A Super-Wrong Way To Understand Net Neutrality - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // Digital Business
Commentary
11/18/2014
09:06 AM
Robert Atkinson
Robert Atkinson
Commentary
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A Super-Wrong Way To Understand Net Neutrality

Comparisons to electricity and cable TV are off base. Time for an honest discussion.

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I know net neutrality is a complicated issue, but is it too much to expect journalists to get it at least mostly right when they write about it? Apparently so. Case in point is Neil Irwin's New York Times article A Super-Simple Way To Understand The Net Neutrality Debate. Simple, and simply wrong.

Irwin starts out by saying the right way to think about this debate is whether Internet access is more like electricity or cable TV. How about neither? There's no sound comparison to electricity -- for the most part all electrons are the same, but not all bits are the same. Some bits, like email bits, can handle high levels of latency, while others, like video telephony bits, can't. It's why the typical Web video call is jerky.

Irwin even sells electricity short. In fact, not all electrons are equal. Plenty of companies pay extra to their local electric utility to get higher-quality electron flows -- electricity without voltage sags, low electromagnetic interference, capacity switching, etc. As the California Public Utility Commission writes: "The electric utility environment has never been one of constant voltage and frequency. Until recently, most electrical equipment could operate satisfactorily during expected deviations from the nominal voltage and frequency supplied by the utility."

(Source: Geralt)
(Source: Geralt)

The commission goes on to write that the modern factory has many more complicated electronic devices, and these devices "increase the potential for problems with electrical compatibility because they are not as forgiving of their electrical environment as earlier technologies." Thankfully, we don't have "electron neutrality" advocates pushing for rules to prohibit utilities from varying the quality of electricity they provide to customers based solely on a willingness to pay.

But Irwin really goes off base when he says that without strong Title II net neutrality regulations, the Internet will turn into cable TV, with ISPs deciding what consumers can download based on whether content providers have paid the ISPs. As Irwin puts it: "In a world without net neutrality rules, ISPs [would] be free to throttle the speed with which you could access services that don't pay up, or block sites entirely."

[For another point of view, see Net Neutrality: Let There Be Laws.]

I knew that net neutrality zealots like Free Press's Craig Aaron were disingenuous when they published images like the one in his Huffington Post commentary, showing that without net neutrality rules, ISPs will sell the "Hollywood package" -- for an extra $10 a month you, too, get to stream Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube! Aaron knew this representation is false; he just couldn't resist the propaganda value of the big lie. But I never expected technology journalists to fall for it. Clearly my expectations were too high. Even President Obama must be reading the same pieces, for he too asserts that "we cannot allow ISPs to restrict the best access or pick winners and losers in the online marketplace."

Let's be clear: All major US ISPs have publicly committed to maintaining "best efforts" Internet service, whereby consumers are free to download content from any legal website. The ISPs are no more likely to make best efforts service contingent on payment from content providers than they are to require customers to pay more if they don't watch at least four hours of programming a day.

The concept of best efforts Internet gets to the heart of the matter. Regardless of the size of the pipe, the Internet will experience congestion problems, and congestion is more of a problem for some applications than others. No one rightly cares if his email is delivered 100 milliseconds late. But if Skype traffic is delivered 100 milliseconds late, the connection is virtually unusable. As Chuck Jackson, a former technology staffer for the Federal Communications Commission, states: "in a world of network neutrality, it is likely that aggressive but delay-tolerant applications will thrive and latency-sensitive applications will stumble along."

On wireless networks the problem is even more severe. Does any cellphone user really not want her voice bits prioritized ahead of the movie downloads her neighbor's kid is watching on his iPad? The net neutrality rules the president has just supported, which say that all bits must be treated alike, would mean that voice no longer goes to the front of the cellular service line. "You can't hear me now" would be the new commercial for all wireless providers if all cellular bits must be treated alike.

In short, it is a misreading of Internet history to claim that the Internet -- originally developed as a research network -- was designed to be a "dumb pipe," treating all bits the same. As the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation has argued, "contrary to such claims, an extraordinarily high degree of intelligence is embedded in the network core." What the net neutrality debate is really about is not whether the Internet will become like electricity or cable TV, but about whether it will progress and innovate over the next half century or be exactly like it is today: a network that does some things well (like deliver email) but many things poorly (like handle video calls).

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Robert Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and co-author of the report "Are Robots Taking Our Jobs, or Making Them?" View Full Bio
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mHealthTalk
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mHealthTalk,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/24/2014 | 5:14:05 PM
Re: A Super-Wrong Way To Understand Net Neutrality
The Book of Broken Promises: $400 Billion Broadband Scandal exposes broken promises of the "Bell" companies. To comply with comment rules, just look for it online.

And while you're at it, also look for BIG Broadband: Public Infrastructure of Private Monopolies
mHealthTalk
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mHealthTalk,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/24/2014 | 5:02:22 PM
Re: isp commitments
Thanks, Lorna, for your clarification. ISPs need to be able to shape traffic patterns, because an alert from a medical sensor has more value (may save a life) than streaming a movie (~2GB MPEG4 in SD, and more in HD or 4K). 
herickson482
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herickson482,
User Rank: Strategist
11/24/2014 | 3:50:01 PM
Re: Priorities are necessary, but who decides?
Traffic shaping can and should be handled at the endpoint.  The ISP needs not worry about QOS, but about how large a pipe is provided to the end user and how much is being charged for it.  If all I want is email, I don't have to worry about throughput or latency issues, a low speed, inexpensive internet connection will work for me.  If I want voice, video, streaming and lots of other latency sensitive high bandwidth applications, I will be paying much more for a lot more bandwidth at my end point.  Let's not continue to suggest that the backbone has to be the arbiter of what is important and what is not.  The assumption that you have to shape bandwidth is the fundamental problem with your argument.  If the pipe is big enough, no shaping is required.  The shaping has to occur based on what the end user wants to pay for.  Today, bandwidth is a scarce commodity that everyone has to carefully measure out because it is not abundantly available.  The reason it is not abundantly available is because of artificial market restrictions caused by an underdeveloped delivery system.  Vendors repeatedly ask me 'How much bandwidth do you want?", but that isn't the real question.  What is being asked is, "How much bandwidth are you willing to pay for?"  Google is putting 1 gig internet into homes.  Once you have a gig of bandwidth available, no one has to worry about 'shaping' bandwidth any more.  That is a term that will become irrelevant as bandwidth capacity increases.  The only reason it is relevant today is because of vendor practices of charging maximum price for minimum capacity.
mHealthTalk
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mHealthTalk,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/24/2014 | 2:59:42 PM
Re: Trust Me
Yes. Corporations like AT&T are required by law to serve the investment interests of shareholders, not public interests. That's a problem with how we grant liability protectuion under the corporate charter. I encourage you and others to watch the award-winning documentary, The Corporation. It's available in bite-sized chunks on YouTube.
mHealthTalk
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mHealthTalk,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/24/2014 | 2:48:03 PM
BIG Broadband: Public Infrastructure or Private Monopolies
I respect Rob Atkinson and the ITIF but think he got it wrong and has forgotten lessons of the past. He seems to ignore the fact that the FCC, by defining Internet access as an information service rather than a telecommunications service subject to common carrier rules, is what caused America to lose it's initial lead in broadband speeds, affordability, and deployment, even though the Internet was invented here. Before that ruling over two decades ago, consumers could choose from hundreds of competing ISPs, but now they're lucky if they can chose from two. In Austin, it's AT&T or Time Warner, because Verizon, Comcast, and Cox don't even play here, and without competition, there's been little incentive to improve service and costs.

The Internet has become SO CRITICAL to e-commerce, e-government, telehealth, distance learning, telework, and national security that this critical network infrastructure (the "pipes") should not be under control of huge corporations who are legally bound to serve shareholder interests rather than public interests. Short of redefining the meaning of a Corporate Charter, regulating broadband as a common carrier utility seems to be the best way to ensure competition and continued tech innovation.

That's why I support President Obama's call for redefining net neutrality and wrote the FCC to share my views. I asked them to Google "BIG Broadband: Public Infrastructure or Private Monopolies." It's a white paper I wrote as a broadband consultant for policy makers 10 years ago, before serving on the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee and flying to D.C. several times a year on my own dime. The Commission can return to the old "common carrier" definition on its own, without approval of Congress, and that would give them more regulatory oversight to ensure fair competition where none exists today.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
11/20/2014 | 7:51:07 PM
Re: Priorities are necessary, but who decides?
Thanks for setting several records straight. I don't think it as rosy as the picture is drawn here. ISPs already punish content providers and consumers for generating traffic, be it by packet prioritization or by intentional ineptitude when it comes to configuring routers.

Wheeler's original proposal would not have caused the current networks to be improved. The prime content providers would have been charged more and in order to keep the pipes open for them all other services would have been downgraded.

The most important issue does not get addressed in this entire discussion: the lack of competition. In well off markets consumers may have two choices at best: phone company or cable company. That is not competition, that is a prime condition for establishing effective breakfast cartels. Undoubtedly, we suffer from those because ISPs price their services at about the same rate. These services are ridiculously overpriced. Even not well off countries like Romania or Moldowa enjoy faster Internet access at tremendously lower prices in comparison. How's that? There is competition, consumers and businesses can choose from a number of ISPs who all have the same rights of access to networks. As soon as there are half a dozen ISPs or more jockeying for market share we will see service to go up and prices to go down. So how can we accomplish that? Easy, allow for municipalities to build and operate their own networks that can be interconnected and set a fixed access fee for any service provider. Leveling the playing field and keeping the barriers of entry the same for all will make it much easier for small and big companies to compete. As far as net neutrality is concerned, anyone intentionally violating it will lose customers in a heartbeat.
ratkinson
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ratkinson,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/19/2014 | 4:14:13 PM
Re: Priorities are necessary, but who decides?
I wanted to respond to the comments on my original article.


Several comments acknowledged that there is a need to do some traffic shaping, but some said consumers should do this, not carriers.  This wont work in many cases becuase traffic is shared on networks and if one carrier prioritizes movies on their cellular service it would hurt the users that prioritize their voice. 

 Re the point of ISP adding more "fees to this structure" - all of the discussion of paid prioritization are not adding costs on the consumers side.   Re the notion we have deterioirtied in speed to middle 20s, acccording to Akamai data, which is the most accurate source of speed data we are improving over the last 5 years and around 10th, only about 25 percent slower than "apartment building" Korea.  See ITIF's The Whole Picture report for analysis of data.

 Several comments questioned the binding nature of ISP committments.  I think they are pretty binding given that if they abuse that trust there will be a firestorm by advocacy groups, the media and the FCC.  But in any case, the right path is to enshrine into the Telecom Act rewrite rules for broadband.  Absent that Wheelers original proposal which wuoud enshrine these rules under Section 706 authority.  THis is LOT better than using 20th century heavy handed Title II rules and is just as legally binding.

finally, the last commenter said that new broadband tech is getting better and therefore priorization wont be needed in the future. If this is true, then we shouldnt have to worry about edge providers wanting to voluntarily pay for better delivery.  Which is, btw, what Chairman Wheelers orginal proposal would have allowed, while banning forced payment for best efforts Internet service.  But i doubt that network technology you are talking about will end jitter.   And certainly the problems on wireless networks will be there for a long time since they are much more capacity constrained.

 

 

 
Ron_Hodges
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Ron_Hodges,
User Rank: Moderator
11/19/2014 | 11:05:07 AM
Re: Priorities are necessary, but who decides?
I completely agree with Herickson482 on this one.  When you have companies such as Comcast vertically integrating content providers into their corporate structure, they are setting the stage for discriminating between content they own and content they don't, and you can guess which you will pay more for.  This applies just as much to their internet services as it does their cable TV. 

Whenever you have (1) high barriers to entry and (2) high costs for consumers to switch providers, you need to watch out for monopolistic practices. 

One final point: many technological innovations are surfacing that will lift constraints on bandwidth by packaging data more effectively, especially in the cellular area.  We need not assume a fixed bandwidth that must be rationed by some benevolent corporate overlord.
bstewart286
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bstewart286,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/19/2014 | 10:57:12 AM
Trust Me
I take issue with the "All ISPs have made committments" line.  Major ISPs, such as AT&T, have made numerous promises that they have reneged on.  The most glaring example is commitments made to expand high-speed internet service in exchange for merger approval.  This strikes me as a nice way to say "Trust me", which is right up there with "The check is in the mail."
herickson482
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herickson482,
User Rank: Strategist
11/19/2014 | 10:22:02 AM
Priorities are necessary, but who decides?
While you use quality of service examples to make the point that prioritization should occur, you are mixing metaphors more than the article you criticize.  I would prefer that the end user have the ability to ultimately choose what is high and low priority, and the ISP they choose is selected for the best service provided for the price the consumer is willing to pay.  That would be the free market.  On the content provider side, Google, Netflix and all the other providers are already paying a ton for bandwidth to get to their customers.  On the consumer side, each of us pays as we value the speed and capacity of our connection.  If I choose to use VoIP and streaming video, I will no doubt pay more for internet than a retiree that needs nothing but email.  Why my ISP now thinks it is ok to add additional fees to this structure is not for my benefit, but for their profit.  We have already deteriorated as a nation from number one in connectivity and internet speed world wide to a middling ranking in the mid 20's, and that is as a result of providers approaching the internet as one more service that they need to cost effectively build infrastructure to provide, then maximize their profit on that investment to benefit their company and shareholders.  This is why Title II legislation is the only way to control a capitalistic focus on an economy enabling infrastructure system.
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