Network Neutrality

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I have heard a recording of Alaskan US Senator Ted Stevens talking about net neutrality a few times now. Each time I hear it I am puzzled initially by how somebody who has so much trouble speaking coherently got into an office where public speaking is so essential. But then I wonder whether it is just that he feels so passionately about this issue that his mind is racing ahead of his mouth (I’m sure we’ve all been there before).

Once you get past that issue though, you can easily separate out his arguments:

  1. The internet has a limited bandwidth. His analogy is tubes that can hold a certain amount of data at any one time. When the network is busy, emails and other information for consumers can be delayed by people pushing large files (he uses video as an example) over the internet. Senator Stevens says an email sent to him by his staff took a several days to be delivered because it was “tangled up” with other traffic.
  2. Commercial users of the internet, such as those delivering the video content over it, are not paying for the improvements in the network infrastructure, so why should they benefit from it. Shouldn’t they be made to build their own internet?

All sounds fine, until to realise that neither of those arguments actually holds water when you go below the surface:

  1. It is true that the internet, like any network, has limited bandwidth. What is not true is that his small email message would be queued up behind a video file download. The internet doesn’t work the same way as the post office. The video file download will be broken into hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of small pieces and reassembled by the computer receiving them.

    With peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent, the pieces will even come from different places, spreading the load across the network. His email will be interleaved with this stream of small packets, and will not even notice that the network is busy. Even if everybody in his neighbourhood, who all use the same ISP, started downloading video files, saturating the link between the ISP’s local office and the internet, nobody would be waiting behind other downloads. They would each get a fair share of the available bandwidth. Sure, it would take longer to download the video content, but that would be true for everybody. Emails, and other short messages like VoIP traffic would probably be unaffected since they need such a small share of the bandwidth to work effectively.

  2. His second point is that the commercial users of the internet, like Google and YouTube, are not paying for the network, so they shouldn’t benefit from it. I suspect that executives from both of those companies would be able to show you how much they are paying for their use of the network. Unlike most consumers who are on all-you-can-eat plans for $20-$40/month, commercial internet users pay based on either megabytes sent, or a statistical average of their bandwidth, the equivalent of a number of megabits/second sustained. And those numbers can be huge. I heard somebody say that YouTube’s monthly bandwidth costs were in excess of US$1M.

There’s another point that Senator Stevens seems to have missed. While it is true that it is a commercial company at one end pushing the data onto the network, it is consumers at the other end pulling it off. His claims that this is a consumer protection law amaze me. The intent of net neutrality was to make sure that companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast did not lock down access to just their content, but instead allowed consumers to choose where the content came from. It does not prevent the owners of the infrastructure charging their customers more (and those customers could be consumers, content providers like Google and YouTube, or both) if they think that they’re not making enough money to fund bandwidth improvements.

The truth is that they want to be able to block out competitive services the way they have always been able to in the past. The cable TV companies have already managed to keep a lock on their last mile segments; the telephone companies essentially pushed most of their fledgling competition out of business on DSL last mile. Now they want to lock their consumers into their content services. If Senator Stevens wants to prevent commercial usage of the internet, I hope that extends to commercial content, like video or music, from Comcast or AT&T, and not just to companies like YouTube or Google.

It is the likes of AT&T and Comcast that are the very reason that the US has such a low percentage of broadband access, and such poor speeds compared to other places in the world. They are too busy paying lobbyists to try to protect their monopoly positions, that they have no time or resources left to improve their networks. These companies don’t need protecting; they need to have some serious competition and to be told to go and compete rather than run crying to the government everytime somebody has a better idea than they do.

Update: Check out what Jon Stewart thought of Ted Steven’s tutorial on the workings on the internet (not to mention an equally ridiculous law regulating online gambling where a politician from Nevada states that the bill’s advocates claim online gambling is immoral and will destroy our society, but that they exclude betting on the horses or buying state lottery tickets).

There is also a song on MySpace which was taken down briefly by MySpace, then reinstated following an article on about it.

And even a music video version of Ted Stevens’ speech.

You can read the senator’s unofficial blog too, in case you need a better explanation of the internet’s tubes.

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