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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6 Responses to “Down the Net Neutrality Rabbit Hole”

  1. Monotonous Langor says:

    Our ISP, Time Warner, makes the Three Stooges appear competent. For more than five years they had been telling us that higher Internet speeds were “just around the corner” and how great things would be. After numerous false alarms, e.g., emails from TWC informing us the new service was here, confirmation via telephone when talking to customer support the higher speeds (“Extreme”) were indeed available, receiving a new modem to hook up for the new service, we were told by the TW people in our local office the higher speed was NOT available. We have been down this road numerous times, including so many visits to our local TW office I’ve lost track of them. The locals told us we’d receive an email from them announcing when “Extreme” Internet was available, so we waited and waited and waited. Then, a couple of months ago, I dropped by the TW office, asked about the availability and was told it was indeed available! We jumped at the chance for higher upload speeds, going from 2 mbps to 5. Then, just to make sure, I did a speed test the other day only to find out we were back at “Turbo” speeds and paying for “Extreme”. Got on the phone with TW customer support and was told conflicting stories by two different employees, one saying we were signed up for Turbo and the other saying Extreme. Anyway, after four more trips to the local TW office and numerous phone calls, we finally got a new modem that worked and are now enjoying Extreme speeds, which are actually quite pokey when compared to services offered in other countries, but that is another topic for another day.

    The thing that ruffled my feathers more than anything was how I was treated by the TW employees, especially by a young man in the local office, who, rather than treating my like the customer is always right, treated me like I was just a schlub who walked in off the street. He insisted that the speeds available for us were 30×3, not 30×5, and that if I were to read the fine print, I would discover language indicating their advertised speeds were “up to”. So, I said “That means if I get 56K, like I did back in the dialup days, they were covered?!”

    The thing that keeps us locked into TW is there’s no other alternative where we live for service that is remotely fast.

    Three Stooges Internet, we’re ready to sign up!

  2. Ozymandias says:

    The only solution here is declaring these clowns to be Common Carriers. Only the most naive (um, libertarians) would imagine for a moment that if the Comcast’s, Verizon’s, etc. are allowed to create differing classes of service, they will immediately start using these distinctions to execute business strategies. You would need to be willfully stupid (or in the pocket of the Telcos) to think otherwise.

    If, as a consumer, pay Comcast for 50Mbps service I expect to get that service. But, if they are playing games with fast and slow lanes, then I am not getting what I am paying for and I guarantee you, what’s going on will NOT be transparent. But, I can also guarantee that they will continue to charge more for “faster” service even if that promise is illusory.

    These providers, as a group, have a scandalous track record of corporate lying, sandbagging, overcharging, and providing little or no customer service.

    This whole thing is the most outrageous sellout around and it threatens to place the OUR internet squarely in the hands of those bent on complete corporate control of our lives.

    This isn’t just bad public policy. It’s Evil.

  3. Ozymandias says:

    That WAS holding back:-)

  4. dfs says:

    l aWhat strikes me as particularly scary is the new ATT – Direct merger. In any given community one cable supplier gets a monopoly, and yet for some reason I completely fail to understand cable companies are not regarded as utilities and so neither their pricing nor their performance is regulated by a public utility commission. The result is that they are free to do (or not do) pretty much whatever they want, and to charge consumers whatever they feel like charging. In my community, and probably in yours too, the only thing that has kept them halfway honest is the availability of a satellite alternative. But once this alternative is subsumed into the cable industry by means of mergers, it seems to me that we consumers lose this protection. I mean, even if some of us prefer cable over satellite, we still have been benefiting from satellite’s existence. Now add the end of net neutrality to this picture and it looks like we are going to be in for a royal screwing. Given the same amount of available bandwidth, I don’t see how a cable company can sell “fast track” access to some content providers without inflicting a corresponding speed hit on the rest of internet traffic. In its rhetoric the FCC has tried to dance around this subject, but we all know that you can only put five pounds of sugar (or any other substance you care to name) into a five pound bag. Until today I thought that satellite offered a viable fallback position for the consumer. Guess not.

  5. Ozymandias says:

    Satellite Internet connection is only marginally better than dial-up. Been there.

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