Net Neutrality: Why Are We Back Here? – Part 3

Today’s post is the third in a three-part series on net neutrality, with the first part discussing the basics of internet routing, ISPs, and content distribution and the second part discussing how Netflix evolved their business model from a technical standpoint to overcome ISP throttling issues, and how ISPs maintain such a good negotiating position.

Below, part three will build on the previous two posts and discuss some of the major questions people have about net neutrality, and why concerns about it are frequently misplaced. 


Dissents

There are a few claims that those who argue against net neutrality commonly make. From a technological perspective, here is why they don’t make sense.

“Common Carrier Status Will Kill Innovation”

Common carriers are legally defined as private companies who sell services to all people on the same terms. This makes sense on the Internet; as both sides of the net neutrality argument will say, the Internet is supposed to be a level playing field. Where they differ is how the field should be level.

Opponents of net neutrality say that common carrier status will stifle innovation due to the fact that current regulations were originally established for an outmoded era of telecommunications that only involved landline telephones — not broadband internet. Broadband providers also claim that with the “information service” classification that previously applied to broadband carriers, more innovation was put into broadband than would be otherwise possible. They assert that the monolithic, slow-moving process of regulations and approvals would cause investment in new technologies to have such an extensive lead-time that by the time implementation occurs, the ‘new’ technologies are already a generation behind (similar to Moore’s Law). Yet in 2015, we haven’t seen much change in investment from the major players in that arena; rather, we continue to see growth in both speed and availability.

“The Government Will Be Able to Censor the Internet”

When people discuss potential government censorship in regards to net neturality, they can mean many things. I’ll try to address the major concerns that I’ve heard:

  • My search results would be censored! If the government is Democratic-leaning, they’ll suppress Republican-leaning results (and vice versa)!
    False. A search engine doesn’t work this way. China does censor search results by working with Google specifically to filter results on the local version, google.cn. Search engine censorship has nothing to do with your ISP.
  • They will take away <insert website here> because they don’t agree!
    Also false. The point of net neutrality is to provide a fair playing field for all content providers, and the regulations apply to how ISPs make that happen, not to the content they provide. In fact, it actually prohibits ISPs from blocking any content in the first place.
  • They’ll use net neutrality’s enforcement as a way to monitor me!
    False again. Surveillance is entirely independent of the net neutrality ruling. If you were previously under legal scrutiny by the government, it will continue. If you weren’t, it won’t start because of net neutrality.

“Net Neutrality Forces Power Users and Regular Users to Be On the Same Field”

This is technically true, but it’s a truth that’s contingent on a different argument being true: that the behavior of power users (anyone who uses more data than the tiny amount required for checking email and browsing websites — so really, anyone who uses streaming video services like Netflix or Youtube regularly) has a discernible change in operational cost to the ISP that they would otherwise need to pass down to their consumers in a way that is fair. This fallacy is why usage-based models on consumer broadband have started to emerge in recent years (X GB of data/month for Y dollars).

However, if you look at the data, a usage-driven billing model simply isn’t supported by what’s available. Comcast, for example, paid 142 million to provide Internet access in 2007Q1, 138 million in 2008Q1, and 120 million in 2009Q1. All while the use of streaming video services was rapidly rising among consumers. If you look at revenue numbers for major cable companies over this same period, those are on the rise as well, suggesting that usage-based billing is more a tactic to wring a bit more money out of consumers used to a usage-based model on their wireless plans who won’t think much about applying the same concept to their home Internet service.

To expound upon one of the key problems with usage-based billing, let’s observe one of Comcast’s top-tier broadband plans for consumers, its Blast 50 plan, which has a 350GB data cap at the time of writing. A Comcast customer would be paying for a service that is limited in download speeds to 50Mbps. This service turns over a limitation of the amount of data transferred, 350GB, every 30 days. Time to do the math!

50Mbps (Megabits) is 6.25MB/second (Megabytes)
350GB (Gigabytes) is 358,400MB (Megabytes)

Assuming we’re only talking about downloading (because keep in mind, 350GB combines both download and upload traffic) to simplify the math:

358,400MB / 6.25MB/second = 57,344 seconds that you can transfer data at your 50Mbps speed. That is…

956 minutes or
15.9 hours or
0.66 days or
0.022 months … that’s just over 2% of the 30 day cycle you’re paying for, that you can use the service to its full extent without going over a data cap, assuming you never use it for the other 98% of the time.

By setting these sort of data caps, an ISP is asserting that this type of service usage is “regular”. At the time of writing, streaming a service like Netflix for an hour consumes about 1GB of data at standard quality, and 3GB of data at HD quality. At these rates, a household of 3 could easily eat their way through 270GB of that monthly 350GB just by having each member watch 1 hour of Netflix in HD (the default setting) per day. So if you’re in an area where data caps have yet to be enforced, enjoy binge-watching online video while you still can.

“ISPs Won’t Be Able to Manage Illegal Activity”

This sort of policing has never really been on ISPs anyways. Generally, people are referring to the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) when claiming this problem with net neutrality. The DMCA is responsible for the nasty letters from your ISP if you’re caught engaging in media or software piracy, generally resulting in a fine or service termination after multiple warnings. In recent years, ISPs have taken steps to curb this, but not really for legal reasons. After all, the DMCA actually protects ISPs who are willing to abide by the regulations, which essentially state if a content holder tells you there’s an infringement, handle it. So long as an ISP does handle a problem brought to them by copyright holders, they don’t need to worry about legal ramifications for themselves based on the behavior of their user. ISPs that do implement throttling on technologies like BitTorrent are more likely doing it to reduce the congestion on their own network under the guise of legal adherence.

“There’s Just Not Enough Bandwidth to Go Around”

You can answer this in one of two ways, depending on your economic slant:

  1. ISPs are overselling subscriptions and saturation is a way to force infrastructure upgrades.
    High congestion and low accessibility, which are what really is at the heart of the entire net neutrality argument, can be seen as the result of a fast-growing telecommunications industry with no desire to keep pace with an Internet landscape that has been showing, for over a decade, a steady movement to high-bandwidth content. Investment in infrastructure is depressingly low (12 billion, 2009-2013), compared to revenues (Comcast’s 2014 year-end revenue was 68.8 billion).
  2. Comcast already has a proven mechanism to handle this, and enforces bandwidth speed limits.
    Comcast has an RFC on file for a congestion management system that has been implemented and has the ability to handle high-bandwidth applications like Netflix and others. The reason this exists is to help enforce the bandwidth limitations already placed on a user with their subscriber plan, which was the exact strategy originally thought to be used to curb use of high-bandwidth applications. This reason is also why most ISPs have asymmetric speeds; most users download significantly more than they upload, so a download speed might be twice as fast or more than the upload speed. Given that a user is already paying for a specific tier to allow for services that require higher bandwidth, why can’t Comcast deliver that service?

Final Thoughts

There isn’t a single good solution to fix every problem with the Internet because it’s a constantly evolving medium for which people have no obvious baseline. There was no real pre-Internet to point to and say which decision worked for which question.

I believe that maintaining net neutrality is a solid start to addressing many larger scalability problems with the internet. Probably the most fundamental issue in the debate over net neutrality is whether bandwidth is a finite resource. With adequate investment and planning in the interest of the open internet, the state of the Internet in the United States could vastly improve over the next few years — especially with the FCC also looking into ending city-driven monopolies for broadband providers.

With all the emphasis on broadband providers on the news and in politics, it’s easy to equate the state of the internet with the broadband providers linking us up to it. But the internet is nothing without its users and the content they make available and access on it. Without open, even access to the internet, its potential as a platform for expression is greatly reduced. In order to maintain and improve on this amazing technology that has transformed our society, we should keep its control in the hands of its contributors who give it purpose and value.


If you’ve enjoyed my series on net neutrality, and are also interested in programming tips, geeky thoughts, and updates on my up-and-coming work projects, please click the button at the bottom of the page to follow my blog, and receive new articles instantly via email! 

Most importantly, don’t forget to share your thoughts on net neutrality in the comments below! 

(Header image via Creative Commons 3.0 license, courtesy Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Just as a reminder, all views expressed in this blog are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Microsoft or its vendors or customers.

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