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  • Down the Net Neutrality Rabbit Hole

    May 16th, 2014

    So the theory goes that net neutrality simply means that your ISP cannot throttle traffic to your computer or mobile gadget and exact a “ransom” from the content provider to stop slowing things down. That’s the theory, but it’s all very complicated, and the FCC’s latest effort to sort things out may end up being more confusing than ever. Indeed, some are saying it will be the end of net neutrality as we know it.

    Indeed, when you read the proposal passed by the FCC this week on a three-two vote, you wonder if the commissions are talking out of both sides of their mouth. When I read the proposal, I began to feel as if I was in a car dealer’s finance office, where all sorts of confusing offers are made, with papers rushed into your hands for signature. If you don’t pay attention and hold your pen at bay, you may end up getting ripped off with extended warranties, gap insurance and other overpriced and usually unnecessary frills.

    So, yes, there is the portion of the proposal that says ISPs cannot shuttle some traffic into a slow lane, thus reducing performance. This is supposedly aimed primarily at high-traffic users, such as Netflix, so, even if you have a speedy connection, playback of the latest episode of “House of Cards” may come in fits and starts with lots of buffering messages.

    That means that if you’re paying for a 50 megabit connection, you should receive something close to that for all traffic, assuming the company sending that content is capable of handling the load. That seems to make sense so far as it goes.

    But yet another set of proposals allows a content provider to strike a special deal with the ISP for preferred access, which usually involves setting up a direct connection to that ISP’s broadband pipes. Normally Internet traffic travels over a number of routes to go from there to here, with the number of “hops” reflecting the number of servers or connection points that are involved in that transmission.

    What this seems to mean is that everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others if they have the spare cash to pay for direct access to your ISP. With that direct connection, Netflix can supposedly reach the “last mile” to your home or office at the full speed you paid for. Indeed, after months in which Comcast users complained of poor Netflix performance, the streaming service struck a deal with this country’s largest ISP to deal with the problem.

    Now despite Comcast’s denials, you have to wonder why Netflix couldn’t reach that company’s subscribers with good performance without paying for a faster connection. It’s also possible this deal will be scuttled as part of the approval process for Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner.

    At the end of the day, was Comcast doing something nasty to throttle Netflix traffic? I thought of that recently when I encountered a similar problem on a much lower scale, involving one of our Web servers and the ISP I use, CenturyLink. While I would get full performance with most traffic, if it came from the server, it would proceed at barely dial up speeds, about 50K. That, clearly, was quite unacceptable and it meant that anyone downloading one of my radio shows via that ISP would have to wait over an hour to get the download even if they used the highest speeds offered by CenturyLink.

    After back and forth communications with different support people that extended over about a month, CenturyLink finally blamed the problem on their peering connection with an Internet backbone provider known as Cogent Communications. At the end of the day, each blamed the other for not offering sufficient capacity to allow the traffic to go through at full speed. I don’t know about the private deals between the two, but it does appear, at the end of the day, to be very much about money. In theory, if the traffic going in each direction is equal, no problem. When it becomes unequal, where more traffic is being sent than received, or the other way around, suddenly things go awry, and money sometimes changes hands to set things right.

    I can only guess at what happened, but right now the slowdown one day ended. It appears that the datacenter where my server is housed opted to use a different backbone provider, Tata Communications, to send traffic. Or at least that’s what my tests show. Regardless, the slowdowns are history. But I wonder about the customer who encounters such a problem only to be brushed off by the ISP because the standard speed tests don’t reveal any problems.

    In any case, the FCC proposal is now open for comments for the next 120 days. Supposedly the FCC will look at those comments, which will come from both individuals and companies, to determine whether the rule goes forward or is modified in some way.

    Regardless of how it turns out, the promise that the FCC won’t allow ISPs to put traffic in a slow lane still rings hollow. This could very much be a have and have-not situation, where large streaming companies, such as Netflix, with deep pockets, can get preferred status, while small startups won’t have the extra cash to get fair access to their subscribers. Yes, the FCC claims that they expect contracts to be fair, that those needing less bandwidth because they are small will simply pay less for the privilege, and that such deals will be reviewed.

    But allowing these arrangements in the first place seems to argue against net neutrality. It doesn’t matter how the FCC spins it. That’s what it seems, and that’s the worst possible outcome.

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