Net Neutrality

Earlier this week, President Obama gave a speech about what is popularly called ‘net neutrality.’  While I’m not sure that the solution he proposes (giving the matter to the FCC to regulate–partially) is a good answer, he is at least pointed in the right direction.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The essential thing that makes the Internet wonderful is that it is unregulated.  Put a properly formatted packet in at one end, and it comes out at the other.  And for the most part, other than satisfying the technical element of ‘a properly formatted packet,’ there is no other requirement.  The packet can contain anything at all.  Moreover, there are no ‘first-class packets’ or ‘second-class packets:’ they all get routed and forwarded the same.  This equality of packets is not established by government regulation: it’s configured into the Internet itself, as that was what they started with, and until now, there had been no compelling need to change it.

But some people would like their packets to have priority.  Should they be able to pay for the privilege?

Well, maybe.

If a company like Netflix wanted to build its own network alongside the Internet to distribute its videos, and interconnect with Internet service providers to distribute their content to people’s houses, that would be cool.  In this case, Netflix would be building infrastructure to better serve its customers, and they aren’t taking access away from anyone else.

But that’s not what the concept of ‘Internet fast lanes’ seems to be about.

Instead, the thought seems to be to maximize revenue from the infrastructure in place.  So the bandwidth that is allocated for an ‘Internet fast lane’ is necessarily taken away from someone else.

So a content provider could pay extra for ‘fast-lane access’ and provide (in theory) superior service to a competitor who didn’t.  Big content providers could roll the additional cost of ‘fast-lane access’ into their prices.

And smaller content providers who didn’t pay extra would be left at the mercy of Internet service providers and the bandwidth they cared to allocate for ‘non-premium access.’

The effect of this is very similar to government regulation: it favors the bigger firms, who can pay for priority access, while discouraging competitors.

And it might ultimately lead to a more difficult set of government regulations aimed at protecting some level of ‘non-premium access,’ and new criminal laws for the act of forging packet headers to secure priority access for packets without paying extra.

So net neutrality, where all packets are created equal, is the simplest approach.

This doesn’t mean that consumers can’t choose to pay more for faster Internet access.  That has always been the case, and will continue to be.  But that relates to the rate at which packets can be transferred from your home to the Internet, and not what happens beyond that.

2 thoughts on “Net Neutrality”

  1. I am a bit of a radio nerd.

    If you have the money the space and the inclination and time, you can buy and set up your own FM station; the limit is 10 watts, I think.

    Why can’t the same thing work for internet?

    If you can stream TV, why not set up your own “TV” station via internet?

    Set up your own Internet “TV” station; it may indeed be permitted: there may not even be an FCC regulation barring a DIY internet TV station

  2. There isn’t. If I had a TV station’s worth of content to present, I could probably set it up this afternoon. If I wanted to run commercials as part of the programming, that would be OK, too, unlike low-power radio, which is generally limited in the US for non-profit purposes.

    If my virtual TV station became genuinely popular, I would have to invest in a better Internet connection, more servers, and an uninterruptible power supply. Alternately, I could outsource that end of the business, much the same as I do right now for harderworld.com. But I wouldn’t need a license from the FCC or pretty much anyone else. (The end of the business that takes advertising, or actually produces the content, might need licenses for their specific activities. But there is no license required for posting content on the Internet.)

    And as things stand now, that’s all I’d have to do. And I believe that it would work best if we kept it that way. Over the Internet, the packets from my virtual TV station would have the same priority as Netflix’s or Amazon’s or anyone else’s. My local Internet service provider, like pretty much everyone else’s today, simply forwards the packets without fear or favor.

    But some people suggest that the Internet would be a better place if people who had the means could pay more for priority transmission of their data. And that, in and of itself, might not be all bad. The concern is that, in the interest of ‘maximizing the revenue stream,’ access for non-priority data might be limited to the point where my virtual TV station would no longer functional.

    At that point, to stay in business, I’d have to make deals with Comcast and Time Warner and AT&T and all the other service providers to carry my data as a higher priority. I’d have to either eat the additional cost, or pass it along to advertisers or subscribers, because these providers (Comcast, etc.) are now favoring content whose owner has paid extra for priority service.

    But what I’d pay for my virtual TV station is secondary. I don’t want Comcast or Time Warner or AT&T to be functionally editing what I receive over the Internet.

    Moreover, net neutrality is not a new issue. Something like this happened over 125 years ago, when telephone calls were routed by human operators. A town had two undertakers. The wife of one of the town’s undertakers was the telephone operator. Where do you think she’d route a call asking simply for ‘an undertaker’? (The other undertaker, realizing that he couldn’t fight this directly, went on to invent one of the first automatic telephone switches.)

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