Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Net Neutrality

December 2014

By Mike Gould

I’ve been meaning to write about Net Neutrality (NN) for some time now, but, jeez, it is one gnarly, difficult topic to explain in the 1KiloWord I’m allotted here, and a path strewn with the political landmines I try to avoid. But this is kinda the number one issue on the techno/political/social/economic landscape out there, so I guess I’ll chime in. Or dial in, no, wait - we don’t dial anymore - log in. Anyway, I’m going in:

All the News That’s Fit to Stream
What kicked things into their current tizzy is this item, paraphrased from the NY Times 11/10/14:

On 10 November 2014, President Obama recommended the FCC reclassify broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service in order to preserve net neutrality…

Thus setting us up for battle between the FCC (which is not beholden to the President) and the executive branch of the Federal Government, with the other branches of Congress weighing in, based on their corporate allegiances and understanding/misunderstanding of the technical issues involved. We’ll also be hearing from the various Internet behemoths which will be directly impacted: Google, Netflix, Comcast, Time Warner, et al.

Basically, the President would like to have the FCC classify the Internet as a common carrier, a public utility, regulated as phone and other services are. This puts him at odds with FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee and former cable and wireless industry lobbyist. Wheeler has been working for months on a weaker plan that calls for a hybrid of rules and regulations regarding the way ISPs conduct their businesses. The FCC was getting ready to release its plan when Obama made his announcement – they quickly announced a postponement until next year so that they can “make their case in a more prepared manner”.

Fast Lanes vs. Slow Lanes
The issue is that Internet Service Providers (ISPs), specifically the big ones like Comcast, would like to be able to charge more for speedier access to specific sites; some fear this will end in a two-tiered system where smaller companies who can’t afford the fast lane will end up stuck behind the semis and mobile homes out on the information not-so-super highway.

An article in Wired magazine last June sheds some light on this (URL below). Big Content (Netflix, et al) already has fast lanes: they have established their own servers in network centers owned by Big Wire (Comcast et al) to provide the shortest possible hop between their movies, etc., and their customers. According to Wired, the real issue is that the Comcasts and Verizons of the world are becoming too big and too powerful, and may eventually have the freedom to put the screws to the consumer via the fees they charge to Internet users to move their bits and bytes.

Predictably, the President’s announcement was met by cheers from content providers and infuriation from ISPs. This debate has been raging for some time now; five attempts at legislation have been made and failed to pass Congress (no surprise there). Millions of dollars have been spent by both sides of the debate in lobbying politicians. President Obama has been talking about his support for NN for some time, but this announcement is his first serious weigh-in on the issue.

Here is a quick glossary of some of the terms being thrown around in the debate:

Bandwidth throttling
This is the great fear: that the ISPs will give priority to the traffic that pays the most, restricting the flow to others. Given the crummy Internet speeds we have in this country, especially when compared to the rest of the world, a system with even slower speeds is a dismal prospect. This is something that NN is specifically intended to prevent.

Peering
This is the “Fast Lane” of the Internet; where a big provider of content like Google connects directly to a big mover of data, such as Comcast. In other words, instead of using the same highway the rest of us use for email, etc., peered parties have their own side roads specifically designed to transfer their data back and forth. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Content Delivery Network
(CDN) This is peering taken to its logical conclusion: instead of a private road, you just park your servers next to your ISP’s servers, which speeds things up considerably, especially for high-traffic providers like Netflix.

Data Discrimination
This is the idea that ISPs can offer preferential treatment of data traffic based on increased fees. The theory is that a totally unregulated Internet permits monopolistic ISPs the ability to potentially censor traffic they don’t like, throttle the data from competing smaller ISPs, and while they are at it, filter and monitor the traffic they control, in cahoots with the NSA and other snoops. NN is intended to prevent this.

Like I said, a very complex subject, fraught with politics and battles of the Internet titans. How this will shake out is anybody’s guess. One good thing is the groundswell of public indignation that erupted when the FCC announced an earlier plan in July that was not particularly neutral. They put up a comments web site that was quickly overwhelmed by the vast number of responses, mostly negative.

At least, it is good that we are having this discussion now, instead of a few years down the pike when the online world will be even more complex. Hopefully things will work out so that us ordinary mouse surfers can continue to have access to the rest of the world at a reasonable download speed. Or, dare I hope, a little faster?

Wired article: http://www.wired.com/2014/06/net_neutrality_missing/

Mike Gould would like to see a lot less monopoly in general, and believes a little regulation would help, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, builds laser display devices, performs with the Illuminatus 3.0 Laser Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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