January 30, 2014

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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.


January 30, 2014

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