Broadband

Network neutrality: Revisiting the arguments

A "neutral" network cannot coexist with high-speed, unlimited usage broadband connections, nor can consumers expect carriers to foot the bill for increasingly bandwidth-hungry applications.

Network neutrality is a perennially active topic, with tech blogs or the political class revisiting the issue every few months. In essence, network neutrality suggests that owners of public broadband networks cannot favor one class of network traffic over another. Proponents suggest that without these provisions, broadband operators will "downgrade" performance of content that is not a money maker for the carrier, and in some draconian cases network owners might effectively block unfavorable or unprofitable content and doom the fairly free and open nature of the internet itself.

Most IT pros and technology advocates default to supporting network neutrality provisions. Taken at face value, they seem harmless; after all, who wants some faceless company arbitrarily censoring internet traffic? The tech press has gone along with this line, with popular blogs and publications suggesting anyone who questions the noble notions of network neutrality is a corporate stooge, censorship advocate, or general nincompoop. Like most politically-loaded questions, the true answer is not so cut and dried.

The dumb pipe

For better or worse, most network operators have become purveyors of a pure commodity, with speed being the primary differentiating factor among broadband providers. With the wealth of services available, no local cable operator or national ISP can compete with the service offerings of a Google or Microsoft, and for most consumers speed and price rule the day. Ironically for more technically inclined customers a major selling point has become a lack of filtering or other "value-added" features, in a classic case of less being more. For consumers, as long as the connection is reliable and quick and offered at a fair price, it makes no difference whose name appears on the monthly bill, making broadband service the ultimate commodity.

This worked well when most broadband connections were data-focused, with the average home or business using a broadband connection in conjunction with traditional phone and video services. Now, however, many consumers and businesses are moving voice, video, and data through their broadband connections.

To err is human, to manage your network is divine

You'd likely be laughed out of the building if you suggested your IT department run a "neutral" corporate network, where every service from an inane YouTube video to a call to investors received the same priority, yet this is effectively what network neutrality asks of broadband providers. Assuming broadband has a finite capacity that is growing more slowly than broadband consumption, eventually this resource will be oversubscribed. Like any other finite resource, carriers could charge more for "priority" service, or could prioritize things like voice or video traffic that rapidly degrade in a constrained network.

The other side of the coin is that network operators could also prioritize in-house services over an external competitor, with a local cable operator prioritizing a service like Hulu that might be in their financial interests versus a service like Netflix. Network neutrality proponents will quickly flag this as borderline censorship, but on the flip side, a business model where you must carry a high-bandwidth service for free is unsustainable. In a world of neutral networks, the cost to carry a Netflix or Hulu must be sent somewhere, and we're now seeing it appear in higher charges, or more likely, in the form of bandwidth caps. Operators make a seemingly reasonable argument that just as governments might charge a higher road tax or toll to a massive truck versus a compact car, someone needs to pick up the tab for a high-bandwidth service.

Obviously, a "neutral" network cannot coexist with high-speed, unlimited usage broadband connections, nor can consumers expect carriers to foot the bill for increasingly bandwidth-hungry applications. While network neutrality might look good on paper and produce imagery around free and uncensored information, the application is a bit less clear-cut. The doomsday scenarios of a heavily censored and profit-driven internet are just as far-fetched as a democratic yet unusably slow internet, so take a moment to consider the pros and cons of each approach and lay aside the more dogmatic positions. While the future of humanity is not likely at stake, the price you pay for broadband, and the quality of the services you're able to run over the dumb pipe, may be.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

21 comments
Twilight23
Twilight23

There is one important aspect I haven't seen yet. In the US, broadband providers are almost all monopoly or duopoly (phone and/or cable). If they want to keep their "opoly" status then they must be held to net neutrality standards. If a real open marketplace for broadband is put into place in the US where the consumer has choice on who to use *then* we can start talking about not enforcing net neutrality.

tom.marsh
tom.marsh

Your entire premise falls flat when you falsely state that anybody is being "forced" to carry anything "for Free." This is utter hogwash. Literally EVERYBODY in the equation is paying or being paid... the person watching the content and the person providing the content. The provider's ISP is being paid. The peer ISPs that carry the traffic to the consumer ISP are all getting paid. If somebody in the chain needs to raise its price to pay for a network upgrade (or, perhaps, cut its profit margin a smidge,) then it should do that. What it shouldn't do is hold up rich-content providers as boogeymen destroying their business, and try to leverage that fallacy into a permanent tax on content being charged arbitrarily by the telcos. Those providers are SAVING your doddering ISP business by providing users with a reason to keep paying for it. With mobile-web, video, and VoIP calling, why would most people need a home computer? Or a home Internet connection, for that matter? "Rich" content providers like YouTube, Netflix, and Hulu aren't "destroying" the ISP business--I'd submit they're actually propping up a model that is on the verge of being obsolete, that being the PC-oriented "residential" Internet connection. I'd suggest that given this reality, the Telcos would be smart to partner with rich-content providers to co-locate their content inside the ISP networks to minimize the cost of access to the content for he ISP. Instead of trying to get your hooks in another company's revenue-stream to make up for your own failed forays into "big-content," how about finding practical "playing nice with others" ways to solve the problem? It might mean accepting that the "Internet content bonanza" that telco board-rooms have been abuzz with for years will never yield anything to telcos, but that this isn't necessarily that big of a deal because they're already making gangbusters profits in a business that basically didn't exist 20 years ago.

SKDTech
SKDTech

I contracted with my ISP to receive a certain bandwidth and speed. It is not the ISPs concern how I use that and there should be no constraints placed upon my connection. If the ISP can not provide the service levels detailed in the contract then it should not have offered them. I am not naive enough to believe that anything is truly unlimited, I just want to get the service I expect and am paying for based upon the terms of the contract.

cjam81
cjam81

I agree, unlimited connections are a very bad idea. Implementing data caps solves several problems. I live in Australia, where unlimited data has never been an option. Some carriers start to charge (sometimes outrageous rates) for excess data over the cap, while others throttle traffic drastically. The one option provides revenue to the carrier, theoretically allowing network expansion to better handle higher data rates, the other allows for better control of the existing subscriber base to prevent traffic related problems. Either way, most users never come close to their caps and so are not affected.

dogknees
dogknees

""Unlimited" anything was not an intelligent decision by ISPs or cellular corporate management." "Let the scientifically illiterate learn the truth the hard way, by paying for what they use." As you say, the decisions were made by ISps and cellular corporate management, so they are the ones that should be paying.

David Hoffman
David Hoffman

Keeping the network neutrality and charging by the byte may give the ISP the money it needs to increase network capacity. That method may force website administrators to reduce the amount of bandwidth each webpage or website uses. A significant reduction in Adobe Flash, advertising trackers, and other big bandwidth users would be great. Users would have to make prudent choices about going to websites that waste bandwidth on frivolous applications because each byte used would cost the viewer real money. If all ISPs adopt per byte billing, some of today's biggest byte users will probably cut back significantly on total byte usage per month. "Unlimited" anything was not an intelligent decision by ISPs or cellular corporate management. Network engineers would have strenuously protested the idea. But the marketing people won out over logic because unlimited sounded cool and hip, or something. Many of us who are scientifically literate understand that there is no "unlimited" anything. Let the scientifically illiterate learn the truth the hard way, by paying for what they use.

apotheon
apotheon

I absolutely agree that the -opolies should be abolished. The problem with mandating "net neutrality" until that day, though, is that "net neutrality" means government regulation of bandwidth, which then means a lot of governmental oversight that not only causes profitability problems for ISPs but also regulatory interference in the lives of users. Do you really think that governmental agencies will stop at enforcing network traffic neutrality on the part of the ISPs once they get their fingers into monitoring and regulating our traffic in such a direct manner?

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

most of the ISP contracts I've read and heard about offer "speeds up to XX", usually in a small print. These types of contracts, whether it reads "unlimited" or not, offer an excuse for the ISPs lackluster performance. Many times there are also clauses, again in small print, that read something like "the terms of this agreement may be changed at any time, with or without notice". So, when it looks like we are not getting what we are paying for when our network speeds drop to low numbers, many ISPs just read off the tiny print at the bottom.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

the contract must confirm top the laws of the area your ISP is in and it should be fair to both sides. My ISP provides a certain amount of download at high speed each month for a set value, if I exceed the amount of download my speed slows down so I don't cause them too much loss of profit as we in Australia pay for all bandwidth usage.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Why? They're not the ones who want to use their services. Customers who want the service should pay the bills; customers who want to download more should pay more. The only way the ISPs can pay more is if they charge more. I don't have a problem with 'pay as you go', but I mostly surf, rarely download, and never download media content. The amount of data and types of content being pulled down have both increased beyond what customers were downloading in the dial-up AOL days. Business models have to change as usage changes if a company is to stay profitable. On the one hand, ISPs aren't charities; on the other, you're under no obligation to use them. Plenty of people live happily without the Internet.

SKDTech
SKDTech

The contract I signed stipulated the minimum speed. I.E. I pay for 6 Mbps but I usually get 15-20 Mbps. I am lucky enough to live in an area where there are few cable subscribers so I don't have to compete with them for bandwidth. A couple of years after I began using my ISP they began instituting bandwidth caps, no big deal as I was notified ahead of time and thus had the opportunity to cancel if I wished. Honestly, I haven't had many problems thanks to living on the fringe where the service is good but few are using it. "the terms of this agreement may be changed at any time, with or without notice" As far as I know, that is a condition which can not be enforced. To my knowledge companies must always provide notice of changes in contract terms here in the US. But that only means that they have to make a "good faith" effort. If they send an email about changes in T&C/TOS to your account of record or include a notice in your monthly bill then they have satisfied the need to notify.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

since broadband became common, and no real unlimited broadband accounts - thus the contracts are very specific and the ISP I use (Westnet) is very good about keeping it to the service standard contracted - sometimes more.

dogknees
dogknees

They are the ones who created the problem, they should pay to fix it. They offered unlimited broadband, they can come to the party and provide it. If you make dumb decisions, have the decency not impose the consequences on others. I don't have an unlimited account, but I have more than enough to access/download as much "content" as I wish. Again, it's the industry that makes it possible to download media content and who sold us the idea of downloading rather than buying content on physical media. Again, they sold us the idea, so now they can deliver.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

the pages are downloaded to your system for you to view. A huge part of the problem is web pages are mostly static information (I'll ignore the e-commerce aspects at this point) that show data or pictures of stock with details and prices. For many years they were written by coders using basic html and done tight with little files and no excess baggage - thus they look clean and simple. Today, most web pages, especially the ones with static information, are designed by graphics designers who abhor the idea of clean and simple; most use stuff like Flash to 'liven' the site up (even when it doesn't need it). The result is a web page that used to be 10 kb of files is now nearer 100 MB of flash and java code to show what is a simple document. Then you get to add in the code for the - let's find out where they are and target them with ads from We are ads inc' and make some money because they looked at my site, plus the ads - well the page now runs up nearer to 250 MB. That's a hell of an increase in traffic. I redid a guy's site for him two years back, the previous web master did it all in Dreamweaver with lots of Flash shows etc. He got complaints people couldn't use the site due to the distracting Flash player shows and music they didn't like. Using basic html and jpg shots of the stock instead of walk around Flash videos with rap music, the six page site went from 500 MB of space to 3 MB of space, and I had ten times the number of images as the previous version. Sales went up and cost of hosting bandwidth excess charges went down. There's the lost bandwidth for a lot of people.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

When I had Dial Up even as a Backup connection until very recently I didn't have Download Caps but Time Caps. I paid for x Hours per month and could download as much as was possible to download within that Time Limit. That was how most ISP's here operated you paid by the Hour and physically downloaded very little. In a month when I was using Dial Up only many years ago just Browsing and visiting TR would result in about 200 MEG per month usage and now with Broadband and many more downloads the current Data Plan that I'm on is measured in TB exactly 1 TB of Data Transfers both Up and Down and then they slow the connection to 256 KBS. Needless to say because I don't download Movies or have things like iTV I don't go anywhere near that 1 TB per month , I'm actually a very heavy user and don't go much past .5 of a TB per month and that's only when M$ has lots of new stuff to download. Of course places like M$ no longer send out DVDs through the mail but give you a link to download things and that is what pushed up my Data Usage dramatically. Col

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

tech so accurately. And thank you for avoiding them this time, I should try and do the same more often as well.

apotheon
apotheon

People who think the world is so simplistic as to be able to make things better by passing laws against things that seem superficially "unfair" without actually thinking through the consequences are nuts, but they're bad nuts. Cashews and pistachios are good nuts. edit: You should congratulate me for not involving cars in my analogy, by the way. Car analogies are annoying, and annoyingly difficult to avoid.

apotheon
apotheon

The fact you think they should suffer some consequences for offering what cannot be economically delivered won't change the fact that they ultimately cannot keep delivering it. Consider, by analogy, someone saying you can have "unlimited" cashews. The unspoken condition, "while supplies last", does not evaporate just because it was unspoken. If the guy runs out of cashews, he simply will not have cashews to give you, no matter how unfair you might consider it when he stops giving you cashews. The same goes for bandwidth as for cashews.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

like: now the bandwidth bottleneck is biting back by bitter byte backlash

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

and I apologize for not acknowledging the difference between what comes down the pipe to display pages and what's coming through to stream movies and music. The 'bloat' issue on web sites can be found across all forms of programming. Processor speeds increased, storage space got cheaper, and development tools became easier to use. At the entry level, few forms of programming require management of limited resources these days at the entry level, and now the bandwidth bottleneck is biting back. (How's that for alliteration?)

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