Saturday, June 10, 2006

Net neutrality

Two things that I have reasonably strong opinions on are colliding strongly in the net neutrality argument.

First a bit of history.

Net neutrality means that the network service providers get no control over how data flows over their network. They are dumb carriers of whatever bits the end-points (us customers’ computers, servers, mobile devices) put on the network.

This is based on the classic End-to-End Arguments paper by Saltzer, Reed and Clark. (a personal favorite for its elegance, simplicity and the complete awesomeness of the idea).

To explain, a telephone network is a smart network where the intelligence is all in the network, while the end-points only work as originators and terminators. In the case of the Internet, it is the other way around - all the smartness is in the end-points, while the network only routes packets from point to point.

However, the network providers wish to change this. Pay more, get higher quality of service. The question is: can these providers be trusted?

My economic opinion is: let the market take care of itself. But, as a customer and a technology professional, I am very skeptical of the network providers playing it fair here. The network provider business is hardly a free market, with the entrenched telco and cable providers holding an unfair advantage over newer entrants. There is no way for a new upstart to come in and make a great business out of promising net neutrality. For many tech-unsavvy customers, this concept is unknown and they'll have the problem of having to choose between options they really don't know much about. Which is if they get a choice in the first place. The ridiculous amounts of money we pay for the joke we call broadband in the US bears testimony to a lot of things, including the fact that we don't really have a choice when it comes to our high-speed access.

This "smart network" leads us down a slippery slope. If the providers say that they can give better quality of service to certain kinds of traffic, this means that they can distinguish between traffic. Can these people then hide behind the common carrier argument for Peer-to-Peer traffic? They'll have to clamp down on illegal filesharing since they've just proved that they can know this kind of traffic. They may be loath to do this, because, admit it, it is one of the reasons many people get broadband in the first place.

What is to stop a provider from discriminating against independent service providers? If Comcast makes sure its video site runs superfast while Google Video runs, well, a tad slowly, on the Comcast network, Comcast makes a lot of money, while Google will be forced to pay money to Comcast (which will earn money for no reason but the fact that it is the only cable broadband provider in my area). Vonage has already complained in places of their service being sabotaged by service providers with their own VoIP offerings.

As I said, the devious mind can think of a number of ways in which this net non-neutrality is a bad thing. That being said, I'm still trying to figure out if free market economics, with technology may actually result in a positive outcome for this. Lets see where this leads.

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