Why you need to care about the battle over bandwidth
A couple of weeks ago, net neutrality was shot down in our nation's capitol.
OK, it was a ruling in a telecommunications lawsuit in the DC Court of Appeals, not a murderous rampage. If you missed it among the Justin Bieber drag-racing coverage, playoff games or trash talk about Academy Awards nominations, you're unlikely to see anybody roll their eyes and sigh at you. But it's a really big deal that could have a major impact on how you use the Internet.
Until the DC Appeals Court ruling, the status quo was this: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) supported net neutrality, essentially, the principle that Internet bandwidth providers were required to treat all legal content the same way. The FCC enforced this requirement by treating Internet providers like "common carriers," even though that's not their legal status. Phone companies have long been regulated as common carriers, meaning they are required to provide a reliable connection to customers regardless of what is going over the line. As far as a phone company is concerned, a call to your sweetie is the same as a CEO's quarterly call to investors. What the NSA thinks about your call is another story, but to AT&T, Verizon, etc., a call is a call.
Internet providers—which generally sell both the connection and some of the content that goes through that digital pipe, like Comcast does with cable TV—want the ability to treat different content differently. So Verizon sued the FCC to end net neutrality. On January 14, the DC Court of Appeals (mostly) struck down net neutrality, but only because it said FCC rules were on shaky legal ground. The FCC could appeal to the Supreme Court or make new rules. But for now the court's ruling says the FCC can't treat Internet providers like common carriers.
I sat down with three of Chattanooga's uber-geeks for a reality check:
• Mike Harrison, technical founder of Chattanooga Online, the city's first local Internet service provider in the ’90s and now system architect of global electric metering company, Utiliflex;
• Dan Ryan, who led the back-end development team that made President Obama's reelection website a fundraising colossus; and
• Aaron Welch, technical founder of QuickCue, Chattanooga's first tech start up bought out by a bigger company, and Iron Gaming, a mobile, online and live computer gaming platform.
As expected, I didn't understand every single thing that was said in a conversation that ranged from the early Wild West days of the Internet to the pros and cons of "darknets" and "B.A.T.M.A.N.”, which stands for Better Approach To Mobile Adhoc Networking and (I think) has nothing to do with Bruce Wayne's alter ego. Even though the geekspeak occasionally grew too thick to cut with the sharpest batarang, these guys not only know their stuff, they know how to explain it to a non-technical audience.
Well, How Did We Get Here?
All three agree that the roots of the issue go back to the beginnings of the public Internet in the mid-'90s.
Harrison, who started and ran an Internet service provider way back then, says ISPs at first had no idea how to price their services and actually liked power users who sucked up a lot of bandwidth because they were the early adopters who convinced other people to get online who would pay the same price but not use as much bandwidth.
"The game was always to average it out, but now that every idiot watches Netflix and Youtube and sucks up more bandwidth than [providers] can charge them for, they're going to have to change that model," he says.
With most individual users still paying roughly the same for access, Internet bandwidth, even though it is huge and always growing, is oversold, just like a finite number of seats in a plane is oversold by airlines, according to Ryan.
"Except that they've oversold the Internet way more than that," he says. "They've oversold to the nth degree compared to what they can actually provide...The interesting thing about overselling is if you do that in real estate, you go to jail. Jim Baker goes to jail for that in the ’80s for overselling condos he didn't have."
Who's That Walking on My Bridge?
Ryan says connection providers want to get more money by triple dipping. For example, Netflix pays for bandwidth to send their content and individuals pay for bandwidth to receive it, but now, he says, connection providers want Netflix to pay more for sending you such big chunks of digital stuff.
"The analogy to me is like there's a toll bridge between my house and my job," he says. "I gotta pay 10 bucks a day to cross the toll bridge. But they're also charging my company 20 bucks a day for me to be on the bridge, too. You can't charge twice for the same access."
But Ryan's major concern is with bandwidth carriers who have a vested interest in delivering specific content. He cites how AT&T and Verizon treated Vonage, which offered Internet-based phone service that competed directly with those companies' own phone service.
"They would destroy call quality on Vonage so that people wouldn't use Vonage service," he says. "They were delivering the same service over the same lines, and they wanted their content delivered at a better quality level. Knocking down net neutrality would make that explicitly legal, versus right now it’s a gray area."
What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate
"Comcast owns a huge content library," points out Welch. "They're going to want their content delivered in the utmost quality and reliability. But if you're watching Hulu, which is a product that's not owned by Comcast... eh, not so much. I pick on Comcast specifically because they're the biggest behemoth in this space. Time Warner, Charter, all of them want to do the exact same thing."
"You don't have to look too far to see that it's already happening when companies shut down certain TV channels in certain markets," Ryan adds. "It's two big companies in a pissing match over who's going to spend more. It'll start happening with the Internet."
Harrison is not as worried about carriers putting the screws on competing content.
"If Comcast gets too restrictive, I'm going to go on EPB. If EPB gets too weird, I'll get a satellite uplink. If that gets too weird, I'll hook a couple of AT&T and Verizon links together," he says. "And if that gets too bad, well somebody's going to go invent another Internet."
But Ryan doesn't see those technical alternatives as a real possibility.
Ryan: "I can't see a world in which Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and these other big players don't lobby the hell out of that and stop [a new Internet] from happening."
Harrison: "What happens if we all start hooking up private networks?"
Ryan: "That would be great but it's not going to happen for hardly anyone. Not enough people are going to do it."
Harrison: "I think if the Internet gets bad enough, they will."
It Makes the World Go 'Round
I ask what these three would like to see happen.
"What I would like to see out of all this as the positive benefit to consumers is to require that content providers have to connect equally to all distribution methods," says Welch.
If the ultimate answer is more money changing hands between content providers and bandwidth providers, Ryan is concerned about the effect on start up content providers.
"It's so cost prohibitive at that point that no one can come in and start," he says. "If startup cost is a billion dollars, who's going to do that?"
Harrison wants to see a tendency toward net neutrality, but without putting too much restriction on carriers. And he thinks ultimately, the free market Internet will work the problem out.
"If they decide you're not going to be able to see Netflix because they're mad at Netflix or because they're owned by a competing company, that's bad," he grants. "But what I have also seen on the Internet is that [companies] who inflict too much restriction die, because people will go do something else."