And the fight rages on… Net Neutrality, to block or not to block.
Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, is introducing new legislation to prevent service providers from blocking Internet content. Dorgan is not new to the arena, having put forth legislation in previous years dealing with the same thing. This time, however, he may be able to push it through.
So what’s different this time? Well, for one, we have a new president. And this new president has already stated that Net Neutrality is high on his list of technology related actions. So, at the very least, it appears that Dorgan has the president in his corner.
Of course, some service providers are not happy about this. Comcast has gone on record with the following:
“We don’t believe legislation is necessary in this area and could harm innovation and investments,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s senior director of government affairs and corporate communications, in a phone interview. “We have consistently said that all our customers have access to content available on the Internet.”
And she’s right! Well.. sort of. Comcast custmers do have access to content. Or, rather, they do now. I do recall a recent period of time where Comcast was “secretly” resetting bittorrent connections, and they have talked about both shaping and capping customers. So, in the end, you may get all of the content, just not all at the same level of service.
But I think, overall, Dorgan has an uphill battle. Net Neutrality is a concept not unlike free speech. It’s a great concept, but sometimes its implementation is questionable. For instance, If we look at pure Net Neutrality, then providers are required to allow all content without any shaping or blocking. Even bandwidth caps can be seen to fall under the umbrella of Net Neutrality. As a result, customers can theoretically use 100% of their alloted bandwidth at all times. This sounds great, until you realize that bandwidth, in some instances, and for perfectly legitimate reasons, is limited.
Take rural areas, for instance, especially in the midwest where homes can be miles away from each other. It can be cost-prohibitive for a service provider to run lines out to remote areas. And if they do, it’s generally done using line extender technology that can allow for decent voice signals over copper, but not high-speed bandwidth. One or two customer connections don’t justify the cost of the equipment. So, those customers are relegated to slower service, and may end up devices with high customer to bandwidth ratios. In those cases, a single customer can cause severe degradation of service for all the others, merely by using a lot of bandwidth.
On the flip side, however, allowing service providers to block and throttle according to their own whims can result in anti-competitive behavior. Take, for instance, IP Telephony. There are a number of IP Telephony providers out there that provide the technology to place calls over a local Internet connection. Skype and Vonage are two examples. Neither of these providers has any control over the local network, and thus their service is dependent on the local service provider. But let’s say the local provider wants to offer VoIP service. What’s to prevent that local provider from throttling or outright blocking Skype and Vonage? And thus we have a problem. Of course, you can fall back to the “let the market decide” argument. The problem with this is that, often, there is only one or two local providers, usually one Telco and one Cable. The Telco provider may throttle and block voice traffic, while the Cable provider does the same for video. Thus, the only choice is to determine which we would rather have blocked. Besides, changing local providers can be difficult as email addresses, phone numbers, etc. are usually tied to the existing provider. And on top of that, most people are just too lazy to change, they would rather complain.
My personal belief is that the content must be available and not throttled. However, I do believe the local provider should have some control over the network. So, for instance, if one type of traffic is eating up the majority of the bandwidth on the network, the provider should be able to throttle that traffic to some degree. However, they must make such throttling public, and they must throttle ALL of that type of traffic. Going back to the IP Telephony example, if they want to throttle Skype and Vonage, they need to throttle their own local VoIP too.
It’s a slippery slope and I’m not sure there is a perfect answer. Perhaps this new legislation will be a step in the right direction. Only time will tell.