Jim, I would really like to get your thoughts on "net neutrality." I remember at one point you said you wished there *were* priority systems in place where people who used more bandwidth paid more. Hope I'm not misstating that.

Cory Doctorow seems to think government regulation to achieve neutrality isn't the answer. On the other hand, MyDD and others are framing this as "the end of the Net as we know it" and arguing that government regulation is the only thing protecting us from the telecoms busting up the Internet. I'm very confused, partly because i still don't understand how the Net actually works.

- tom moody 4-23-2006 2:01 am

It's a hard one, but the hopeful thing is that it might not matter.

My comment you are remembering is probably an interesting place to start. The comment was about ISP pricing, and it's true that I'm not a strong believer in "all you can eat" internet access pricing ($x / month for unlimited internet access,) but it is probably a little bit of an overly provocative stance I take just to make a point. And the point is just that I want my ISP charging me for bits, not for the type of content those bits make up. I don't want to have to pay more to my ISP for using VOIP telephone service, then I would for the same amount of data that happened to be webpages. And ISPs are hungry to break different services out for higher pricing (saying these services, like VOIP, require "higher quality of service" so therefore need to be priced more.)

I often say (and this is what you remember I think) that I would rather pay a fair market price per bit to my ISP (rather than a flat $x/month fee) in exchange for them agreeing to treat all my traffic as just neutral bits without caring whether it is P2P traffic, or streaming media traffic, or VOIP traffic. Of course that will never happen because the billing would be much harder for them (and they wouldn't be able to pursue these new revenue streams based on delivering "higher quality" bandwidth at a higher price for selected services.)

As a side note here, I might well end up paying *more* under a per bit plan since I use a lot of bits (Dave certainly would, for example) because right now heavy users are subsidized by light users in the ISPs eyes. But it would still be relatively cheap, and I'd take the trade off to get the ISP from classifying my data stream into different categories they invent.

The latest round of net neutrality debate has gone even further beyond these concerns. Some of the big internet providers have started to do some this traffic analysis that I was scared of. Some, for instance, are identifying big P2P users and throttling their bandwidth back. But beyond that, some have now gotten some bigger schemes in their heads.

And the biggest one has to do with charging websites for access to their customers. The fear here (and what they are trying to change the law to allow) would be for, say, AT&T could go to google.com and say "You know, your site works pretty fast for most people, but wouldn't it be ashame if our network started putting huge amounts of latency into connections to google.com? Gee, that would really suck. But maybe if you gave us $x bazillion / month we'd make sure that wouldn't happen."

Right now that would be illegal. We have net neutrality laws that say the big network guys can't discriminate between traffic.

They argue that they need to because, among other reasons, they need to be able to offer higher quality service when the application demands it (insert obligatory future scenario where a doctor is performing a remote operation over the internet here.) So they say they don't want to overturn the neutrality laws just to screw the customer, it's to provide them with the opportunity to pay for better tiers of service.

Critics say, "yeah right, and I've got some Iraqi WMDs to sell you" or something like that.

I think it is a dangerous prospect. And while it's a little overblown, I think, to say this could be - or even lead to - the "end" of the internet, these are serious concerns and I'm sure we both agree you'd be foolish to trust a large company to make a decision that cuts against the prospect of higher profits. So I think it's for real.

But here's why it may not matter. If, say, Comcast started blocking google.com because google wouldn't pay them any money (google has already said they won't pay anyone,) then how many people are going to subscribe to Comcast? Probably few, and those that do will drop it as soon as they realize they can't use google.

Counter to that, though, is the fact that a lot of people still don't have competitive broadband choices in their market. So they could be screwed.

But counter to that, the market will greatly favor increased competition in those markets - most likely leading to choices in most cases I believe - based on the huge amount of disgruntled customers there would be which would translate into a much bigger motive for others to jump into the game.

So I basically think the market will protect us - but I realize it is foolish to rely on the market too much. People will be hurt if these laws come down, especially in markets where there is no competition for broadband access.

But, with all apologies to those people (I won't be one because I would never live outside a major city) it doesn't seem too bad to me. And it may even spur network diversification in some way.

And when all the ISPs are bad guys and nickle and diming everyone with these complex multi-tiered pricing systems - maybe some ISP will see the market opening for having a per bit pricing plan. "$.0001 / per bit and we stay out of your business." That would never fly today, but take down net neutrality and after a few uncomfortable years someone will do it.

It's bad, but I think the big networks would be sort of shooting themselves in the foot if they actually started to slice up the internet (by denying service to sites linked to competitors,) and so while I don't want it to happen, if it does I will be happy to watch them hurt themselves.

Way too long, I know, but I don't have time to go back and edit! Hopefully there is something in there.

And double plus - we can always make our own internet in the unlicensed spectrum or with UWB meshes (I'm talking way in the future) which might be a good thing too!

- jim 4-23-2006 2:52 am

AT&T will be deploying 20-24 Mbps over twisted pair to much of their network. With the acquisition of Bell South, this is a pretty big swath of the US. Most of that BW will not be generally available for internet use, but instead will be devoted to video/IP services sold by AT&T. Walled garden -- but just for traditional television service. For now.

On the bandwidth allocated for "regular internet", they're expressing interest in pay-for-premium-access to content providers who provide internet content/services to AT&T DSL customers. I can understand their motivation, since they'ed like to maximize the return on the multi-billion dollar network build out. But this concept bugs me because it's an attempt to extend the walled garden. Not as a hard limit, but in a way that can affect service quality.

If content/service providers capitulated, and paid the network providers to gain premium access for youtube, VOIP, etc., etc., it could lead to a segregated internet. But, as Jim mentioned, there are countervailing forces.

- mark 4-23-2006 10:25 am

Thanks, this is helpful. I don't understand the tech side well enough to do a post, so I'm counting on you guys to tell me if we need to get the word out to prevent destruction of the Net by too-grabby private interests and Congressional giveways, if that is in fact imminent. I fear MyDD is oversimplifying what's at stake and I don't want to just parrot the party line.
- tom moody 4-24-2006 8:24 am

MyDD link
- tom moody 4-24-2006 9:39 am

Here's another angle on the thing. The major content providers are paranoid about a couple of things, a) piracy and b) alternate distribution channels for alternate content. These content providers want provisions in the client devices (e.g. set top boxes) that prevent consumers from accessing random content, downloading that content to the disk in their media center, and playing that content on their TV/stereo. They make demands (and have the clout to win concessions) based on fear of a) piracy. But, it just so happens that it locks out b) alternatives. So it's not just the network providers who have an interest in preventing completely unencumbered networks.

There's an interesting article in the May issue of Wired about the on-line video explosion. The chart on 122-123 depict the layers -- content, service providers/aggregators and client HW/SW. There's no fundamental technological reason why the various boxes in the diagram shouldn't be fully interoperable. (Perhaps there's a verb tense issue on some of the interoperability, but you get the point.) The lack of interoperability these days is driven much more by business objectives than technical limitations.

- mark 4-24-2006 10:26 am

As always, Mark knows what he's talking about.

I read the MyDD link Tom. I think it is not at all over the top. My impression is that the "bad guys" really are trying to do those things, and we all should be trying to stop them. Still, I think the "forces of good" really do have the much better hand and will eventually prevail. But that doesn't mean we can just slack off and expect nothing bad to happen as these things play out. Certainly bad things will happen along the way and this issue is a potentially big one.

I don't think there is any way a reasonable person could say that MyDD post is off target, or engaged in fear mongering, or anything like that. But, with that said, I'm not quite as nervous as they (?) are. Or maybe it's just that I'm more lazy. If you would ever engage in rallying the troops in the interests of cyberspace, this is probably the issue to do it over.
- jim 4-24-2006 6:11 pm

This isn't really an opposing view, but here's some thoughts from Om Malik who is one of the most respected telecom business blogger/pudits. His comment thread might develop into something interesting.
- jim 4-24-2006 6:22 pm

I'm at NAB right now. I just spoke with a colleague who wrote the specs for a media center that will very soon be co-marketed by a satellite TV company and a telephone company. I asked him about the anti-piracy scheme. The box is designed to work only with digitally signed source code, and the box will die if an attempt is made to hack it. The provided source code restricts the box to access one specific on-line vendor for access to movie downloads over IP.

That's the way they roll.

- mark 4-25-2006 1:56 am

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