for writing an article intelligently explaining parts of the other side of the debate, instead of just adding to the endless stream of pro network-neutrality journalism out there.
I think everything you wrote, especially technically was accurate, however, what I don't agree with is your assertion that most people who are pro network neutrality are uninformed. I think most users who care about it dislike the idea that someone is going to shape their traffic, they have been sold a 8mb/s connection with 'unlimited' download and simply want to use it (the idea of contention ratios and fair use not being known to most users, and not something they would appreciate if they did). They (and I) believe that it should be the case that if I want to use VoiP or watch IPTV then I should free up enough of my available bandwidth.
I'm not asking for the perfect service, but I and most other people would prefer a network where we get what our internet package claims to offer (even if that was less than they currently pretend to offer) and can choose for ourselves what to do with it.
And Fred Yontz:
"Coming from an engineering background, I found his technically oriented explanations quite thought-provoking, and a welcome respite from all the sound-bite slogans that seem to obfuscate more than educate.
Last word to a Stuckist, however, for offering the most er... original point of view. Take it away Arah Leonard:
VoIP and Video over IP can go to hell.
Should the anti-neutrality side win, the World Wide Web will be slowed to a crawl and be much more likely to fall apart, even while the internet as a protocol survives. As the VoIP and IPTV flood the network with far more data than it was ever conceived of transporting these services will be boosted in priority while the actual World Wide Web gets downgraded into infamy.
And for what? Cheaper telephones and TV? Telephone services that don't use the internet already exist. They have their own lines. We don't need VoIP to run a telephone. It's only a new fad. Cable and satellite servies already exist. As do local channels on the regular airwaves. They also have their own data lines. We don't need IPTV to run a television. It's an even newer fad. But there's only one World Wide Web, and there is no other service that can provide for it. The internet is the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is the internet. So if we destroy the World Wide Web just to create cheaper alternatives to telephone and television, what have we actually accomplished?
The email was written in Comic Sans font. But don't tell me part of you didn't at least twitch in sympathy. ®