Network neutrality: code words and conniving at yesterday's FCC hearing (Part 2 of 2)

Yesterday I

summarized the public FCC hearing

about bandwidth at the Harvard Law School, and referred readers to a

more comprehensive background article
In this article I’ll highlight some of the rhetoric at the meeting,
which shows that network providers’ traffic shaping is no more
sophisticated or devious than the shaping of public perceptions by
policy-makers and advocates.

Broadband: quick and dirty

Our information highway has hit a dead-end due to a couple of cheap
tricks that incumbents took to meet public demand for more bandwidth
in the late 1990s. At this time. when the need was to serve up
graphics-rich web sites, the public made a bad deal, paying cable
companies to convert a channel or two to Internet access and phone
companies to adapt their copper wires to high-frequency digital
transmissions (asymmetric in both cases). This meant nobody had to pay
for fiber to the home, but the trade-offs caught up with us when
streaming media became popular.

Comcast’s much-criticized throttling of BitTorrent streams is a finger
in the dike. Naturally, when put under the spotlight, they tried to
minimize the extent of the traffic changes in their submission to the

More specifically, Comcast’s network management practices (1) only
affect the protocols that have a demonstrated history of
generating excessive burdens on the network; (2) only manage those
protocols during periods of heavy network traffic; (3) only manage
uploads; (4) only manage uploads when the customer is not
simultaneously downloading (i.e., when the customer’s computer is
most likely unattended) (“unidirectional sessions” or
“unidirectional uploads”); and (5) only delay those protocols
until such time as usage drops below an established threshold of
simultaneous unidirectional sessions.

In his spoken testimony, Executive Vice President David L. Cohen also
stressed that the restrictions on peer-to-peer protocols affected only
a small minority of customers. This is certainly true (although it
isn’t smart to try to keep blocking secret when the small minority of
customers affected are precisely those who have the technical
sophistication to uncover the secret).

But peer-to-peer offers obvious advantages to sites trying to compete
with YouTube without incurring its enormous bandwidth costs, so the
small minority will eventually become the mainstream.

Truly on the edge

Things are even harder if you’re a small rural provider, like the
outspoken Brett Glass, who has been single-handedly broadcasting the
view of mom-and-pops in the Internet service business when others
speak from theory. Brett’s opposition to network neutrality is
expressed in numerous postings to forums as well as
comments to the FCC.

Brett, who is also known as a FreeBSD expert and outspoken proponent
of its approach to free software, has kept a wireless ISP called
LARIAT going in Laramie, Wyoming against all odds for years. Nobody at
the FCC hearing spoke for Brett: not the large incumbent providers,
and not the network neutrality advocates (although they support an
environment that would let many LARIATs flourish).

Brett couldn’t handle increased traffic by buying more bandwidth.
Where he’s located, there is no more bandwidth. He already has to
string a line 50 miles to pay inflated prices to an incumbent phone
company (because the three local fiber providers are owned by a single
company that denies him access). Although more backbone bandwidth is
available, the price is prohibitive. Furthermore, the last mile for
him is wireless, and the narrow range of spectrum available to the
public imposes its own limits.

What does righteousness buy you?

Essentially, whether you’re Brett Glass making $5 per customer each
month in Laramie or Comcast providing a cable channel for asynchronous
Internet traffic (probably at artificially low prices, subsidized by
the high cost of cable TV), you are underprovisioning in the hope of
making giving customers just the access they need. So I snorted at
yesterday’s hearing when FCC chair Kevin Martin posed a leading
question to a peer-to-peer video provider:

The service doesn’t let customers exceed any limit imposed by
their providers, does it? It only lets customers efficiently use
the bandwidth that they’ve already purchased.

This is like analyzing a bank failure after a run on the bank by

The withdrawals didn’t let customers take out more money than
existed in their accounts, does it? They only let customers
efficiently use the money that they’ve already invested.

Martin knew very well that current U.S. networks can’t support
sustained use of the full capacity, any more than banks can pay out
all their customers’ funds.

No, this is not the open network that network neutrality experts
describe as the true, pure Internet. Perhaps they are right that the
service should not be marketed as Internet service. But no
change in terminology will help the situation until we invest in
better networks. Righteousness and $29 a month can buy you 10 Megs,

A possible fix: easier interconnection

I’m lucky: I am in one of the areas where Verizon finally strung fiber
(some 20 years after the telcos first promised to do it). I welcome
this investment, but in the short run it will widen the gap between
information haves and information have-nots, such as the people just
an hour’s drive West of me, represented at the FCC hearing by
Massachusetts state rep Daniel E. Bosley. They’re still living with
dial-up there.

Will the incumbents’ fiber plans eventually turn a luxury item into a
commodity, as happened with automobiles and cell phones? High-speed
networking is more likely to resemble electrification, which spread to
remote areas either through government funding or community self-help

I said earlier in this article that the public made a bad deal with
cable modems and ADSL. Congress and the FCC made a bad deal too.
Congress recognized in the 1996 Telecom act that competition was
important in order to build out networks, but assumed that a few large
companies would compete with each other.

Congress also recognized that nobody could build a whole parallel
network from scratch, so they ordered the FCC to enforce
interconnection rights. The idea was that small ISPs could get a start
by stringing some of their own lines (and now setting up wireless
stations), by leasing and reselling others, and by attaching their
systems to the incumbents’ networks.

The FCC came up with no less than 14 interconnection points that
incumbents were forced to offer competitors, but happened to omit the
one or two interconnection points that could really make a difference.

Perhaps the worse lapse of the FCC was to limit interconnections to
phone companies. Nobody could string a fiber to the phone company’s
box without incurring enormous financial and legal costs. This rule is
like saying that nobody can earn interest on a bank account unless
they’re also a bank.

In other countries where interconnection is easier, many small
institutions run fiber, and bandwidth penetration tends to be higher
than the U.S.

Markey lays the groundwork

I’ve chosen to finish my examination of yesterday’s FCC hearing where
it began: a speech by Representative Edward Markey, head of the
House’s Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Markey is
my representative, and I greatly admire his work in the telecom area
as well as others. Still, I had to analyze his charming and stirring
speech from a rhetorical perspective. In about fifteen minutes he
managed to slip in quite a lot of code words–seemingly everyday terms
that embody significant and long-held agendas. Looking at these words
and their true meanings can help to summarize the competing viewpoints
in today’s Internet debates.

Internet providers are access providers, not service

This assertion denies to Comcast and Verizon the right to promote
services and content by altering traffic on the underlying network.
More deeply, it puts forward a doctrine that is popular among network
neutrality advocates but by no means universally accepted in the
Internet community: that the physical conduit (and minimal software
protocols to convey data) should be administered by a different entity
than the information flowing over the conduit.

At its most extreme, advocates of the doctrine would either have
governments provide the physical network, or shake up the industry
again like the famous 1982 Final Judgment that split AT&T
apart. Network providers would have to divest themselves of either
their physical network or their content and service divisions.

Competition is the solution, because there was no creativity without

Thus did Markey anticipate the many calls by panelists for a return to
the original competitive premises of the 1986 Telecom Act. I have
already explained how the Congress applauded competition more as an
ideal than as a reality, and how widely we missed the mark in the
implementation of the act. Still, history shows the power of
competition. The question is whether we can recover from the
exhausting battles of the past decade and succeed where we failed

Solve problems through high speed as opposed to rationing

This doctrine holds that network providers should pay for whatever
bandwidth is needed to support their customers. Such was the

conclusion reached by the research consortium Internet2

after decades of trying to implement Quality of Service through
resource reservation and traffic shaping. The powerful lessons of this
experiment were picked up by others in the Internet community as proof
that we can solve our bandwidth needs only by adding more.

Of course, life is always easy in the absence of scarcity. But is it
any more feasible to keep adding bandwidth to the Internet than it is,
say, to keep adding lanes to roads or docking gates to airports?

Advocates say yes, approaching the solution from several standpoints.
Bundles of fiber could offer bandwidth so far beyond current needs
that we can assume they’ll serve us throughout our lifetimes.
Protocols and brand new technologies (such as optical switches) can
theoretically match or exceed the magic of Moore’s Law in computer
processors. And if we just do have to empty out our pockets and pay
for expensive bandwidth, it can create so many other efficiencies in
the economy that it pays for itself.

And thus started a hearing that revealed more about the problems
participants would like to have than the problems we actually face. I
haven’t bothered to report the traditional “government regulation
doesn’t work” doctrine that we heard briefly from Republican
commissioner Robert M. McDowell as well as from Comcast’s Cohen. The
interesting fact is that this claim wasn’t raised particularly often;
it seemed as if everybody realized the status quo is unacceptable and
that the FCC has to do something.

Certainly a lot is at stake. It was revealed the next day that Comcast

tried to pack the audience
What bothers me more is that everybody tried to pack our heads with
fine notions and not honor us with explanations of the hard trade-offs
they entail.

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