On Net Neutrality

It's not really Ruby or Java-related, but with all the noise about net neutrality the past few weeks I figured I'd put my opinions out there. I doubt any of this is particularly original, but it's where I stand.

I believe, as do most well-informed Netizens, that Verizon et al are nuts to demand a new "pay-for-performance" model. They claim that since traffic to and from Google, Amazon, Yahoo, and friends takes up a larger percentage of their bandwidth than that from other sites, those heavy-hitters should pay intermediate providers a little something extra to make sure traffic arrives quickly. They liken it to a high-speed highway toll lane, allowing those who pay the price a higher quality of service. They are also completely wrong.

Plenty of metaphors have been tossed around by both sides. The toll lane metaphor in particular fails badly because of one simple fact: Google et al do not decide who visits their sites, and therefore they do not decide where their traffic goes. Google, for example, is a simple supplier of a service; the fact that the service is provided over the internet is entirely irrelevant since the internet is not funded based on who requests what from whom; it's based on the privilege of making, serving, and receiving requests. I'll talk in terms of Google from here on.

Traffic from Google (and to a lesser extent, traffic to Google) certainly do take up their share of overall internet bandwidth. This much is true. However Google already pays for some of that bandwidth on their end of the net. They pay for the privilege of receiving and serving requests and sending requests and receiving responses from sites they index or integrate with.

The other end of the internet is also already being paid for. Users pay for their internet connections, be they dialup or broadband, and in return are given the privilege of sending and receiving requests over that connection. Service pricing scales up with speed and reliability; corporate users pay the highest rates to guarantee quality-of-service while home users pay much lower consumer rates. Traffic that crosses the internet from point A to point B is already paid for twice...once on the service end and and once on the consumer end. This is how the internet has operated for better than two decades; it is today essentially a utility like power or water.

Adding a requirement that Google pay for traffic crossing various networks adds a third payment into this system. Where providers previously could only profit from what happened at the edges of the internet, they now want to choke money from the middle as well. Not only is this absurd given the structure and organization of the internet, it is also quite infeasible. If Google were expected to pay every primary and secondary backbone provider for all traffic crossing their wires, the costs could be astronomical...a death of a thousand cuts. It would, however, represent an explosive boom in revenues for the largest providers, since they would profit from every byte they delivered from point A to point B...while simultaneously charging A and B for the right to such extortion.

Let us assume that the providers are truthful in saying they need such a system to handle the explosive popularity of sites like Google's. What brought us to this situation? Again, the fault lies with the providers themselves.

Today, you can get a 1MBps DSL connection from any provider for about $25-$30 per month. Such a speed was unheard of only a couple years ago, and yet it is now standard in many regions. If you are willing to accept a few restrictions on how you use it, you can get 4MBps-8MBps cable internet for about the same price. Again, a remarkably low price for the service you get.

Supply and demand drives the market, wherein a fixed supply combined with increased demand causes prices to go up. While the supply of bandwidth has increased over the past few years, the demand for faster connections and the amount of data traversing them has skyrocketed. At the same time, prices have dropped.

Say a given provider serves 1,000 users, all with 56KBps modems. At peak theoretical usage this would require 56MBps of upstream bandwidth to serve (considering only downloads). Now consider a three-year period in which our friendly provider increases the size of their pipe by ten times (a very large increase), with a resulting total upstream bandwidth of 560MBps. Suppose over the same period half of their users switch to 4MBps broadband internet connections (also a large number, but perhaps not unreasonable in an internet-savvy population), and proceed to utilize them no more than 50% (reasonable given modern internet media services). This brings the total theoretical demand up to 1.052GBps, nearly double the ten-times buildout. Even dropping the number of broadband subscribers to 30% exceeds the buildout by a healthy margin.

I believe it is for this reason the providers have taken their current position. Rather than any one of them unilaterally increasing broadband prices to the consumer or service prices to corporate endpoints, they have decided to force content providers to foot the bill for their lack of foresight. They have not built out their networks fast enough to match the speed at which they have rolled out low-cost, high-speed internet. Now they're paying the price for over-marketing and under-planning with maxed-out networks and consumers ever-hungrier for more speed at lower cost.

Did they think they could decrease prices and increase service indefinitely without appropriate infrastructure to back it up?

So here we are stuck in this current situation. The large providers have had their "oh, shit" moment. They unfortunately hold most of the cards and have nearly convinced enough congresspeople to follow their lead. Again the needs of America's corporations are being put before the needs of her people. What other costs might there be?

For one, any other country that continues to observe network neutrality will continue to see the internet growing explosively. The US will fall behind out of a desire to increase provider profits.

Also, since consumers have little choice which networks their data flows through, providers excercise local monopolies. Without network neutrality, their networks will only be open to the highest bidders, eventually decreasing the level of choice and quality of service for end-users. When neutrality falls, how long before content providers bid each other completely off networks? Will I have to choose my next internet provider (if I have a choice) based on whether they allow me to more easily access Yahoo or Google?

So what are we to do? Obviously we should make every effort to ensure our congresspeople are voting in our best interests; that much is obvious. But I would propose another possible solution for Google and friends: if neutrality falls...don't pay. In fact, don't service those providers at all.

Stay with me here. Google and its family of services are likely the most popular destinations on the internet. Popularity is demand; users demand that Google services be available over their internet connections. They may not be screaming now about network neutrality, but when their ISP or the upstream provider tries to extort money from Google and Google responds by serving notice of such extortion back to the users in place of their desired services, you'll have thousands upon thousands of angry customers.

They will be angry not at Google--oh no. Anger is most often directed at the nearest target. If the reception on your TV is bad, the first thing blamed is the TV itself or the hardware or wires connecting it. If your gut grows beyond control, you may likely blame genetics or stress rather than the sodas and chips you consume daily. If you can't reach Google or GMail, guess where the blame and anger fall first: that's right, your ISP. Your ISP will quickly turn around and direct their own anger at the upstream providers that brought this new nightmare down upon them. "My customers can't reach Google because Google refuses to pay your fees. Resolve it or I and my 50,000 subscribers will no longer do business with you."

The beauty of this plan is that an ad-based company like Google won't even stand to lose much money. Google ads are delivered on countless pages across the net, all of which would still operate just as before. Google could bide its time while the furious public demanded net neutrality be reinstated. Supply and demand, and we're back where we started.

There's one other fact I need to call out, unfortunately. Those of you who have demanded absurdly fast connections at absurdly low prices will very likely have to accept that prices may increase to preserve neutrality. The internet as it exists today can't accommodate 100% of users using multi-megabytes-per-second...the infrastructure just isn't there. If there really is a crisis brewing on the internet such that available ISP demands will greatly exceed what backbone providers can handle, either endpoint speeds will need to decrease or prices will have to increase throughout the pipeline to fund network buildout. I would consider it a small price to pay to ensure the future of the internet as we know it. I hope you will too.

For more information on network neutrality, please visit the following links:

SaveTheInternet.com - a coalition fighting for network neutrality

Wikipedia's Article on Net Neutrality

Christopher Stern's excellent Washington Post article on the issues

And don't forget to contact your congresspeople to let them know where you stand:

US House
US Senate
Written on July 5, 2006