Sunday, June 11, 2006

Net Neutrality: Slashdot reacts to the COPE Act

The readers over at /. had some pretty interesting -- and diverse -- reactions to the passage of the COPE Act. Here are some highlights:

Regulate the Market

If there was perfect competition in the ISP market, then fine, let market forces rule! However, the 1st tier ISP market today is far more oligopolistic than [the] free market. You can bet that if there was perfect competition, this idea would not even have the slightest chance of gaining traction...

Historical perspective

...Ever since the development of Strowger's automated (as opposed to operator-driven) call switching, an underlying principle of telecommunications (long since codified into law) was the ideal that the switching system should not make routing decisions based on the content of the call. (It's considered fair-play for a carrier to, for example, route a over a satellite circuit vs. an undersea cable based on whether it is a FAX/DATA call, but not based on wether it's a business vs. personal call.) This is the fundamental basis behind the concept of network neutrality.

One could argue that without some concept of network neutrality, we can't really say we even have a telecommunication system. I'm not sure there's a good example of a system akin to what the Republicans are proposing here, which is a system where public rights-of-way are privatized into a handful of companies with monopoly control. The closest I can come-up with off-hand would be what was done in the era of the railroad tycoons. Not a perfect match, since in that age the railroads did not lead into every home, nor was the economy as dependent on them as ours is today in the Internet...

* The Carriers are dependent on public rights-of-way to build their networks, so it's not really fair for them to benefit more from that right-of-way than I do simply because they are in a position to use more of it than I. If we are in support of private ownership, I should be able to sell my private citizens portion of that right-of-way to the highest bidder in the same way that the Carriers are demanding to be allowed to do. (Not really fesible, but that's why we have things like Regulation).

* The Carriers are exploiting a natural monopoly and network effects to further their business model. If spectrum were limitless and if running fiber across long distances did not create an effective barrier-to-entry for new market participants, then the Carriers arguments about letting the markets decide might have some validity. But market forces are always distorted under monopoly conditions.

History (both railroad and telecommunications) tells us that when a single entity is in control of the network, evolution of that network proceeds slowly, and only in a way as to increase control and profitibility. Let us not forget; between automatic switching (circa 1890's) and the 1984 breakup of AT&T, the two big telephone company innovations were DTMF dialing and the... Princess Phone™.

The railroads fell only when an alternate infrastructure (the Interstate highway system and, to a lesser extent, commercial aviation) was built along side the existing network infrastructure. The Internet, as we commonly know it today, took-off as a result of the break-up of the Bell System monopoly and legislated network-neutrality. Prior to the 1996 Telecommunication Reform act, the Carriers were prohibited from offering data services (like AOL or CompuServe did) specifically to prevent them from favoring one provider over another. AOL, CompuServe, Earthlink, and the like, using modems and the fact that the telephone companies were required to carry these calls even though it prectically bankrupted many of them, were the impetus behind the creation of DSL, which in turn forced the cable television providers to convert their profitable one-way television broadcast model into a two-way Internet model.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe 150 years of telecommunications wisdom was wrong. Sadly, I suspect for the next 25-50 years we're going to find out.

The Death of Peering

Look at a traceroute some time... your packets could go through a half a dozen or so different entities. If any one of them hasn't been paid their bribe from Apple, your 'net performance suffers.

The way packets are routed on the internet, this will be a free-for-all of people trying to gouge a little extra money. The whole concept of peering -- since our packets travel over your network, and your packets travel over ours -- will all go to s**t. As packets get rerouted around individual places that aren't playing nice because they haven't been paid, all of your traffic will be sent through congested chokepoints.

The sum total will be an overall reduction in service and relibility for everyone.

Your downloads of Mozilla, or Linux, or iTunes, or things from sourceforge, Microsoft updates, or whatever -- all of them will be subjected to intermediate 'road tolls' by people who feel they should get a cut for reliably delivering your data. Every single one of them will be approached little-by-little to cough up or experience packet loss/delays. me, this sounds like... the beginning of separated, specialized networks. This is like travelling through some third world country where armed groups stop you and charge a fee to be allowed to continue.

And what of Common Carrier status?

In my opinion, any company who wishes to be able to charge certain sites for reliable bandwidth should immediately lose any and all common carrier status afforded to them. They are now liable for every single packet which travels over their networks; since they clearly need to identify the source of every packet for specific billing purposes.

A Free Market requires Competition

However, the Republicans are doing the right thing by their constituents by allowing the maximum freedom to these broadband providers and only seeking legal recourse if there is proof of anti-competitive actions.

I agree... but this philosophy only works when there is competition. The reason this thing is so bad, isn't because AT&T is going to go off and do something dumb... its because AT&T is going to go off and do something dumb, and the market can't punish them by allowing their customers to switch. For 99% of broadband customers, they only have one high-speed choice.

This is something, sadly, today's Republicans forget. They believe the solution to every problem is "the free market" when they forget that includes "competition".

Google's "free ride"

The chairman of AT&T has openly lamented during hearings that he gives websites like Google a "free ride". To his mind, Google is a service that should be paid for. That Google needs to apportion a percentage of its revenue into a general fund, because AT&T doesn't sell bandwidth to Google, but carries a lot of Google traffic. He specifically used Google in his example.

That's called revenue sharing, and you know who does stuff like that? Sports team owners. They divide up the revenue from tv rights equally, despite teams representing unequal market share. You know what the big ISPs want? They want that. They want to see Microsoft and Google, and anyone else THEY deem to provide some essential function to the net to pay into a revenue sharing pool.

You know the only time a free market can allow something like that to happen? When you have [an] oligarchy. And that's what the big backbones providers want. They want to consolidate the market, and start putting tarriffs in at peering sites. They want to exert influence outside the carrier market, and they see QoS as the first step to getting down the slippery slope. Pretty soon, some carriers decide to de-prioritize packets to Google. Maybe Google works, maybe it's really really slow...

Payment plan

Let me get this straight:

I paid once for taxes that created the internet and supported most of the phone system infrastructure.
I paid again for phone service and use of the lines.
I paid again for all the people who can't afford access to the lines.
I paid again for dsl.
I paid again for the USF (which gets paid to Verizon so that they can pay themselves for using there own lines, which I already paid to use twice.)

Yet the oposition to this bill wants me to think that someone needs to pay for [all] this service they're providing.

I'm generaly against government regulation, but something isn't right here. It makes me glad we also paid all that money to [break] up AT&T in the first place.

Bad for the Telcos

Yes, this is bad news for regular users, but its also bad for the big telcos. That's because if they start trying to sell traffic prioritization to people, they'll end up with egg on their face due to the very nature of the Internet, and everyone will lose. Regular customers will just lose first, but I think telcos will lose later.

The reason is that telcos think only in terms of their own networks, not in terms of the internet as a whole. For example, suppose I want to go to google video and so does Joe in Iowa. If Joe and I are both are customers AT&T, for example, and we both purchase some kind of fast streaming... video service from AT&T, and Google has direct uplink to AT&T, then we both will get faster video downloads. However, if Joe's traffic ever traverses another network like UUNet, then the fast steaming video service Joe paid for won't be so fast. Unless, that is, AT&T and Verizon/MCI (UUNet) have an agreement to honor each other's traffic prioritization.

Here's where it gets interesting. What if Verizon sells the same traffic prioritation to its customers? Are we to believe that Verizon will treat AT&T's 'prioritized' traffic with the same expediency as their own high-priority steaming video traffic? I think not. The interesting thing is that it doesn't matter if Joe is an AT&T customer or not - the chances of his traffic traversing non-AT&T link somewhere on the internet are pretty good, since there are... video providers all over the place, not just on AT&T's network.

The end result is that telcos may sell something to customers that they can't deliver, due to the nature of the Internet. What will happen in time, without 'net neutrality', is that telcos will try to re-engineer their networks to reduce the chances that their customers' traffic will ever traverse other provider's networks out on the internet.

Who will scream first will be business customers. They'll insist on SLAs when paying extra for 'prioritized' traffic, and SLAs nearly always include rebate clauses when things go wrong, and things will go wrong until the internet gets all partitioned up (and functionaly broken). My place of work hosts many hundreds of large commercial web sites, and I'll for sure enforce rebate clauses when the content we pay to have 'prioritized' doesn't move with the specified urgency. And, yes there are ways to determine how to measure whether or not traffic like... video is getting the performance promised in SLAs. I think what will happen is that big telcos will be at each other's throats for failure to honor each other's traffic prioritizations.

The Internet is an ocean, not a bunch of lakes. The telcos want to sell good weather and calm seas.

The only thing a 'tiered' internet will result in is poorer service to people who don't pay for 'prioritized' traffic - that you can bet on. Once that becomes apparent, of course people will start coughing up extra dough, and telcos will get a temporary boost to their bottom line. Of course, that is, until the internet starts to break down as telcos start to partition up the ocean into nice, managable lakes.

Well, it was interesting while it lasted.

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