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Network Neutrality for the lay-person

This was posted by me as a response to a story on Macsimum News. In the interest of equal time, Dennis Sellers posted an article written by a reader ( "John") stating that network neutrality is a Marxist notion, and is therefore bad. Even aside from the fact that it's a pretty stupid position to try to argue, John is also just plain wrong. If anything, network neutrality is an infrastructure level policy that actively encourages greater choice, and is thereby in line with, and supportive of, the capitalist free-market ideology.

To frame a response directly to John's position, I think he's missing some pieces of the puzzle, specifically the pieces pertaining to "consumer choice" and "service perception."

The first of these pieces, "choice" is that broadband providers in the U.S. tend to also be providers of other services, such as cable television, or telephone. These companies have bid on and won contracts with the towns or regions in which they provide service, and these contracts have durations of 5 to 10 years in length. In many areas, users have only one cable-modem provider and one DSL provider available because of these contracts. For at least some users, the difference between having a 5 or 6 Mbit cable pipeline and a 700 kbit DSL pipline is a critical factor, and thus their choice of service provder becomes even more limited. In many areas, these contracts are exclusive, or at least prohibitive, of consumers having access to other providers of these services for the duration of the contract.

The second piece is a question of what the consumers are paying for, or at least, think they are paying for. Should network neutrality disappear, then we reach a point where users and service providers come into conflict over the terms of service, and their perception of the service provided and paid for. From the perspective of the consumer, the question underlying this conflict is "Am I paying $60 a month for access to the internet at large, or for access to [insert ISP]'s licensed content?" The answer for most people, I think is going to be that they are paying for access to the internet at large.

Let's look at an example of why network neutrality is important, from the perspective of an exisiting customer.

Joe is a cable-modem user subscribed to "Network-X". Joe has his broadband connection for two reasons: first, the over-all convenience of a high-speed connection, and second that his job requires him to be on-call a certain amount of time, and many of the tasks he needs to perform when on-call can be performed from home, instead of at the office which is an hour away from home. Thus it becomes fair to say that he percieves his monthly bill as being, in part, justified and required by his need to perform his job. Joe currently has access the full benefit of his available bandwidth for whatever purpose he chooses, be those purposes work, or entertainment.

Should the legislation of network neutrality go away, Joe may find that while he's paying for a nominal 5 Mbit connection, "Network-X" has determined that they are going to dedicate 3 Mbits to traffic requesting data from their corporate partner "Massive Media", and the remaining bandwidth is nominally left for access to the rest of the internet. But, "Network-X" also has in place a provision that says that they can, based on content demand, increase the available portion of the bandwidth in favor of their media partner.

So Joe suddenly finds that his access to the services that he *wants* to be using are greatly restricted, and the level of service he requires is often not being met. But the local DSL provider has also got a similar bandwidth partitioning scheme in place, with a smaller over all pipeline.

Realistically, what are his other choices? Go to dial-up, and be willing to drive a couple hours to and from work to perform a 5-minute task?

But what about his other useage of the internet? What happens when Joe wants to download the trailer for a a movie he heard about, from a studio that nominally competes with "Massive Media"? joe discovers that the 5 MB trailer file is going to take an hour to download, compared the 2 minutes it would have when the network was neutral. Or he might find that he can't access the competitor's website at all. The examples of this type of conflict are nearly endless.

Network neutrality is effectively the equivalent of requiring telephone systems to be interoperable. If Verizon and Cingular decided that they would make their cellular services unable to dial competitor's phones, would you subscribe to either of those services? What if you landline phone had those restrictions on it? Would you be willing to tolerate it?