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Net Neutrality: Is There a Reason for Concern?

Lately the subject of net neutrality has garnered a lot of attention.  As businesses large and small create an ever increasing set of offerings that require lots of bandwidth there is concern that the Internet infrastructure may not be able to keep data flowing smoothly

The core of the Internet’s bandwidth is provided by a few businesses.  These businesses exist to make money.  Fundamentally, when demand exceeds supply the cost of the good or service goes up.  In this case those costs might appear as increased charges for access or a slowing of one company’s data transfer versus another.

As in many debates there are two extreme positions represented by individuals, companies and trade groups.  In this case the dimension being debated is whether there is a need to legislate a message-neutral Internet (Net Neutrality)

The meaning of being “neutral” is that all data flowing across the Internet would be given equal priority.  The data being accessed by a doctor reading a CAT scan from a health records system would receive the same priority as someone watching a YouTube video.

Although the debate surrounds whether net neutrality should be a requirement, the reasons for taking a position vary.  I’ll start with concerns being shared by those that want a neutral net to be guaranteed.

Why Net Neutrality is Important

The Internet has served as a large and level playing field.  With a very small investment, companies can create a web presence that allows them to compete as peers of companies many times their size.

Unlike the brick-and-mortar world where the location, size, inventory, staff and ambiance of a store have direct monetary requirements, a web site is limited by the creativity and effort of a small team with an idea.  If Amazon and Google had needed to create an infrastructure on par with Waldenbooks or IBM in order to get started they would have had a much tougher journey.

Data on the Internet should be equally accessible.  It should not matter who my Internet Service provider (ISP) is.  Nor should my ISPs commercial relationships have a bearing on the service they provide to me to access the services of my choice.

If I choose to use services from my ISP’s competitor I should have access equivalent to using my ISP’s offering.  For instance, if I choose to use Google’s portal versus my ISP’s portal, the data sent by Google must not be impeded in favor of customer’s requesting my ISP’s content.

Network discrimination would dismantle the fundamental design of the Internet.  One of the original design goals for the Internet was its ability to get data from one place to another without regard for the actual content.  In other words, the underlying transport protocol knows nothing about web pages, SSH sessions, videos, and Flash applications.  It is this service agnosticism that has allowed myriad services to be created without having to fundamentally reengineer the Internet backbone.

An infrastructure that used to only routinely carry telnet and UUCP sessions now pass all manner of protocols and data.  Adding a layer of discrimination would require altering this higher-level agnosticism, since it is typically through inspection of the payload that one would arrive at decisions regarding varying the level of service.  This would lead the Internet down a road away from its open standards-based design.

There are other specific arguments made in favor of ensuring net neutrality.  In my opinion most of them relate to one of these I’ve mentioned.  So why oppose the requirement of net neutrality?

Why Net Neutrality is a Bad Idea

Internet bandwidth is finite.  As with all commodities there is a cost associated with the operation of the Internet.  The backbone services and “last mile” providers must invest in infrastructure in order to carry the network traffic. 

Application service providers essentially get a free ride as they create applications that use more bandwidth.  Somehow these costs have to be shared.  As services like YouTube use more of a limited resource (bandwidth) they must either have their bandwidth consumption limited or pay for the increased traffic.

Net neutrality is a myth.  The current playing field is not level.  Two fundamental issues exist that lead to a lack of neutrality: best effort data delivery and high-bandwidth services. 

Currently, data transferred over the Internet is transmitted in a best effort manner.  This means that real time services suffer in comparison to pure data transfers.  In order to be truly neutral, the argument goes; the real-time data would need to be delivered in a way that improves its likelihood of arrival, since the current approach, retransmission of dropped data, doesn’t work well with services such as audio and video.

The second issue with any claim that the net is currently neutral is that companies that can afford more robust Internet infrastructures will be able to deliver content faster.  Consider a company that can afford to leverage content acceleration such as provided by Akamai.  Such a company’s content will be served to a user faster than a competitor who cannot afford such an infrastructure.  Even in this virtual environment, being better funded can mean better access.

Legislating net neutrality would risk stifling creativity and investment.  Opponents to asserting a net neutrality standard are concerned that companies that otherwise would look for ways to create new Internet-based offerings would be hampered by an inability to create a commercially viable model to offer the service.  Imagine a company having a vision for delivering holographic entertainment to customers, but requiring intense bandwidth.  The company might want to seek agreements with ISPs to accelerate their content, paying a fee for the service.  This type of option might not be viable depending on net neutrality regulations.

Bad legislation is worse than no legislation.  A fundamental concern that opponents have to creating net neutrality legislation is that it is unclear what needs to be controlled.  Without a clear picture of what services are being harmed at the expense of others it would be difficult to design a set of regulations to actually prevent the hypothesized issues.  Worse, legislation without clear evidence of an issue might create its own set of problems.  There is no guarantee that these problems would be better than the current situation.

Where Do I Stand on Net Neutrality

Full disclosure: I work for a relatively small company that cannot afford to create a state of the art multi-node and accelerated Internet service presence.  However, my company does not deliver its services via the Internet, though, like most, we rely on the Internet to support our communications (email, phone, web).

The fact that Internet bandwidth is finite would be difficult to debate.  After all, the Internet is made up of a broad collection of physical devices and media that each has a maximum throughput.  However, one of the central goals of the Internet’s design, decentralization, allows data to take different paths between server and client.  This ability, created so that the initial ARPANET could survive individual sites being destroyed, also provides a fantastic level of scalability.  I believe this helps balance the performance of the Internet and reduces the control an individual ISP has.

There is certainly a risk of ISPs abusing their position and putting competitors at a disadvantage.  I say this not because they are doing it but because the technology exists to inspect and filter the data.  At this point it seems as though such issues aren’t prevalent and I think that creating legislation around such practices would be premature.

Fundamentally, the Internet has been an evolving environment.  Part of what has fostered its evolution has been the fact that the infrastructure has not been purposefully designed to favor certain business models, server operating systems, etc.  That the protocol has rules of engagement (e.g. best effort) is not surprising.  Changing those fundamentals may be appropriate and allowing the market to figure that out makes sense.

I suspect that if ISPs start abusing their position that they will be opening themselves to an amazing amount of regulation, similar to utilities.  My guess is that they would prefer to remain more self-directed and will therefore choose to find ways of creating a cooperative environment rather than one that moves them toward the big hand of government control.

If I’m wrong, and ISPs start interfering with my ability to access email from my service provider of choice or slows my website down for my clients, I’ll be the first one in line suggesting that regulation is required!

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