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Network Neutrality--Where's the Beef

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on December 19, 2008

The controversy over Google’s content delivery plans and the Wall Street Journal’s description of them has convinced me that the fight over network neutrality is a very strange one indeed. It appears to be a fight with only one side.

One problem is that violations of net neutrality in the U.S. seem to be almost as rare as unicorns. Yes, Comcast messed with BitTorrent connections early this year. Whether that was a willful violation of net neutrality or a clumsy attempt at traffic management is now moot; they got caught, the Federal Communications Commission scolded them, and they’re not doing it anymore. And neither, given the lack of incident reports showing up on the vigilant site of the Net Netrality Squad, is anyone else.

Thus, the concern over net neutrality appears to be entirely prospective. Big Internet service providers, like Verizon and Comcast, that have their own paid entertainment services have an interest in discouraging their subscribers from downloading entertainment content from third parties. Therefore, they have an incentive to throttle or otherwise interfere with Internet downloads or content streaming. It makes a nice syllogism, but if the threat is real, why isn't happening? Perhaps the relatively light hand of regulation already in place is really all that is needed.

The incoming Obama Administration is planning to pump billions of dollars into broadband expansion as part of its economic stimulus plan. It is vitally important that this money be used effectively and efficiently; those who would turn into into another big pork barrel project are already gathering at the trough. Done right, this could be a real boost to the economy of the future. It would be a tragic mistake to divert a lot of energy into a debate over what seems to be the illusory threat of net neutrality issues.

Reader Comments


December 19, 2008 4:45 PM

Watching the status line on Firefox suggests that google has highjacked the web.


December 19, 2008 10:06 PM

They're probably seeing how well their recently applied download caps are working before they get more aggressive.


December 20, 2008 8:11 AM

People seem to forget that the Internet Highways are not Taxpayer financed Public Roads. Various Corporation, Government agencies, Educational Institutions and public spirited individuals make up the Internet infrastructure.

They purchase or lease Wide-Band facilities from various communications companies and allow people to passthrough. When a user on Comcast or Verizon or AT&T accesses a Web-Site and Downloads a Giant File, that data may travel around the Earth several times, literally, before it gets t0 the requestors PC. The Path the data takes is Dynamic, based on a Routing Algorithm that changes based on Link availability. If a link fails the Router takes the next available shortest path. That path may be via Katmandu.

Even WiFi is not truly Public Domain. Many people do not know how to protect their home wireless Routers that are connected to their high-speed line and so guests tap in and use their network that they are paying for. This can jeopardize their own Security and can slow down their use of the network they are paying for.

Network Neutrality is a farce and will always need to be regulated or we will see the rise of Private Networks that the General Pubic has no access to. Anyone remember AOL and Prodigy before the general availability of the NET?


December 20, 2008 10:09 AM

If it can be done, and someone can find a way to profit from it, believe me it will happen.


December 22, 2008 4:41 AM

@Stephen Wildstrom

I believe you have failed to see that Comcast IS actively engaged in a sly attack on Net Neutrality... by usage caps.

Most people have held back criticism of Comcast's 250 GB cap, because in all honesty, that 250 GB cap is a lot (62+/-) of streaming SD movies, which is what most people are still watching. But compare that to HD movies and that average plummets to 14 movies streaming. As Netflix and Hulu gain popularity, they threaten the viability of OnDemand and expanded basic cable channels. Instead of people ordering up cable TV with their internet, they'll just be asking for internet and watching all their shows through the net.

Richard Whitt seems to understand this, as he critiqued usage caps in comparison to speed tiers to effectively manage traffic on a network.

If you apply the two prerequisites of Net Neutrality - no harm to end users and dumb pipes - then it's easy to understand that OnDemand has in fact an advantage over streaming data from Hulu and Netflix. There is an unequal treatment of data (one has usage caps and the other doesn't) and the end user is harmed by being forced to discriminate between sources of data. Remember that data - whether it's movies from OnDemand, cable TV or movies from Hulu - is all the same...bits of zeros and ones.

So you see, Comcast is in fact actively engaged with a sly attack on Net Neutrality.

Steve Wildstrom

December 22, 2008 7:19 AM

@gerrrg--It's a strained argument to say that usage caps in themselves violate neutrality as long as they don't discriminate based on content. A 250 GB monthly limit is more data than anyone not running an active server operation (already prohibited by the ToS) is going to use. Those caps are likely to rise as Comcast deploys DOCSIS 3, which will happen faster than download services will make HD movies available. When people denounce anything they don't like, such as usage caps, as neutrality violations, the debate loses all meaning.

Bruce Hahn

December 22, 2008 2:58 PM

I'm glad the FCC has a policy that supports network neutrality and glad that they enforced it in the Comcast/BitTorrent case. While there's no reason to believe that FCC will be any less aggressive in enforcing its stated network neutrality principles under a Democratic Chairman, we should all continue monitor FCC's enforcement on an ongoing basis and respond appropriately if and when the FCC slackens..
In the meantime the highest and best use of our time is to focus our efforts on the Obama broadband stimulus package component to make sure that it contributes to the maximum extent possible to both immediate job creation and moving us as effectively as possible to universal broadband availability.

Tilghman Lesher

December 22, 2008 3:45 PM

Reporters seem to forget that the vast army of people arose to defend net neutrality as a direct reaction to several telecom and cable executives who made specific threats against content providers. Who can forget the SBC executive who famously said "Why should I let Google use my pipes for free?". While it's nice that the prospect of regulation has curtailed the executives' wet dreams of taxing content providers for access to their customers, it is only due to this public rebellion against the executives' spoken intentions that we have seen this spectre disappear.

So while you blithely announce that you see no threat to Network Neutrality, the facts are that an intent was published, and the hordes of customers beat them back. It is likely that executives will try again in the future, although with more muted tones, and this precisely what Net Neutrality regulation is intended to prevent.


December 23, 2008 7:22 PM

@Steve Wildstrom

I'm not saying that Comcast is directly attacking Net Neutrality by utilizing usage caps. I'm suggesting that they're slyly attacking it by using an end-around of the 'dumb pipes' principle, which the Chamber of Commerce most recently used in their published, commissioned study.

Also, there is no point in your speculating about DOCSIS 3 and the raising of usage caps. Even with higher caps, I can still make a case that DOCSIS 3 with usage caps means that HD OnDemand has an advantage over non-affiliated content providers via forced, limited bitrate for video streaming (to prevent the end user from violating the cap).

And of course, WHY would Comcast increase maximum bitrates (to as much as 150 Mbps) with DOCSIS 3, if they had a network capacity issue to begin with? As I've been saying for years, this bandwidth issue is a red herring, and network management is nothing but a matter of upgrading NOT the amount of fiber already in the ground, but a matter of upgrading the spectrum splitter and processors that distinguish an infinite amount of bands of light.

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