The Confusification of Net Neutrality; It Works, Fails and Contradicts Itself Perfectly

It is Past Time to Update the 2002 Paper. .


30 April 2014
Loren W

Melbourne Australia

Just typing that gives me goose bumps, not because of the corny line, but because I lead with teams at British Telecom, to do our part and introduce some of the early business Internet products and services back in 1994, that are still used today across the globe, including business broadband, reducing upgrades of business grade Internet services from 65 working days to being done instantly, offering IP Addresses for broadband, to even offering data connectivity for data centers, 1GB asymmetric bandwidth for folks like big brother TV and dark Internet for the military that offered redundancy in case of disasters including 9/11. In 2002, they stupidly sued Prodigy and other ISPs over patents because they believed they owned, a case I had nothing to do with but gave me my nickname for life, ‘MrInternet,’ when a journalist said to me who you think you are, ‘Mr. Internet’ ? .

What is Net Neutrality?

Tim Wu, Columbia law school professor that kicked this off in his paper Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, in 2003, Professor Wu wrote, his paper based on research done largely in 2002 and the paper was written in 2003. Decades in Internet time, I applaud it immensely, and agree 100% with the messages and the intent, but not the elements missed. As it is written there is some confusion over Open Internet and Net Neutrality as they are not the same necessarily.

Wu wrote the paper has he says, ‘To make an initial case for a broadband discrimination regime as an alternative to the structural remedy of open access to achieve the goal of Network neutrality’. The paper needs to address transit, peering, infrastructure costs, return on investment, cross connects etc. as he has taken this to the carrier and ISP level naturally.

It is time Wu, updated his paper it to reflect some of the technical issues that were not relevant or addressed at the time, due to the evolution of the Internet. Where Professor Wu, compared 3 general approaches I believe there are some clarities that are needed as there is a lot of grey that was not there or not addressed in 2003. Peering / Transit Agreements, Cross Connects, Cost to deliver service, impact by content providers (eyeballs), recouping costs (ROI), all aspects that need updating, or were not even addressed at the time.

Even the major usage restrictions professor Wu addresses in his paper are largely either non issues, or easily addressed in today’s evolved Internet. For instance when this paper was written 40% of the top 10 ISPs in the USA prohibited wireless & home Network usage for the Internet, laughable in today’s marketplace.

Where Net Neutrality Contradicts Itself Perfectly – Tim Wu wrote, “Network Neutrality is best defined as a Network design principle. The idea is that a maximally useful public information Network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally” To me it makes the Internet sound like it should be a treated as a ‘utility’, in itself a completely good thought. Teasing this out a bit more, if you pick up on the word from Tim Wu uses ‘aspires’, or best intention, the principal of the service, then I agree entirely with the premise, we should ‘aspire’ to treat all sites equally period. If you start to even trickle towards, reducing freedom of speech, or limiting free thought I even agree more with that principal of Net Neutrality.

Unfortunately this does not address the impact of the Internet ‘technically’ based on the infrastructure of the delivery. Specifically in his paper Wu mentions Telco’s are failing to see long term pictures in favor of short term gains. In business this is ROI (return on investment) cannot be ignored.

All Internet is NOT Created Equally – Treating the Internet as a utility with an analogy for a moment, I and my neighbor should be able to get the same electricity to our homes, but the data center 4 blocks away requires a hugely different infrastructure and capacity to get the electricity even there to their door. In some cases the power company might pay for all or some of that, for the power hungry data center will have to make some sort of commitment or payments to address just the infrastructure to their door. If the data centre let’s call it Netflix DC was to somehow bypass the local grid, and tap into another power grid improperly, or local homes, (though it would be illegal of course) then the grid would have to boost the power for that area, and the hypothetical DC would not pay for that upgrade. A stretch on the analogy but not far from where Net Neutrality starts to contradict itself or more so where equality is not the issue and infrastructure is not properly addressed. There all the customers would have to subsidize the cost of Netflix DC, or the power grid would have to. Remember Netflix DC in this case is not paying for any power.

If you further look at what well known advocates of Net Neutrality have proposed, there are several methods to implement a Net neutral Internet:

  • One of the simplest methods for implementation comes from Cardozo Law School professor Susan P. Crawford, who “believes that a neutral Internet must forward packets on a first-come, first served basis, without regard for quality-of-service considerations

  • Another approach offered Tim Berners-Lee allows discrimination between different tiers, while enforcing strict Neutrality of data sent at each tier: “If I pay to connect to the Net with a given quality of service, and you pay to connect to the Net with the same or higher quality of service, then you and I can communicate across the Net, with that quality and quantity of service”. We each pay to connect to the Net, but no one can pay for exclusive access to me.”
  • United States lawmakers have introduced bills that would now allow quality of service discrimination for certain services as long as no special fee is charged for higher-quality service.
  • Some of these ideas complement each other well but one speaks volumes to me, Tim Berners Lee said it best and I paraphrase this above, if all parties PAY the same to connect to the Internet they should enjoy the use equally, but there are different tiers’
  • But the point I have never seen properly addressed, is what happens if the user of the Internet requires a special design or architecture enhancement that due to their volume, scope or amount of content totally impacts the Internet for everyone else. If a smaller customer you start to tip your toe into a fair use policy but for others like Netflix, then it is a whole different kettle of fish (by the way why would you put fish in a kettle).
  • I am not bagging on Netflix I cannot get it ethically in Australia without using a VPN, and spoofing my IP address. Their recent deals to pay for bandwidth in the US funny enough goes against Net Neutrality.
  • Back to the utility analogy, you then start to go down an obvious path and say well the Netflix and other content providers should pay for this impact. Warning, you could be accused with that very thought of breaking an agreed aspect of what Net Neutrality is perhaps. 

On-Net and Off-Net Internet Advantages and Bundling Advantages – Here it gets interesting, if an ISP has content on its servers in its own data center, or owns another service say movies or TV, then any content sent to their customers on their Network (referred to as on-Net), then by its mere nature these services can be delivered potentially faster and definitely cheaper. Any content not on my Network is considered off-Net. The impact of this might be if you are moving content around on the Internet it might not be tallied to any usage limitations you have, but content Off-Net it does. Here there is a lower cost to the provider so why should the customer not be allowed to benefit for this bundling. In a Net Neutrality would it breaks a few guidelines? Furthermore if you live in an area where your ISP does not have direct connectivity to faster Internet services, even the basic speed to your service can be worse or better than your neighbours, hardly fair but part of the facts of Internet life. 

Prioritizing Traffic – Almost ever since there was business grade Internet, there has been issues in ‘prioritizing’ Internet traffic and imposing Network management practices. That is the privileged traffic for some versus other customers. This does not have to be about limiting the speed of the Internet to consumers necessarily (contention). But about peering and transit, that smoke and mirrors part of the Internet and who pays for what part and where some of the aspects of Net Neutrality fails to address impact. If we assume ISPs have capacity to provide non-contended Internet to their users, then you have to query when a tiered service is a nasty thing or just a simple internal Networking management practice.

ISPs manage connectivity differently. We used to Network manage our Networks even contending Internet capacity but not so customers would notice or lose packets, a common practice on pro-actively managing a billion dollar Network .

However, if you have a lot of customers like Netflix and others have then you are simply a special case.

In some cases your customers force carriers to upgrade their Networks capacity to consumers, creating a skewed asymmetrical impact. That impact caused by heavy content providers means someone has to pay for the end to end Network overhead (bandwidth) before it ever gets to the consumer.

Or they have peering / transit agreements in place to address this. When Netflix cut out some of their cross connects, they created a revenue and infrastructure vacuum not seen before. That is a content provider with a lot of eyeballs not paying what was thought was their responsibility to do and as others did in the past. So if cross connects carriers did not get paid and Netflix was not helping upgrade their infrastructure which they obviously would not do, carriers are forced to somehow priorities Internet traffic or just charge more to consumers for a service they might not be using.

There is an old adage you cannot manage what you cannot measure, unfortunately with the Internet usage for these customers not being static but very ‘spikey’ at certain hours even trying to charge customers is not easy. It is only logical carriers wanting to profit more and not let the Netflix continue to impact their revenue and infrastructure would limit somehow the ways the new content providers operate.

These are not simple issues are all about playing well with others and making or for content providers also saving all the money you can, but to date Net Neutrality seems to not be caught up with the impact of content providers impact of the skewed infrastructure, and architecture required to manage this content, that by its own definition shapes the Internet for all of us and impacts underlying aspects of Neutrality that again did not consider this when it was written. As Governments start to finally look closer at this surely it is worthy of revisiting this important document. Sorry I called you surely.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s