Culture, History, Technology

The End of Internet 1.0

Net Neutrality: there has been a lot of talk about this movement recently and an equal amount of misunderstanding.

When I first heard about the NN bill, it was after it had already been voted down in the house.The same newspaper reportalso explained that the defeated bill was trying to prevent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from restricting the bandwidth of certain websites and activity on the Internet. In layman’s terms this means that website A will be artificially throttled to download faster than website B.

For example, let’s say that an ISP is owned by a parent corporation who also owns a company that sells guitars. In the interest of the parent company, the ISP could restrict bandwidth to all guitar merchant websites except for the their sister company’s site, as to provide a superior experience and give leverage to that website.

CRIMINAL! HOW COULD THIS POSSIBLY BE LEGAL???

Well, before we jump the gun and go into a rant about the first amendment, let’s look at this a bit closer, and consider the realistic implications:

In the early days of the Internet, networks were relatively primitive. Network routers and switches did their jobs with total neutrality: the data was simply routed to where it wanted to go and nobody had a problem. Furthermore, the amount of data that was passing through the pipes wasn’t a big issue, being a moderate amount of web traffic and email.

Today things are different. The Internet has become the defacto pipeline for just about everything. Where companies used to have to invest millions in private interoffice data lines, now they just encrypt it and send it over the existing net. Internet telephony is an exploding business, and people are coming up with new ways of exploiting these networks every day.

Recently, the majority of our networks are controlled by hubs owned by larger ISPs such as the Cable and Telephone companies. As revenues have expanded for these companies, they have invested in intelligent routing technology that has more control over the way data is transferred. This has given them the power to selectively monitor and control the flow of data.

Why would they want to do this?

Simple: usage habits vary vastly between users; Let’s say we have Jack, a 55 year old consultant on one node, and Jeremy, a 21 year old student on another node. Jack spends most of his time online checking email and doing low bandwidth research from websites. Jeremy spends hours everyday as a “super node” on a peer to peer network, essentially transferring gigabytes upon gigabytes of data everyday so that he and others can illegally share music and video files over the net.

There is not an unlimited amount of bandwidth that the modern high speed networks can handle, and people like Jeremy end up taking up 80% of the space that the rest of us are trying to use. If a Jeremy moved into your neighborhood and used the same ISP, you would suddenly see a massive drop in bandwidth. Previously blazing fast websites would drop back to dial-up levels and you would call your ISP and demand better service. The ISP would examine the network and realize that for some reason there was a sudden spike in usage on the same neighborhood node and the only way they could solve the problem would be to add morewires: and that costs money.

However, that’s just half of it.

High-Speed networks are also constantly expanding across the United States – both up (in already wired areas) and out (into new areas). The cost of building these networks is up to the private telecommunications companies who already own the lines. This is the part that gets a little weird: due to the nature of cable and telephone, local municipal governments grant a sort of monopoly or exclusive contract to one company to operate local phone lines, or cable lines. This mean that only two companies more or less eat the cost of network construction and maintenance in any given area.

The way it pans out now, some websites and online services use a significantly larger amount of bandwidth that others. For example Apple iTunes and Google eat up a huge amount of bandwidth, whereas your local mom and pop quilting website use a few megs a month. iTunes, for example just started offering downloads of TV shows – which are HUGE files. I recently bought the entire season pass to ABC’s LOST and proceeded to suck down several gigs of TV episodes all at once.

The ISP’s are allowing these huge bandwidth hogs to pay the same price to provide their products as the mom and pop website. The way the ISP’s are handling this is by setting up bandwidth monitors and throttles on these websites to essentially restrict them to a certain amount of data. If Apple wants to increase this bandwidth, and thus the quality of the service, then they have to pay local ISP charges to deliver the content.

The reasoning is: if they are getting the traffic, then business must be good for them, and they can afford the cost.

The ISP’s will in turn take this money and… well.. they say they will invest the badly needed cash in expanding the network infrastructure, but I think it’s a good bet that they will keep a few bucks too.

So, let’s go back to our original rant: if the liberal notion of”Freedom” is supposed to be more of less keeping the gubment out of everybody’s business, then how could a regulation on ISPs (the Net Neutrality Law) really be a good thing? Regulation is regulation right?

The fuzzy part is in the potential abuse by local ISPs to arbitrarily limit certain sites that they don’t like, or consider to be against their interests. Furthermore, they could kick off a paying user who is abusing the service (Jeremy). The blogosphere has been resonating with this debate for some time, with the majority of people arguing that all this is just another part of the slippery slope to the dismantling of the first amendment.

I partially disagree: the ISPs are generally a customer-centric private enterprise, and competition is intense between phone and cable, now offering essentially the same services across the board. Cable took the first dialup users from phone, and then DSL started winning back broadband usage from cable, then cable started stealing phone users via VOIP, and now DSL is threatening cable through downloadable TV and video programming.

This competition is a good thing, and in my opinion, will keep the bastards relatively honest while they duke it out for your bucks.

That’s America!

If it does get out of hand, we can be sure that we will see this eventually settled where it should be: in the judicial system.