I’m Not Neutral on Network Neutrality

I may still be neutral (undecided not uncaring) about the Balloon Track development. But I am decidedly not neutral about Network Neutrality. I think it is crucial to the survival of the Internet as we have come to know it. What is Network Neutrality? Start with this article from the The Nation entitled The End of the Internet? by Jeff Chester which explains how the owners of major data lines are planning to offer a multi-tiered Internet, providing better service for those willing and able to pay.

The growing monopoly over the data lines that carriers our Internet traffic makes this threat quite feasible. The NY Times is reporting that AT&T (formerly SBC) is about to buy BellSouth. The Times further suggests this purchase will force Verizon to absorb Qwest. The consolidation of the telecommunications industry continues.

This news makes it clear that the network we all use and pay for in access fees will be owned by a small handful of corporations. And this makes the issue of network neutrality increasingly important. Steven Levy of Newsweek provides a good summary of the issue. Basically the owners of the big data pipes we all use to get information from place to place, are proposing to create a two-tiered Internet, charging fees for better data delivery. This means big business, which could afford to pay these fees would have a leg up on smaller business. The idea of a two-tiered Internet flies in the face of what has made the network such a powerful force for social and economic change and innovation. That is that the data delivery system is open and equally available to everyone, large or small, corporations or individuals. The level playing field allows everyone to compete equally.

This is a crucial issue for us in Humboldt County. Very few of us would be able to pay the extra fees that allow our information to be delivered at the same speed and efficiency of say ABC/Disney. Our videos and sound files suddenly have less value. Our communications over VoIP would be degraded in comparision to large corporate clients able to pay the higher tarriffs.

The carriers all claim that unpaid traffic won’t be degraded, only that premium service will be given to paid traffic. However, already there are rumours that carriers are experimenting with throttling certain kinds of traffic. The Humboldt Linux Users Group mailing list recently had a lively thread on whether Cox was throttling access to Peer to Peer (P2P) networks. According to an intrepid investigator on the list it appears they are. And there are now reports that Comcast may be degrading the service of Vonage, a voice over IP phone company. This means subscribers to Comcast’s broadband service who also use Vonage over that connection may be getting poor data transfers on purpose. Comcast would like to discourage use of VoIP because of the amount of bandwidth it takes up. They may be planning to start their own VoIP service which would be charged at a higher rate than Vonage’s. Of course, it’s difficult to confirm any of this as Comcast and Cox aren’t publicizing the practice. This article from The Register explains how all this works and is working. However, with these companies having absolute and unregulated control over the data lines, and little choice in carriers in most regions for end users, what power would we have?

This whole issue is starting to get some notice by Congress. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has introduced a bill to prevent service providers from charging higher fees for preferential treatment. But the article seems to imply this particular bill will get little traction. And while it does address the two-tiered Internet issue, it does not address the obverse issue of degrading and throttling existing services by major carriers.

The major carriers feel they have the right to control and charge whatever they want for traffic that passes over their infrastructure because they invested a lot of money to build it. They own it, so they can do whatever they want. That arguement carries some weight, especially when the alternative might be more regulation by the government. However, the carriers received a lot tax incentives to build the network and right of ways in communities to deploy services. In addition, the Internet has become as essential to commerce and communication as the highway system is to travel and commerce.

This is not a easy problem to solve. But it is a crucial one.

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Net Non-Neutrality

Update: If you’d like to comment on the new FCC proposed policy, the comment period is open.

I Loves Me Some Netflix. But Come ON!

When Netflix signed a deal with Comcast to pay them extra for faster, more consistent content delivery it was understandable from a business point of view. But it was clear that it violated the principle of network neutrality and that consumers were going to pay for it one way or another.Netflix

Sure enough, Netflix just announced it is going to raise rates for new customers, and while existing customers won’t see their rates change for now, as Netflix strikes the same bargains with other service providers it’s bound to happen that all our rates will go up.

FCC: Throwing in the Towel

And guess what, now that the Appeals Court ruled the FCC doesn’t have the authority to enforce Network Neutrality, the FCC has simply decided aw what the heck. Let’s just say we can have multi-tiered service after all.

I think the writing is on the wall. Cable providers are going to continue lose subscribers because of their high cost and bundled packages. People are going to use Netflix, Amazon Prime (which just signed a deal with HBO to stream older content), and Hulu through a Roku or Apple TV device, paying small fees to multiple services in lieu of high fees to a single source.

At least that’s where I’m headed. But then I fear the cable companies will start jacking up Internet service rates. So, we people at the bottom of the food chain will get bit in the ass one way or another.


Net Neutrality in California?

Californian Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has announced he will be introducing a Net Neutrality bill. Supposedly that would prevent ISPs such as AT&T from charging higher fees for certain kinds of data traffic from selected content providers.

I’ve been a proponent of Net Neutrality but I really wonder how this would work technically if Calfornia was the only jurisdiction where Net Neutrality was the law.  Since data flows from everywhere to everywhere, what legal constraints  can be placed on the owners of the big pipes that only pertain to the geogrphical boundaries of one state? Perhaps a network engineer could clarify this for me.

AT&T Merger With Bell South Complete – But Agrees to Uphold Net Neutrality

The long expected merger of AT&T with Bell South has been approved, making the new company the largest telecommunications company in the country. From a March 7 article on MSNBC:

The new company would be the country’s largest phone company — with nearly half of all lines. It also would be the largest cell-phone carrier and the largest provider of broadband Internet service.

But also from that article, little mentioned so far today, is the estimate that the new merger will result in the elimination of up to 10,000 jobs. It waits to be seen if the new company will pass on any cost savings to customers or improve service in any way. Given the recent fiber break in this area and the lack of any public response from the company, I am not expecting anything much.

One positive result of the FCC agreement to allow the merger was a new set of conditions from AT&T which includes a commitment to uphold the principle of Network Neutrality. According to Ars Techinca, the letter was exacted by a couple Democrats on the FCC who were holding out for more commitments from AT&T.

Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu has a good analysis of the agreement. It appears that while the agreement is a big step forward for supporters of Net Neutrality, it is not as complete or as long lasting as we would like.

Lawrence Lessig on the Open Network

Thanks to Patrick Moon of HumLug (Humboldt Linux Users Group) for providing a link to Lawrence Lessig’s recent presentation at LinuxWorld. Patrick showed the presentation at last night’s HumLug meeting, but for those of us who could not attend, here it is.

Lessig is a law professor at Stanford and one of the driving forces behind Creative Commons, anLawrence Lessig alternative approach to current copyright law. This talk is about open everything, open source software, open culture, open network architecture. That means it touches on a lot of topics crucial to anyone interested in our global dialog that the Internet offers. This includes copyright issues, network neutrality (he provides a succint and easily understood explanation of this issue if you would like to understand it), broadband as a municipal infrastructure, wireless mesh networks including municipal wireless projects.

Did I get enough buzzwords in there? Don’t be intimidated. He explains it all in very clear terms. And, he uses, his famous style that has become all the rage in geeky presentations. This is a must see! Thanks for the link, Patrick.