Carriers clueless on net neutrality

Providers have pretty much succeeded in reducing the debate right back down to a sound bite -- and positioning themselves on the wrong side.

I've written several pieces pointing out that the issue of net neutrality is more nuanced than either proponents or opponents want you to believe. But with their characteristic cluelessness, providers have pretty much succeeded in reducing the debate right back down to a sound bite -- and positioning themselves on the wrong side.

Let's start with Verizon, which recently decided to ban transmission of advertisements based on content. Last month, the New York Times reported that Verizon banned abortion-rights ads under a policy that prohibits "political messages that are controversial or unsavory".

Then there's AT&T, which notified customers under its terms-of-use contract that they can be cut off if they decide to use their Internet connections to criticize AT&T. (Both carriers subsequently changed their policies in the glare of publicity -- but still.)

And, Comcast finally admitted that it's been deliberately messing with peer-to-peer traffic by injecting forged TCP reset packets into customer traffic streams, making it impossible for the protocol to run. Even more egregiously, this tampering happened on services that the provider offered as "premium" -- services that (supposedly) were specifically engineered to provide more bandwidth for, ahem, high-bit-rate-applications such as peer-to-peer.

Here's the deal: That's nuts. Messing with your customers' traffic is not OK. Telling customers what they can and can't say on their communications links is not OK. The right to offer communications services comes with a certain set of obligations: Carriers receive the benefit of using public goods such as spectrum, easements, and right of way. In exchange for those benefits, they're required to respect their customers' rights. If you don't like that bargain, then find another line of business.

What is OK is to offer -- and ask customers to pay for -- different tiers of service and to guarantee performance of certain demanding or bandwidth-intensive applications only across the more expensive service tiers.

Providers will most likely have to do this in order to support the increasing volume of traffic that's beginning to hit the Internet -- a point that the net neutrality folks consistently seem to miss. The challenge, in a nutshell, is that carriers need a way to charge differentially for impact of different types of traffic -- so that, for example, providers can provide QoS guarantees for latency and jitter-sensitive traffic across peering points. (If you think this isn't an issue, wait until the advent of peer-to-peer video).

Just to be clear, when I say "types of traffic", I'm talking about protocols -- not content, and not sender-recipient pairs -- carriers can charge more to preferentially deliver VoIP QoS, but not to give my phone calls to my dad a higher priority than my phone calls to my congressman.

By doing exactly the wrong thing in exactly the wrong way, providers are increasing the chances that net neutrality folks will be able to prohibit any sort of differentiated service charges altogether. And that's really unfortunate, because it will limit the ability of the Internet to do all the cool things we users are expecting.

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Johna Till Johnson

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