23 June 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project


Network Neutrality

What's the opposite of an oxymoron?  I submit that "corporate greed" is a good example.  Let's call it an "oxyoxy" and see if it catches on.  Not that there's anything wrong with corporate greed.  Corporations exist to make money, and if a little dissembling or obfuscation is helpful in the pursuit of same, one can hardly expect restraint.  In recent weeks the spectacle of big and greedy corporations fighting each other for the ostensible benefit of the consumer on the issue of network neutrality has provided me a modicum of entertainment, which, I'm sure you've deduced, I'm about to share.

Just in case you're already tired of the discussion/argument/bloviation/rodomontade, I'll present a conclusion right away:  It doesn't matter.  You can go about your business now.

Still here?

May I use the phrase "Business Model?"  That's what the argument is about:

  • The telephone companies and cable companies connect to the individual customers.  Their business model is to charge everyone on their system as much as they can "what the traffic will bear" to use bandwidth to connect to the internet or whatever other content the company offers or plans to offer.
  • The big internet companies (Google, Microsoft, etc.,) are big customers of these guys.  They pay a lot of money for a lot of bandwidth, and then dole out their content to individual internet users.  In the aggregate, the bandwidth for which they pay is used; for any individual user the percentage of the used bandwidth is negligible and is used episodically.
  • Individuals, "consumers," are tiny customers of the telcos, so tiny that we can only be considered in groups.  We are promised a lot of bandwidth for a modest amount of money, and normally we get it.  We are offered bizarre and incomprehensible "plans" because we are statistics.  The statistics work because we cannot possibly consume the bandwidth we are offered without gluing our eyes open and watching movies on the computer 24/7.     

Because of the way the internet grew up, there is a legal requirement that the internet providers, who would be called "common carriers" in an older context, treat all their customers bits the same.  If you download a search page from Google, or this screed from the Riklblog, or a bootleg music file from wherever, the actual data is, by law, treated the same.  Within the technical limitations of the equipment and the amount of bandwidth you and the provider of the bits have paid for, you will get those bits from the different sources at about the same rate.  

What's Wrong With this System?

A big problem for the service providers is that there's essentially nothing wrong with it.  If you live in a city or suburb in the USA, you can get "broadband" internet service for an affordable price.  Maybe it's an "introductory offer" for $14.95 per month.  Maybe you're too lazy or too busy to browbeat the cable company and they've raised the rate to $59.95 while you weren't paying attention.  Either way, if you're using your internet connection for tens of hours per week, as many do, and sharing among several family members, as many do, you're paying pennies per hour.  And, unless the provider has screwed up somehow, you're generally ecstatic with the speed of the service!  How is that possible?  Aren't you dealing with the telephone/cable company?

It's possible because your demands are so modest.  A typical text page such as this blog, a search result, or a newspaper article may take up 10k bytes of storage and therefore that much network bandwidth (plus "overhead").  Notwithstanding all the computer thrashing that goes on at both ends, the actual transmission time of 10k bytes over a broadband network is a small fraction of one second.  While it's unlikely that anyone would want to do so, all the entries in this blog could be downloaded in the time it took to read this paragraph.  Email, by far the most popular internet activity, is essentially indifferent to bandwidth.

Text is a low-bandwidth activity, to be sure.  How about music downloads?  While it does take a noticeable amount of time to download a multi-megabyte music file, it doesn't take your time.  Unless you are having a Stevie Nicks emergency, you can select what you want to download and the computer will do it while you, good planner that you are, are occupied otherwise.  About once a week I go to the Yahoo music service, to which I subscribe, and select a number of songs for download.  The actual process of downloading can take an hour or so, but all I care about is the time it takes me to make the selections.

So why the fuss, then?  Everything is working, everyone is happy! 

Not exactly.  If customers are happy, then certainly the internet providers are doing something wrong, and therefore they're not happy.  They have reached the same stage as the evil airline scum, with essentially identical, undifferentiated service, and no way to collect more money.  When I do a web search I think of Google, not the cable company that transmits the web page.  And if I won't think about them, then at least they should be able to get some of the money Google gets by sending me ads (which, of course, I don't think about either).

Ennutshellized, then, the telcos and cable companies want to be more than common carriers for internet data.  First, they want to be able to build bigger, better, faster networks, provide "premium content," over the internet, and charge the recipient for the content.  But, controversially, they also want to charge their big customers a special toll to provide their content at the new, higher speeds their networks allow.  And they are lobbying the congress to change the rules, which at present don't allow them to do this.

Framing the Argument

Needless to say, the Googles and Microsofts don't want to pay an extra toll for faster data transmission.  That would mean they have less money.  And so, as frequently happens in arguments over who has more money and who has less, the conflict is framed in absolutes and in ideals. 

  • Google*:  The Net must remain Free!
  • Verizon:  The Net must remain Free of Government Regulation!
  • Consumer:  What color is my state again?

Thank you for having read this far!  But, remember, it wasn't necessary.  As I said above, it doesn't matter.  While framed in Constitutional terms, the argument is about business model.  And as with the evil airline scum, who have suffered horribly (almost enough!) because their business model makes no sense,  the desire of the telcos and cable companies to charge extra for premium delivery is a dead end.  Why?

Nobody needs premium delivery.  What they really need is freedom from blackmail.  It is one thing to say "for extra payment we'll deliver your search page faster" and quite another to say "if you don't pay extra we'll hold up your search page delivery by 10 seconds."  Not only would that cost the provider dearly in terms of the hardware to store all that data, it would create consternation to say the least among the customers who are indifferent to a tenth of a second wait but who would get cranky indeed with deliberate delays.  So what if they're cranky?  So they change providers, to the one who promises "no deliberate delays" by promising "faster connections" which is, after all, why they built the network.  In other words, if the telcos are relieved of the obligation to treat everyone's bits the same, they will end up treating everyone's bits the same.

Which Side Are You On?

Regardless of the essential irrelevance of the outcome, this is America, and one must take a stand based on ideology.  My stand, and it's a weak and flimsy plinth and definitely not art, is on the side of the telcos.  First, remember the USDUC:  The more rules we have, the more things go wrong.  Next, I would like two fiber lines coming to my home.  Anything that will encourage both the cable company and the telephone company to bring me more bandwidth in the hope of garnering my meager custom has got to be a boon.  I have a lot of faith in competition, and given the business models of the competitors in this fray, I see myself benefiting by allowing them to do what they foolishly believe will work for them. 

*While I'm primarily a fan of the zeugma, I'm not above synecdoche.

Richard Factor