Battlepanda: Net Neutrality Matters


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Net Neutrality Matters

(Posted by John.)

This is one of those issues that I think people should be more passionate about, but it's hard to explain why (for me, anyway.) We've seen an increasing move by large telecommunications companies in the US and Canada to control access to their broadband lines. Rogers, Telus, and Bell (which collectively control more than half the broadband internet market in Canada) have all basically endorsed the concept of a tiered Internet. In the US, AT&T and Verizon have both done the same.

Essentially, the big Telcos want to turn the Internet in to something more like TV. And not in a good way. We're talking more restrictions, more costs, less freedom. I don't know about you, but I've really enjoyed a decade of Internet. I've gotten way more out of my $40/month for cable internet than I have out of my $40/month for cable television.

This is why I support things like Hydro Toronto's municipal wi-fi network. It's a start, but it isn't enough. If we're serious about net neutrality, the only thing that makes sense is direct public provision of Internet access. This may mean that we preserve part of the radio spectrum for public use (the way we do for public television) or it might mean the government builds its own fiber network. Either way, I think the state definitely needs to step in.

As for the telcos themselves, the idea that they need to do this to recoup costs is pretty transparent bullshit. From
Gary Bachula, vice president for external affairs of Internet2, a nonprofit project by universities and corporations to build an extremely fast and large network, argues that managing online traffic just doesn't work very well. At the February Senate hearing, he testified that when Internet2 began setting up its large network, called Abilene, "our engineers started with the assumption that we should find technical ways of prioritizing certain kinds of bits, such as streaming video, or video conferencing, in order to assure that they arrive without delay. As it developed, though, all of our research and practical experience supported the conclusion that it was far more cost effective to simply provide more bandwidth. With enough bandwidth in the network, there is no congestion and video bits do not need preferential treatment."

Today, Bachula continued, "our Abilene network does not give preferential treatment to anyone's bits, but our users routinely experiment with streaming HDTV, hold thousands of high-quality two-way videoconferences simultaneously, and transfer huge files of scientific data around the globe without loss of packets."

Not only is adding intelligence to a network not very useful, Bachula pointed out, it's not very cheap. A system that splits data into various lanes of traffic requires expensive equipment, both within the network and at people's homes. Right now, broadband companies are spending a great deal on things like set-top boxes, phone routers and other equipment for their advanced services. "Simple is cheaper," Bachula said. "Complex is costly" -- a cost that may well be passed on to customers.
This isn't about recouping costs. This is about control, and who has it.