The Internet is already not net neutral

The Thinker by Rodin

Upset by proposals by the Federal Communications Commission to create “express lanes” on the Internet? If the current proposal now out for public comment becomes a rule, it would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast to charge a fee to those web sites that want faster content delivery.

This is the opposite of net neutrality, which is the principle that all web content should be delivered by an ISP at the same speed. (Actually, it’s at the same bandwidth, since all network traffic is effectively at the speed of light.) The argument goes that without net neutrality, those companies with deeper pockets, particularly those who are already established, such as Netflix, have an unfair competitive advantage over other services or start ups without such deep pockets. It’s a concern I certainly share, so much so that I first blogged about it in 2006. Bottom line: I am still concerned and I think this proposal must be fought.

What I didn’t write about back in 2006 was that there was no net neutrality back then either. Effectively, bandwidth is already discriminatory because it is based on ability to pay. It’s just based on your ability to pay, not the content provider’s. For example, Verizon has basically four tiers of Internet service from it’s “high speed” service (actually it’s lowest speed service) where content delivery does not exceed 1MB per second to its “high speed Internet enhanced” service where you can download at up to 15MB per second. It’s hard to quantify what the cost of the 1MB/sec plan is compared to the 15MB/sec plan, because it depends on many factors including what bundle you may or may not choose. Suffice to say if you want a 15MB/sec service, you will pay more than a 1MB/sec service. So if streaming Netflix is critical to you, consider their 15MB/sec service. (Of course, this assumes that the port between Verizon and Netflix can handle 15MB/sec. If it can’t then there is no point in paying Verizon the premium.)

You can think of the Internet connection from your ISP like a water pipe. If the water pipe is big (and the water pressure is high enough) you can get more water per second through a bigger pipe. What the FCC is proposing is to take this pipe and put two pipes inside it. One is a fat pipe that will serve certain content very quickly, the “fast lane”. The other smaller pipe is for those who can’t afford to pay ISPs these premiums, i.e. the “slow lane”. Since I live in traffic-congested Washington D.C., I think of the “fast lane” as the pricey HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes on the beltway, and the “slow lane” as the toll free and usually congested other lanes. It’s not hard to imagine the Internet feeling a lot like it did in 1995, when the hourglass was principally what you saw in your web browser. Pages took forever to load, if they ever did. For those of us who remember those days, revisiting them sounds quite frightful. ISPs would have every incentive to throttle the slow lanes, because it would mean that web content providers would come to them and negotiate to use their fast lanes. In addition, they would have little incentive to increase bandwidth for their customers overall, but plenty of profit to funnel back to stockholders from those that pay for fast lanes. It is the antithesis of what the Internet is about.

So already there is no net neutrality of content delivery, unless you have an ISP that provides a “one speed for all customers” plan. The issue is not content delivery; it is the speed of particular content distribution within the ISP’s network. Which brings up another less noticed way that the Internet is not equal. It has to do with Content Delivery Networks (CDNs).

If you access my blog with a browser you will notice it takes a while to render a web page. Why is that? It’s because I don’t pay for a content delivery network. I did a test from home on accessing my web site. I had to go through 13 routers (switches on the internet) between my home computer and my web host:

1 wireless_broadband_router (192.168.1.1) 0.525 ms 0.244 ms 0.216 ms
2 l100.washdc-vfttp-93.verizon-gni.net (173.66.179.1) 7.083 ms 7.095 ms 8.161 ms
3 g1-5-3-0.washdc-lcr-21.verizon-gni.net (130.81.216.76) 9.435 ms 12.101 ms 12.305 ms
4 ae7-0.res-bb-rtr1.verizon-gni.net (130.81.174.208) 9.731 ms
   so-12-1-0-0.res-bb-rtr1.verizon-gni.net (130.81.151.230) 27.151 ms
   ae7-0.res-bb-rtr1.verizon-gni.net (130.81.174.208) 8.855 ms
5 0.ae1.xl1.iad8.alter.net (140.222.226.149) 10.166 ms
   0.ae5.xl1.iad8.alter.net (152.63.8.121) 9.396 ms 10.254 ms
6 0.xe-8-3-1.gw12.iad8.iad8.alter.net (152.63.37.14) 9.610 ms
   0.xe-8-0-0.gw12.iad8.alter.net (152.63.35.134) 9.693 ms
   0.xe-10-1-0.gw12.iad8.alter.net (152.63.35.102) 10.872 ms
7 customer.alter.net.customer.alter.net (152.179.50.206) 8.733 ms 10.023 ms 9.717 ms
8 he-2-4-0-0-cr01.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.83.65) 10.252 ms
   he-2-6-0-0-cr01.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.83.73) 14.819 ms
   he-2-5-0-0-cr01.ashburn.va.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.83.69) 12.388 ms
9 he-4-3-0-0-cr01.56marietta.ga.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.89.150) 39.468 ms 42.618 ms 37.101 ms
10 he-1-12-0-0-cr01.dallas.tx.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.88.234) 42.852 ms 45.176 ms 44.283 ms
11 be-22-pe01.houston.tx.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.85.174) 50.270 ms 49.438 ms 50.270 ms
12 as8075-1.2001sixthave.wa.ibone.comcast.net (75.149.230.54) 49.692 ms 85.009 ms 50.379 ms
13 216.117.50.142 (216.117.50.142) 49.597 ms

Electrons still travel at the speed of light, but they are thirteen stoplights between my computer and my web server, at least for me. You can see how long my request took at each stop. For example, hop 13 took 49.597 milliseconds. Add up all the milliseconds to see how long it took for me to get to my site. If you do the same thing, the number of hops will probably vary, along with the access time. In short, it’s relatively slow to get to, which alone may explain why my traffic is down. People are impatient when they click on a link to my site from a search index. So they go elsewhere or get an effective CDN by using a subscription service to read content like Feedburner or feedly.com.

This is not much of a problem if I go to google.com. Here is the route:

1 wireless_broadband_router (192.168.1.1) 0.557 ms 0.229 ms 0.202 ms
2 l100.washdc-vfttp-93.verizon-gni.net (173.66.179.1) 6.919 ms 8.588 ms 7.432 ms
3 g1-5-3-0.washdc-lcr-21.verizon-gni.net (130.81.216.76) 12.248 ms 12.530 ms 9.252 ms

So basically Google has figured out a way for its servers to be “close” to me, usually geographically, so I get their content more quickly, or at least with fewer stoplights between their servers and my computer. This magic is done through a content delivery network. I’m pretty sure Google rolled their own, and that takes a lot of money, which Google helpfully has.

You can imagine if a company wanted to create a new amazing search index, it would be at a significant disadvantage if it didn’t have a content delivery network. They probably won’t roll their own like Google, but use one of the companies out there that do this for profit, like Akamai and Level 3. The technology behind this is interesting but I won’t detail it here. The linked Wikipedia article explores it if you are interested. Suffice to say it does not come free, but there are times when it is justified. The U.S. Geological Survey where I work uses a commercial content delivery network. Whenever there is a major earthquake they push the content out to the CDN, otherwise their servers would get overloaded and it would be like a massive denial of service attack. It also gets this data out more quickly to the public, as the typical customer probably only has to traverse three hops instead of thirteen to get the information.

We like to think that the Internet is free, but of course it isn’t. We all pay for access to it. Even if we don’t pay it directly, we pay indirectly, perhaps for the cup of coffee at Starbucks while we surf on their wireless network, or through taxes if we use Internet kiosks at our local library. Doing away with net neutrality is just another means by which ISPs hope to make gobs of money from having a monopoly on the last mile between the content you want and your computer. This may be due, in part, by our refusal to pay for their pricier tiers of service. The only difference is that this time you are not directly paying for it but other content providers will be. (You would think ISPs might cut you in on the deal and discount your rate, but that assumes they are benevolent, and not the profit-obsessed weasels they actually are.) As we all know, nothing is free, so these costs will certainly be passed on to you if you are a subscriber, and that profit will go to the ISP.

Given that bandwidth to the home is a limited commodity, giving discriminatory access to web content providers that can afford to pay must by necessity mean that others will get less access. In that sense, the latest FCC proposal is smoke and mirrors, and it is in everyone’s interest to get off our lazy asses and oppose it.

You can leave a short comment to the FCC here or a long comment here.

The Internet needs your help

The Thinker by Rodin

What would you think if you picked up your phone, dialed a number and got this message?

“I’m sorry, but this phone company does not allow you to call this number. Have a good day.”

To suggest that you would be irate would probably be putting it mildly. You would probably say something like, “Don’t I pay the phone company $35 a month so I can access anyone in the telephone network? How dare they charge me $35 a month, yet will not let me call the number of my choice! What do they think this is, a totalitarian state?”

No, it is not totalitarianism. It is called capitalism in its latest and ugly modern manifestation. Because in case you have not noticed, except for the phone wires inside your house, you do not own the telephone line. You pay that $35 a month to rent the phone company’s lines. They own it. You do not. If you do not like the situation, you are free to create your own telephone company, or if you are lucky, contract with another company.

Long ago, the government recognized that certain companies perform a public service. That is why they are regulated. The government ensures that your local phone company offers service on a non-discriminatory basis and that the phone company will put every call through.

Suppose you use your phone regularly for phone sex. You like to spend $3.99 a minute to dial 1-800-HOT-MAMA and get your rocks off. Suppose your phone company looked at all its customer records and noticed that 10% of all its calls were going to 1-800-HOT-MAMA. Then suppose it told the owners of Hot Mama Inc. that unless they rebated back to the phone company fifty cents a minute, every word that was spoken by either party would be delayed by one second. Would you also be irate?

Perhaps, but in this case you probably would not make your dissatisfaction public. Yet it is likely that after a few more calls to 1-800-HOT-MAMA, the programmed voice delays will take all the thrill out of calling them. However, one day you notice a circular in your phone bill. “Tired of the poor service with your phone sex company? Try 1-888-BIG-TITS. Only $3.99 a minute and no voice delay!” It would probably not take too long before you have changed phone sex companies. You probably would have no idea that the Big Tits Phone Sex Company sent your Baby Bell fifty cents for every minute you spent connected to it doing some heavy breathing.

At this point you are probably saying, “Yeah, so what? This is all hypothetical and I don’t do phone sex.” Yes, it is hypothetical in the case of our telephone service. However, it is not hypothetical in the case of your internet service. Because it turns out that if you have an internet service provider, there is a good chance that they want more profit than what they can make charging you $39.95 a month. After all, they have spent billions digging up lawns so you can have a high-speed internet service, and the profits have not quite been what they anticipated. Hmm, but maybe Yahoo Search, anxious for more customers of its own, will send your ISP one cent every time a user on your ISP’s network uses Yahoo Search instead of Google Search. Perhaps that is why responses from Google.com to your search queries have been getting so slow lately, but responses from Yahoo appear like lightning. It is too bad that you cannot hear those cash registers going ka ching every time you use Yahoo Search. That does not mean those registers are not ringing up sales.

Welcome to the Brave New Internet, which may soon resemble the opening to that sixties ABC TV show, The Outer Limits:

“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling the transmission. We control the horizontal. We control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all you see and hear.”

In the case of America Online, it has already been there. Last month they prohibited their subscribers from going to dearaol.com. Apparently, someone set up a web site opposing AOL’s plan for guaranteed junk mail delivery. For a fee, AOL wants to allow junk emailers to put their spam directly into your inbox, whether you want it there or not. (With enlightened attitudes like this, it is no wonder AOL is bleeding customers.)

Other profit hungry ISPs are not quite so brazen. Verizon Communications, a high speed ISP in my neighborhood, recently knocked on my door to try to sell me its high-speed FiOS service, says its intentions are more benign. They want to offer services like movies on demand. They are worried that other internet content providers will also want to offer movies on demand, and will insist on the same quality of service as Verizon provides its customers.

I have no problem with Verizon or other companies offering movies on demand. I do have a problem though if their dedicated Internet bandwidth gives preference to their packets over preference to packets from unaffiliated providers. There are solutions to their so-called problem. One solution is to have two lines coming into your house, one for Internet content, and one for their own content. However, even that is not necessary. Since Verizon’s FiOS service works on an optical network, it is easy for network routers to allocate part of the spectrum exclusively for its own use, and part for Internet traffic. There is so much bandwidth on a fiber optic cable that no true high-speed internet service should be impacted. In this case though the portion of the bandwidth dedicated to their movies on demand could be for their unique content only. Yet if they are advertising three megabits per second of download speed to their internet service customers, those three megabits should be open to any lawful content available on the Internet on a nondiscriminatory basis.

I am sad to say that, not surprisingly, Congress so far has been bending over backwards to accommodate ISPs who want to establish quality of service preferences on their networks. This is simply wrong. Just as it is wrong for the phone company to take your money, yet not let you access a phone number you want, it is wrong for them to prohibit you from visiting sites you want to visit, or for them to deliberately discriminate against one provider for the benefit of their own preferred content providers.

While Occam’s Razor is probably not your favorite site, it is quite possible that this site, or even your favorite site, could suddenly be banned by your ISP and there would be nothing you or I could do to change it. I know I probably spend an hour a day reading the website Daily Kos. Right now, there is nothing to prevent my ISP, Cox Communications, from keeping me from accessing this website. (Lord, I hope Fox News does not buy them out!)

This fight is for network neutrality, and it is one we must win. The founder of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, said this just today:

“It’s better and more efficient for us all if we have a separate market where we get our connectivity, and a separate market where we get our content. Information is what I use to make all my decisions. Not just what to buy, but how to vote.”

You are reading this now because you value the Internet. It is in your interest to speak up now. You can start by taking a few minutes to contact your senators and congressional representatives. Perhaps your ISP will let your email go through, but they do not have to. For greatest impact though, it might be better and more effective to use the Plain Old Telephone System. It at least still lets you connect with anyone in the world. Let Congress know how you feel. Let your congressional representative know that you oppose H.R. 5252, the laughingly titled “Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006”. Tell them the watered down so-called “Net Neutrality” provisions are meaningless. Also, call your senator and ask them to support Senator Ron Wyden’s bill, the “Internet Nondiscrimination Act of 2006”.

If you have a choice in Internet providers, find out how they stand on Network Neutrality. I asked my ISP, Cox Communications. One of their Customer Care Supervisors responded when I wrote with (emphasis mine):

In response to your question about Cox Communications’ position on network neutrality, we currently do not have any plans to implement any type of tiered internet or filtering of content. Cox Communications wants what is best for our subscribers. Our customers can visit any legal web site they wish on our open network. We want to ensure that we are in a position to continue to provide our high speed internet service in the future. Cox Communications does maintain the right to manage our network as necessary. Per our subscriber agreement, we reserve the right to manage our network for the benefit of our customers. We will continue to manage our network in a way that benefits the vast majority of our customers and their growing need for bandwidth. We feel that Government regulation of Internet services would stifle innovation. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to stifle further innovation and investment – and government regulation of an industry typically does. Please do not hesitate to let me know if you have any further questions. Thank you.

This response is not exactly reassuring. While they have no current plans, they did not rule out any future plans. And by being against more government regulation, they also give themselves the freedom to restrict or tier content in the future. Let your ISP know you will put your money with ISPs that adhere to strict network neutrality.

For an easy way to find the names, addresses and phone number of your representatives in Congress, visit the Save the Internet website.

Please, take prompt action. What meaning does liberty really have if you cannot use it?