Net Neutrality – Reality vs Imagination

[Updated Nov 2017 now that this topic is again in the news.]

Many are again upset about Net Neutrality. And, again many don’t know or have forgotten what the biggest public issues have been in this arena. In this update, I’m going to provide a few links and reminders of the history of this topic.

First, a clear definition of a good Net Neutrality (NN) goal: to ensure that Internet Providers do not bias services based on the specific content or source of information. In other words, every virtual “speaker” should have the same ability to “speak.”

There have been a few historical examples of ISP’s introducing such a bias. But in reality, those examples have been few and far between. The cases that have affected most people, and have been labeled as Net Neutrality… really are not. But since most people believe any slowdown is an NN issue, everybody gets confused on the issue.

So this post is an attempt to clear up the confusion, and provide facts that are not often seen by the public.

The most public issue that led many to support Net Neutrality was a huge dispute between Netflix and a variety of ISP’s (Internet Service Providers.) Netflix claimed that slow video was the fault of the ISP’s, and labeled it as a Net Neutrality issue, going so far as to put up warning signs to that effect. The ISP’s fought back, even with cease and desist orders, saying it was a business issue easily solved through standard services already offered. Who was right? You can decide for yourself:

  • Here’s where the Netflix CEO claimed the slow speeds were a Net Neutrality issue: https://www.cnet.com/news/netflixs-hastings-makes-the-case-for-net-neutrality/
  • Here’s a non-technical explanation of why the slowness was NOT a Net Neutrality issue: https://www.cnet.com/news/comcast-vs-netflix-is-this-really-about-net-neutrality/
  • My original post on the topic (see below) provides more detail and several links to the facts of the matter.

In theory, true Net Neutrality rules shouldn’t be a problem. After all, who could complain about fairness? In the real world, treating everything exactly the same often is a problem. In fact, the NN rules that were put in place tended to stifle innovation, forcing everyone to live with a “least common denominator” poor level of service in some ways. How is that? Consider:

  • NN rules state that no data should be treated any differently than any other data. One explicitly stated element that many have heard about: no “fast lanes.”
  • Yet… some Internet services need a “fast lane” to work well. Specifically, any kind of fast interactive service, like online gaming, or two-way voice/video. Such services work much better with low delays (low latency.)
  • It is not cost effective (ie you would pay WAY too much for your Internet service) to ensure that all packets move at the same speed. It simply is not as important to move the result of a database query (that took several seconds anyway) as quickly as a packet that contains a single mouse click or the blink of an eye on Skype.

Have there been real NN issues? Yes. However, many claimed-NN issues are not really about NN, as I’ve just described. Here’s one of the best lists of real NN issues I’ve found… yet it too is full of examples of things that are NOT net neutrality problems. They’re just limitations that some people don’t like. The link: https://www.freepress.net/blog/2017/04/25/net-neutrality-violations-brief-history … and some facts about the examples they give:

  • Several examples are about hijacking search queries. These have nothing to do with Net Neutrality (treating all packets the same) but rather involve data hijacking, a far more serious charge.
  • Some examples are about blocking of “tethering” apps — that allow a phone user to provide internet service to nearby laptop/desktop users over their phone connection. These too are not NN examples. Nothing in a phone contract allows you to use the phone to provide services to other devices. Some phone companies offer that as a separate feature, but it’s not an assumed capability.
  • Some examples are about early blocking of certain new (high performance, interactive) services. There is plenty of room for confusion and disputes here. If a particular category of service is allowed at all, then yes it should be allowed without bias toward one provider. Yet early on, certain services may not be well supported, so a provider may elect to block the service rather than suffer from complaints that the service doesn’t work, or lawsuits if the service is missing important features. (For example: VOIP services often don’t support 911 emergency calling, which can result in serious even fatal problems. A number of legal remedies had to be put in place before this new capability could move forward.)

What’s left after all that? Some very real examples of corporate bias toward certain service providers. Do those examples comprise a big enough problem to warrant a huge government regulatory scheme? I won’t express an opinion on that here. I’m simply trying to clear up confusion about a number of issues that many assume are “net neutrality”… yet in reality are not.

Now… back to the original post from 2015:

What is the issue with Net Neutrality?

Here’s an analogy:

Internet backbone contracts between the big players that move the bulk of data between cities and nations, all assume something called “Balanced Peering” or “Symmetric Data.” Think of it like a two-way street between towns. Both sides cover their own costs for a two way street, and don’t charge each other a dime based on the assumption that both will benefit equally.

Now, what happens when a little village “Small” starts mining tons of rocks and sending them out all over the nation, but nobody’s sending traffic their direction? Yes, they need one road that can handle the traffic, but their big neighbor “Big” ends up carrying huge volumes of truck traffic on many long roads, passing the traffic on to others, causing wear and tear, etc. Costs skyrocket for their neighbor “Big”, which suddenly is pushing unbalanced traffic to its other neighbors as well. Yet, by contract, “Big” can’t charge “Small” a dime… except for the fact that the terms of the contract have been broken.

So, “Big” offers to set up extra lanes that can handle the traffic, and asks “Small” to cover the cost.

Hopefully you can see where this is going. What I described above is what the “Fast Lane” internet issue is really all about. It has nothing to do with politics. Nothing to do with good/bad content. It’s a simple business contract issue.

Unfortunately, activists and politicians have turned it into a political issue.

So, down to real vocabulary, real facts, real references.

The key issue: Unbalanced Peering. Sounds pretty technical but not actually hard to understand. This is basically all about Netflix (and the partners they use to push data onto the Internet.)

First, a link to a recent (Mar 14 ’14) report on the biggest bandwidth users. Netflix is responsible for over 1/3 of all Internet bandwidth in the US during the busy “prime time” hours! Somewhere I saw a graph showing the trend. http://variety.com/2014/digital/news/netflix-youtube-bandwidth-usage-1201179643/

Now remember that ALL “backbone” agreements are based on the principle of Balanced Peering: A and B carry each other’s traffic, and do so at no charge since there’s a balance in each direction.

If Netflix is pushing 1/3 of all traffic of the whole US Internet, in ONE direction, that means they are not handling any significant traffic in the OTHER direction. And so, the people they hand traffic to are (by contract) having to carry Netflix traffic essentially for free.

THAT is why ISP’s want to charge Netflix for the traffic.

It has nothing to do with competition or throttling some people.

Here’s the actual data and numbers, by an inside independent expert: http://blog.streamingmedia.com/2014/02/heres-comcast-netflix-deal-structured-numbers.html

And below is a description of how NetFlix has been strong-arming your ISP to demand no-cost access to ISP customers (thus forcing ALL customers to subsidize the cost of the few.) In reality, NetFlix was demanding no-charge access to last-mile ISP infrastructure, to place their CDN on-site. In other words, they want ALL ISP customers to subsidize the cost of the CDN being on-site.

And if the ISP does not agree, NetFlix claims the ISP does not support HD video.

Here are the links on this… and notice that these are business, not political links. This is NOT a political issue.
http://www.multichannel.com/blog/bit-rate/netflixs-version-net-neutrality-its-entitled-non-neutral-treatment/323997
http://www.forbes.com/sites/bretswanson/2014/03/27/netflix-wants-the-internets-benefits-without-its-costs/

 

Note: the following link is a good introduction to the topic. However, I’ve moved it down here because it is from one of the corporate players in this “game” so some people would be less likely to trust anything coming from such a source:
http://publicpolicy.verizon.com/blog/entry/unbalanced-peering-and-the-real-story-behind-the-verizon-cogent-dispute