Collaboration

Net neutrality: Seven questions for the new Internet rule makers

Mark Underwood tries to untangle some of the technical and political threads in the net neutrality debate. He offers seven key questions that the new Internet rule makers need to ask before proceeding with legislation.

It probably wasn't how Google's CEO-founder Eric Schmidt (of "Don't Be Evil" fame) envisioned things. Earlier this month protesters converged on the Google campus to protest the Google-Verizon joint proposal to keep the internet neutral. Called a "joint policy proposal for an open internet," it was innocuous-sounding enough, but to many it is being seen, above all, as a sellout of the wireless internet where Google itself is keen to play. There's some thoughtful consideration given in the proposal to treating all content equally -- but only where "wireline networks" are concerned. There is also a call for "network transparency," but since decades into internet build-out there is still little network transparency, this seems more like a wish than a policy suggestion.

The issue of net neutrality is awash with a jumble of technology, politics, and business. Way back in 1978 Rob Kling wrote in Telecommunications Policy:

"Proposals which focus on changing the kind or quality of data available to public policy makers assume that ‘rationality' is inherent in the data or techniques used to generate it. Yet the evidence seems to indicate that whatever ‘rationality' may be found in policy-making is as much a feature of the policy-making process as of the data that informs it."

This seems to be true of the latest Google-Verizon proposal. Its pronouncements are assumed to be self-evident. Little glimpse is offered of the mountain of information the two firms together could marshall to strengthen their arguments. Like many aspects of the intersection between technology and public policy, extended discourse about complex proposals is readily sideswiped by vested interests, political calculations, and guesses hazarded about future technologies.

Background: Flaws and calculations

NPR's Tom Cole sees several flaws in the proposal, and his views are typical. The FCC is to have  no real enforcement power, instead relying upon a yet-to-be-identified advisory group operating through a "complaint-driven," case-by-case oversight. On the other hand, the new Wild West is wireless broadband, whose providers are free to create "additional, differentiated online services" within their monopolies.

Cable TV was once one of those "differentiated services." Seen from one perspective, it grew and made possible the wired Internet speeds many now enjoy. From a different perspective, it created a tangled bundle of services including "free" and "pay" TV, local and long distance voice, and broadband - with typically only one or two providers in a market. The palette of services is deep compared to years past, but those who want to limit costs may have a hard time untangling the service bundles. For example, in the case of Verizon, bundles offering wireless, broadband and TV services are least expensive when purchased together. Further, the bundled services are each delivered on a single fiber infrastructure -- no picking and choosing infrastructure, so make room for that now-mandatory battery backup.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Cindy Cohn applauds the proposal for avoiding direct FCC control of content, and considers the role of outside standards bodies potentially helpful, though not without risk. (Some such bodies, e.g., IEEE standards committees requiring 75% concurrence and debates lasting years, can be closed to public scrutiny; consider the case of Ultra-wideband below.) But she worries that the proposal sidesteps already exposed issues of censorship, content control, and adds her voice to the outcry over ceding the wireless Internet to purely mercantile interests -- the portion "currently most lacking in openness and neutrality."

Existing non-neutralities

Despite the lofty goals of net neutrality, as Harish Vadad points out, "not all packets are created equal and not all applications will get the priority". QoS requirements for Web content and email are different from voice and video. Traffic shaping with QoS mechanisms already come into play, as well as protocol differences (e.g., TCP vs. UDP). Service-Level failures can occur through intrinsic factors, not just the oft-mentioned BitTorrent "abuse," such as broadband HDTV users may experience around 10 p.m. on weeknights. My contract with Verizon gives me only an "up to" guarantee, and for downloads the service often exceeds that, but uploads are another story (see Figure A).

It doesn't take much imagination to see why Google would be concerned with QoS issues. Now that Google Voice has morphed into a long distance voice communications provider , one can imagine why peering and generally playing nicely with Big Telecom might make sense to Google. Verizon, a firm that in my geographical area, based solely on my own experience,  is executing well with its fiber infrastructure, may want to head off a capabilities end run by the pure Internet players.

Political bandwidth: Limitless

Anyone assuming that net neutrality is a purely technical discussion should have their connectors cleaned. An analysis by the Sunlight Foundation recounts that just as there was Congressional opposition to plans as disruptive as a la carte cable service (imagine paying only for desired channels), there was opposition to net neutrality. No fewer than 74 Democratic and 171 Republican members of the House wrote the FCC in separate letters. Their gentle reminder? That Congressional direction is required before acting on net neutrality. Only last June, two of the five members of the FCC voted against a public hearing on overhauling the nation's broadband regulations and addressing net neutrality. The political rationale varies. Some claim that the FCC doesn't have the authority to reclassify broadband to Title II Telecommunication services, or that it would be challenged in court. Skeptics have a more cynical interpretation. In 2006, the last time Congress considered telecommunications legislation, the industry poured $59 billion into lobbying (source: Wall Street Journal via CNET).

On the other hand, a smaller voice consisting of four members from the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee wrote the FCC chairman to critique the Google-Verizon proposal, identifying the segregation of wireless and overly broad description of "managed services." In their letter they wrote, "Rather than expansion upon a proposal by two large communications companies with a vested financial interest in the outcome, formal FCC action is needed. The public interest is served by a free and open Internet that continues to be an indispensable platform for innovation, investment, entrepreneurship and free speech." Senator Al Franken has referred to this as "the First Amendment issue of our time."

Meanwhile, H.R. 3458, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act introduced by Reps. Markey and Eshoo in 2009 seems to have spent the last year stalled in committee.

Unpredictable bedfellows: Engineers and lawyers

Lawyer Mitchell Lazarus wrote in IEEE Spectrum last year that net neutrality is just wishful thinking. In 2002, the FCC said that Internet providers were not required to open facilities to other ISPs. Monopolies with vested interests moved to protect themselves. For instance, wired network provider Madison River Communications blocked access by Vonage. Comcast blocked content that might compete with its pay-per-view service. As a result, and more importantly, smaller entrepreneurs whose inventions might interfere with entrenched paradigms must worry that they will not only be drawn into long court battles, but more likely, frozen out of courtrooms because they can't afford to litigate against wealthy adversaries. This makes raising capital even more difficult.

"Somebody is always regulating your channels. Will it be Comcast, Verizon, or do we have a rule through government that specifies minimal interference?" asked Google skeptic Siva Vaidhyanathan on a recent WNYC call-in show.

Some defensive actions ISPs might take could be illegal. Even more insidious are the actions they can take which are perfectly legal. They can demand expensive long term, or volume-based commitments to gain access to broadband service categories which are beyond the reach of startups and smaller firms. Perfectly legal. Expect that the cloud in cloud computing will need to be closer to the ground.

Lazarus bolsters his argument by reviewing the 12-year-old debate over Ultra-wideband. Here was an emerging technology supported by start-ups and radar companies, but opposed by just about every other existing corporate user of the spectrum. Not only did the fight drag on for more than a decade, despite what Lazarus argues was clear evidence that the new technology would not interfere with existing services, but the IEEE was unable to agree between two competing standards (search for "MB-OFDM" and "DS-UWB" for the sad history of competing standards) and disbanded its standards committee in 2006. The history of Ultra-wideband is an object lesson for anyone holding out hope for a straightforward role of professional associations in the Google-Verizon proposal.

Biggest benefits for the already big

The single biggest impact of the Google-Verizon proposal would be felt in one the hottest areas for investment in a weak economy. It would free the wireless Internet to engage in more price-based segmentation of services. Already in this space, and controlling not only the current revenue model but the existing infrastructure, big firms will stand to gain handsomely.

The Google-Verizon proposal tests our understanding of the distinction between large enterprises with government-sanctioned near-monopolies, and regulated public utilities accountable to a broader set of societal guidelines. Utilities can be privatized. Companies can act in the public interest and, if there is widespread adoption, economies of scale can result. But should the wealthy be allowed to buy passes for the HOV lane?

Seven questions for the new Internet rule-makers

1. Media and Telecom company size and the cost of litigation may exert undue pressure on fairness and policy formation. Is there a guarantee that profit-driven investment attracted to wireless enhanced services will benefit small and medium sized entrepreneurs as much as it will benefit the monopolies?

2. While file sharing of video is singled out as a resource hog, in fact the data to support this is not public. Can you show us the data about BitTorrent,  streaming TV, and the like?

3. Cisco would like to upgrade both the wired and the wireless internet to such an extent that there's plenty of headroom for all to play. Wouldn't this offer a provider-neutral environment, or is the wireless genie out of the bottle?

4. Does this proposal institutionalize the disparity between rural have-nots and their wealthier urban/suburban counterparts? Will it be even worse for wireless?

5. Figure A shows an account for 35mps down/20mps up with Verizon FIOS. The Verizon-recommended speedtest shows reduced upload speeds (though the FCC-sponsored tests of small file transfers say otherwise). Where is the transparency? Will the ordinary consumer with a modest at-home network be able to monitor an ISP's service level? Will they need to?

6. Trust in telecommunications providers is not strengthened by AT&T's collaboration with the NSA to wiretap and analyze domestic U.S. communications. Should we place additional trust in Big Telecom to segregate and price content for the wireless internet while handling more and more privacy data?

7. Is it still impossible to envision partnerships between small businesses and the current crop of broadband brokers?

REFERENCES

About

Mark Underwood ("knowlengr") works for a small, agile R&D firm. He thinly spreads interests (network manageability, AI, BI, psychoacoustics, poetry, cognition, software quality, literary fiction, transparency) and activations (www.knowlengr.com) from...

16 comments
mark
mark

Hello, I have worked for a major ISP in their NOC for several years. I want to specifically address your question #5. One thing that I run into on a daily basis is customers complaining that their speeds are reduced or impaired. Most of them do not understand how/what bandwidth is and this leaves me to personally educate customer after customer until I am blue in the face. BandWIDTH is just that, a Width. Not a speed or a rate. You receive a certain amount of data that you can move from your location to the central office in 1 second. With a T1 it is 1.5 Mbps by 1.5 Mbps. Unlike FIOS, DSL or Cable a T1 is a dedicated service that does not join a local network until it hits the central office. Essentially it's speeds never change. There are 2 ways to run a fairly accurate speed test and 2 ways only. The best is to have an IPERF server directly connected to your ISP's modem/gateway and another IPERF server in the cloud and then test between those two points with multiple sessions. In this way you can maximize your throughput and see just how much data you can move. The 2nd best way is to isolate your network to a gateway router and a laptop and then run to many different speed test sites. 35mps down/20mps is a fairly large connection and many speed test sites will not be able to handle or adequately test that amount of throughput. You will need to check around to find one that will. Unfortunately speed test sites do not typically advertise the available throughput to their server. You will have to use trial and error. If you have more than a single laptop connected to the connection your testing is worthless. Isolate your network first. If when you isolate your problems still exist then call your ISP. You will save yourself loads of time.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

When the power to make decisions is handed to the government, some bureaucrat or bureaucracy becomes the "expert" and "authority" - suddenly and miraculously all-seeing, all-knowing, all-understanding, omniscient and omnipotent. And if you don't like it, tough. I'm trying to imagine an internet like the Motor Vehicle bureau, and it's frightening. "Neutral" internet? Who decides what "neutral" is, and based on whose opinion of "neutrality"? I'm scared.

GreyTech
GreyTech

"How do whatever rules we choose to make, affect the other nations using the net?" it seems to me that lawmakers and commercial lobbyists often forget that the net is global. What may be workable in the US may not work internationally or even be allowed in some countries. Governments need to be protecting its citizens against monopolistic approaches to national and international technology driven utilities. Often the lawmakers are lead by the nose because they have no idea of the significance of the information they are being fed by lobbyists.

robertocasiraghi
robertocasiraghi

I bet only 1% of this website visitors can really understand this article (and I have to count me out as well, unfortunately). This article clearly shows that a discussion supposed to have far-reaching effects on all of us net citizens is being carried out at such a technical level as to exclude the general public from even understanding it, let alone take part in it. I really feel frustrated.

tvman
tvman

The internet is what it is today without government interference. Enough said, KEEP the CHANGE

gramgreg
gramgreg

i totally agree with you! unfortunately, no politician in the states seems to want to actually research in depth and plan a course of action on this issue because it has become so complex. Its just easier for them to take some "gifts" and vote accordingly on a topic they have no clue or interest in. My hats off to Cisco from what ive heard they have been trying to do. making a marginally better internet better for everyone is the way to go, not making it better for some, and worse for others.

smary45
smary45

This is a wonderful opinion. The things mentioned are unanimous and needs to be appreciated by everyone. ============= Letter Business

dogknees
dogknees

The simple fact is that the issues are complex and there are no easy solutions. Should we dumb everything down to the point where anyone over the age of 10 can understand? Should a debate on a new medical treatment be simplified to this degree? How do you propose to do that without losing any of the information needed to make an informed choice? If you want to understand something go and do the reading and learn about the issues. It's no one elses responsibility.

parnote
parnote

I have to disagree. This article is very well written. Certainly, the issue of net neutrality has become a very complicated one, since the FCC has failed to act. As a result, the "players" in the market are making/writing their own rules (e.g., Google-Verizon), and those self-written rules are written to serve only one thing: protection of their market and profits. The Internet user is at the bottom of the heap in that equation. I think you have done an exceptional job of taking an extremely complicated subject and trying to break it down to a level that can be understood by the users, after all the players have overly complicated net neutrality by protecting their own interests. If anyone doesn't understand this article, then they do not understand the issue of net neutrality, nor do they understand how complex the issue has become, due to the government's inaction and allowing the players in the equation to make their own rules. And if you don't understand the issue, you had better get up to speed. This is an issue that will be affecting every person, sooner or later, and more than likely sooner than later.

nwallette
nwallette

The people *ARE* the government. Not some leather seat in Washington. It's your representatives, petitioning on YOUR behalf. And if they're not, it's YOUR job to remove them from office and replace them with someone who WILL. It's us versus the corporations. That's a balance of power that slips further and further away from the little guy the dumberer we citizens get. Read. Learn. VOTE. (This article is a great place to start.)

SgtPappy
SgtPappy

Cisco wants to "rebuild a better Internet" and that is Net Nuetral? I'd put my hat back on.

JCitizen
JCitizen

career congressmen/senators out of office, and they will listen, I guarantee it! Some of the returns in earlier elections have already got them sitting up and paying attention! This same kind of political fear has already made a big difference in my home state house. Problems that have languished for more than 50 years are suddenly being solved! HA! Works everytime; get up off your dead @sses and VOTE!!! NO EXCUSES!!!!

Rodo1
Rodo1

It's real nice in theory, but 234 years of experience proves otherwise. An individual voter has about as much chance of effecting change as the man in the moon. It is hilarious to hear these political ads and listen to some fool tell of how he is going to "change Washington." One senator out of 100 or , worse odds yet, one representative out of 435 has about as much chance of "changing Washington" as I do. The American system is over 200 years old and is badly broken. There's your "civics" lesson.

gscratchley
gscratchley

the analogy of 'paved' and 'dirt' roads is not entirely correct, imo. "net neutrality" means that no one will decide the a BrandA car gets to drive faster than, or is allowed on the road before, the BrandB car, regardless of the road surface. Glen ps: I would *love* 100% 'pay-per-view' cable TV, assuming that the basic fee is (near) $0.

SinghaGold
SinghaGold

is that 90% of the people in the U.S. could care less about this subject. Try asking someone off the street what Net Neutrality even is. Then try explaining it to them and watch their eyes glase over. The artical is right in that like all things tech related, Congress will listen to the companies with money and only a few of them will head what the actual "experts" say should happen. Just about everything related to tech. that has been passed to date is our example of how crappy this will all turn out.

nwallette
nwallette

Analogy: Everyone shares a the same road system right now. Some parts are paved well, like the Internet backbones. Some have only one lane each direction, with a few potholes -- the last mile at the ISPs. And some are still tied by a dirt road, like dialup. Cisco proposes we rebuild the darn thing with wider, freshly-paved roads. Duh, they have a vested interest in that project because they make the "asphalt". But we ALL gain by having better connectivity. Want to stream video? Fine. There's room for that. Let's build this thing hefty enough to make TVOIP the primary content delivery mechanism. Then the whole concept of having "premium" access to the Internet means jack, since there's really no need to cap it in the first place. BTW, I know the point of the screenshot is to show paid-for vs. received service, but do you know what I would do for 40x6M internet access? I don't, but I bet my mother wouldn't approve.

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