Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Net Neutrality

George Anders:

Until about a year ago, Chiang and his colleagues thought their data-pricing idea had so much common-sense appeal that no one would regard it as an assault on net neutrality—even though it would let carriers charge people more for constant access. But then, as the debate heated up, everything got trickier. Ardent defenders of net neutrality began painting ever darker pictures of how the Internet could suffer if anyone treated anyone’s traffic differently. Even though Chiang and Saluja saw variable pricing as pro-consumer, they had no lobbyists or legal team and decided they couldn’t afford a drawn-out battle to establish that they weren’t on the wrong side.

For network engineers, DataMi’s about-face isn’t an isolated example. They fear that overly strict net neutrality rules could limit their ability to reconfigure the Internet so it can handle rapidly growing traffic loads.

Dipankar Raychaudhuri, who studies telecom issues as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rutgers University, points out that the Internet never has been entirely neutral. Wireless networks, for example, have been built for many years with features that help identify users whose weak connections are impairing the network with slow traffic and incessant requests for dropped packets to be resent. Carriers’ technology assures that such users’ access is rapidly constrained, so that one person’s bad connection doesn’t create a traffic jam for everyone. In such situations, strict adherence to net neutrality goes by the wayside: one user’s experience is degraded so that hundreds of others don’t suffer. As Raychaudhuri sees it, the Internet has been able to progress because net neutrality has been treated as one of many objectives that can be balanced against one another. If net neutrality becomes completely inviolable, it’s a different story. Inventors’ hands are tied. Other types of progress become harder.

Geoff Duncan:

President Obama wants the FCC to use Title II powers to prevent ISPs from selectively blocking or throttling Internet traffic, and to prevent them from engaging in “paid prioritization” plans that would (colloquially) divide the Internet into fast and slow lanes. The plan would also require transparency not just in how ISPs manage the last-mile connections to homes and businesses, but also how they interconnect with other networks and services elsewhere on the Internet. The idea is to treat the Internet like a “vital service,” and preserve the “open Internet” where all lawful Internet traffic is handled with equal, best-effort priority, regardless of an ISP’s relationships with competitors or other companies.


However, from a commercial viewpoint almost nobody wants to get into a business where the government can control prices: it restricts revenue and puts off investors — both major concerns for companies considering pouring billions (more) into broadband. ISPs would prefer that revenue result from innovation in an open market, not government rules. Paid prioritization deals — like the ones Comcast and Verizon have extracted from Netflix — might be an example. For ISPs, they’re a business innovation that generates money without raising end-users’ rates. To a content provider, they’re more like blackmail.


In the meantime, no open Internet protections are in force in the United States other than a handful of transparency requirements (and a few temporary restrictions on Comcast, due to its purchase of NBC Universal) — meaning, if an ISP decides it wants to block an application or a site, it must disclose that action. It also means ISPs like Comcast and Verizon are free to continue pursuing paid prioritization arrangements with companies like Netflix, Google, Amazon, and Apple.

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