“Net Neutrality” does not mean “equally fast, everywhere”

“Net Neutrality” means too many different things to different people.

For example, concerns about the potential for discriminatory practices by ISPs or telcos based on content, application, or identities or affiliations of content consumers or producers are usually conflated with simplistic observations about the need for ‘equal speed’ being a necessary condition for net neutrality.

Al Franken discusses issues and concerns related to competition (or sufficient lack thereof), but he too raises the ‘speed equality’ notion as a requirement for ‘free speech’ on the internet.

It is safe to say that 99% or more of the public does not understand how the Internet works, or for that matter how computers attached to the Internet work. Discussing legitimate concerns about non-discriminatory processing of Internet traffic in simple terms of speed only further confuses the public, and create political responses for the wrong reasons.

What we all agree on is NOT the issue

What is not to be tolerated in any scenario, ‘network neutrality’ or not, is discrimination based on type of protocol, or content, or application, or content provider, or consumer.

It is this type of discrimination which has vociferous proponents of ‘net neutrality’ most up in arms, and yet it is not the type of discrimination that is likely to ultimately be the real net neutrality issue, for the simple reason that it is and will be easy for everyone to agree that those forms of discrimination are inappropriate, anti-competitive, and, yes, illegal.

The Need for Speed

Unfortunately, it is “speed” discrimination on which simplistic overtures to net neutrality are based.

For example, the following from the recent op-ed  by Al Franken on the subject:

An e-mail from your mom comes in just as fast as a bill notification from your bank. You’re reading this op-ed online; it’ll load just as fast as a blog post criticizing it. That’s what we mean by net neutrality.”

This definition of ‘net neutrality’ — that every interaction is “just as fast” as any other, is the most dangerously misleading of all attempts to define (and, in Senator Franken’s case, legislate) ‘net neutrality’.

If, by his comments, Senator Franken means to say that “the rate at which bytes are transmitted over the network, for consumers sharing the same level of cost for the same level of quality of service, should be the same”, then yes — (that is, definition #3 of ‘net neutrality’) — and is perfectly reasonable.

But the imprecise language of the appeal to ‘equally fast’ will incorrectly lead people to believe that net neutrality is intended to make the time it takes to download Avatar equal to the amount of time it takes to send a tweet, with the further stipulation that this be via terrestrial or wireless connections, and all for the same cost as the least demanding of levels of service.

Where “Net Neutrality” really applies is in the requirement to not discriminate based on content. This includes, of course, any selective slowing down of traffic based on application or protocol from sources who have paid the same for the same bandwidth. Local ISPs (notably cable companies with their claims of 5MB/sec and more bandwidth) need to be able to support those promises, or else not promise so much — truth in advertising, quite simply.

The “15 Facts” infographic

ReadWriteWeb has posted an ‘infographic’ entitled “15 Facts About Net Neutrality“.

The 15-point summary covers ‘bullet points’, but does not provide sufficient insight into the not-so-obvious distinctions among definitions of ‘net neutrality’.

In particular, the ‘3 definitions of net neutrality’ makes a stab at this, but more attention needs to be focused on specifically and exactly what is being talked about when different folks debate ‘net neutrality’.

To recap, the ‘3 definitions of Net Neutrality’ provided by the Online MBA Programs folks are:

1. Absolute non-discrimination:

No regard for quality of service considerations

2. Limited discrimination without QoS tiering

Quality of service discrimination allowed as long as no special fee is charged for higher quality service

3. Limited discrimination and tiering

Higher fees for quality of service provided there is no exclusivity in contracts

The definitional hole in the above summary points is simply: what is the domain potentially being discriminated? Is it content type ? application ? protocol type ? bandwidth ? consumer ? content provider ?

Definition 1 is, for the most part, the hue and cry of the status-quo, and is bound to run into trouble with consumers at some point.

This will occur when the volume of internet traffic of a (growing) minority of highly active internet consumers reaches thresholds where it taxes the bandwidth and capacity of Internet service to the point that a majority of less-active consumers are noticeably and negatively affected.

For example, when a sufficient volume of constant bit torrent traffic — or a sufficient increase in the amount of video-on-demand being streamed — reaches a level where local delivery is saturated or visibly impacted, consumers will notice (and ISPs and telcos will seek to maximize the number of satisfied, paying customers). This is what started the whole issue, after all !

Definition 2 would appear to be the worst of all worlds. “no special fee … charged for higher quality service” would of course never occur in a bandwidth-challenged network. Quite the opposite – that definition is absolutely equivalent to: “same fee charged for poorer quality service” ! It would let ISPs degrade service (or simply let service degrade on its own). This is the least desirable scenario.

Definition 3, which acknowledges that higher quality of service (translation: continuously available higher bandwidth) is something which consumes more of the capital infrastructure resources of the supply chain (ISP and backbone) — and for which a higher cost is appropriate — would seem to be a reasonable starting point for network neutrality that guarantees equal access within a given quality of service.

Unfortunately, this definition is one which is also drawing considerable flak over the concern that it will create two classes of internet users: “rich” and “poor”, or “fast lanes” and “slow lanes”  (See the transcript of Cali Lewis’ interview on CNN, for example).

Until the language and conversation regarding ‘net neutrality’ is cleaned up and made more precise, the controversy will continue to swirl unproductively. And can you imagine the provisions or effect that Congressional legislation — in the absence of such specificity, and in the presence of such fuzzy emotional appeals — will have ? It certainly will not have the desired effect !

If, for example, a clumsy, and poorly thought-out, knee-jerk legislative reaction results — one which is too restrictive or onerous — then the result could be one where growth and competition to provide higher bandwidth service is replaced by a strategy on the part of ISPs and telcos to simply start charging more by the data byte with minimal investment in technical infrastructure. This outcome would ultimately cost all consumers more, and for less service !

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