Many have taken the position that pure Net Neutrality is essential for an open Internet. Today the FCC announced that they will not be requiring a pure Net Neutrality solution, but what they will require is not clear. And, to quote Ross Perot, the devil is in the details.
Traditionally, on the Internet there has been the concept of “peering”. This means that if AOL and Hotmail were sending each other a fairly balanced amount of traffic, they wouldn’t owe each other any money. But if a site was sending a lot more traffic into your site than you were sending to it, that site would owe you “peering fees”.
Imagine this. A small city builds a set of roads that is adequate for its normal traffic. The normal traffic of its citizens travelling to other cities is balanced by citizens visiting from other cities. At some point, another city starts sending a massive number of trucks into the small city, jamming the roads so the normal traffic can’t get through. Traditionally on the Internet, the other city would help pay for the small city to widen and maintain its roads, since the other city is making money selling furniture (or whatever) to the citizens of the small city.
This system worked reasonably well when the “cities” were distinct in purpose; there were residential cities (access providers like AT&T and Comcast) and commercial cities (Netflix, Amazon, Google, etc.) But now the residential cities want to be the providers of stuff as well, and they want to use the peering fees, and sanctions for not paying the peering fees, to disadvantage the commercial cities. As a result, sites like Netflix want to stop paying peering fees.
Pure Net Neutrality advocates think we should require access providers never give preferential access to any site, nor charge any other site for the demands that its traffic put on their network. That, in effect, means they must provide whatever level of bandwidth is required for any arbitrary application on the Internet. This requirement seems overreaching to me.
When Netflix came online, the bandwidth at many access providers increased more than a thousand times what it was before. Streaming movies have many orders of magnitude more data than email or normal websites like Facebook and Google. And that was after YouTube had greatly increased the bandwidth people were using before that. These increases required access providers to do massive upgrades to prevent the streaming movies from slowing down all the other traffic, and/or for them to restrict how much bandwidth Netflix and YouTube were using. And Netflix is not the last Internet application that will require an increase in bandwidth. I suspect that an understanding of these factors has caused the FCC to be uncomfortable with a pure Net Neutrality position.
That said, we need to do something. For example, I have AT&T U-verse for my Internet access provider. AT&T wants me to buy movies from them rather than getting them from Netflix. They should not be able to use the fact that I get my access from them to disadvantage Netflix or other sites, but they will if they get the chance, as any competitive company would. Netflix should help pay for the extra bandwidth, but they shouldn’t be taken advantage of. I’m not sure there’s a good way for the FCC to balance this.
It’s a thorny problem. I don’t think a naïve pure Net Neutrality approach is the right solution, but we need something. A decent solution might be to re-regulate the former phone companies and other access providers, banning them from providing commercial services, but guaranteeing them a good rate of return. I’m aware, however, that will never happen.