Tech Talk: A recent history of the net neutrality debate

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Tech Talk: A recent history of the net neutrality debate

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Rocco Maglio, CISSP

The Internet Net Neutrality debate is back in the news. The debate has been making headlines for more than a decade. Ed Whitacre who was at the time the CEO of AT&T (then SBC) brought the net neutrality debate to the forefront in November 2005 with comments about the phone company deserving a larger portion of the revenue generated by the Internet. He said
"How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!"
He appeared to be arguing that AT&T should be able to both charge customers for the Internet connection and charge companies that the customers wanted to connect to on the Internet. AT&T's customers were only paying for the Internet connection, so they could connect to these sites on the Internet. AT&T had already been paid for the connection by their customers to connect to the Internet, so to many this seemed to be an abuse of the monopolistic positions.

Many locations only have one or two broadband options available, so this prevents competition. The government was involved in creating the network, it allowed the companies to use right of ways and in some instances subsidizing the the build out or connections to houses. It is very difficult to create a new connection to every house, since it is cheaper to do that when the roads are built or re-paved. So it is not something that can be done quickly. This allows companies like AT&T to have a de facto monopoly on connecting to the Internet.

AT&T could use its monopolistic position to demand money from sites on the Internet. They could require that The Hernando Sun pay them or no AT&T users could access hernandosun.com. They could even offer another paper the exclusive rights to their customers. The possibility that AT&T would act as a toll booth/gatekeeper over the Internet connections of their users was seen as a real threat by many people. Even if AT&T did not block a site it could greatly slow down access to certain sites, causing users to go to other sites which paid AT&T to be faster. AT&T users might not have any other options to switch to for broadband and starting a new competing service would be both very expensive and take years. Based on these concerns a movement for Net Neutrality was popularized.

As with any issue political movement new ideas were introduced under the heading of Net Neutrality. Some people concerned with the content of the Internet felt that Net Neutrality should also mean that the content of the Internet was neutral. Sites would be required to carry what the regulating authority considered both sides of an issue equally. This really muddied the waters for Net Neutrality.

To differentiate Internet content from infrastructure the term common carrier was used. The idea was that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) had to treat all content equally and deliver it according to the order in which is was received. It could not slow down its customers traffic to different destinations.

An analogy was given of a railroad delivering products. If there were several farmers trying to get their produce to market, you did not want the railroad to prioritize one farmer’s produce above the others. The railroad could slow down the others farmer’s produce to let the farmer that had paid to be first produce reach the market first. This meant the other farmers had more spoiled produce. This meant higher prices for consumers and worse efficiency for farmers trying to get produce to market. They only winner would be the railroad.

This is a simplified analogy. You could add in other loads the railroad might carry that are not as time dependent. You might allow produce to take precedence over coal, since coal is non perishable. The same thing happens over the Internet. If an email is delayed a few seconds it is not noticeable, but if a video conference is delayed 10 seconds it would be unbearable. This is where there are issues with the common carrier requirement, an ISP has to be allowed to make traffic optimization decisions based on the type of traffic, so that they can maximize their bandwidth. It could be a violation of the common carrier designation to prioritize some packets over others, but in the case of email and a video conference, prioritizing video conference packets over email packets make sense. It might still be possible to use common carrier designation for ISPs, but it will require some intelligence.

Three of the five FCC commissioners are allowed to be the same party as the president. During the Obama administration on February 26, 2015, the FCC decided to regulate fixed and mobile broadband providers under the common carrier provisions in Title II of the Communications Act. With the election of the Trump administration the composition of the FCC changed and the FCC is possibly planning to undo this common carrier designation. This change has brought the debate over net neutrality back to the forefront.