Let me warn you up front: Despite politicians and interested parties attempting to reduce this topic to a handful of "us versus them" sound bites, net neutrality is not easy to grasp, there is no simpler answer, and there probably aren’t any real bad guys either.
There is a lot of self-interest, but in many cases that interest crosses boundaries, so there aren’t that many clear winners and losers.
In other words, you need to pay attention to the details before you take sides. If you remain objective, you might find yourself disagreeing with people you thought were on the same political page as you. (Not for nothing, but that last sentence is true for virtually every issue that exists, but I digress.)
What is net neutrality?
The Internet is so named because it consists of a lot of networks that talk to each other. AT&T has its own network. So does Verizon. And Cisco, Comcast, Spectrum (nee Time Warner), the government and countless others.
You as a user don’t really care which network you’re on, because the Internet allows you to communicate with any network that’s hooked into it, which is pretty much all of them. So if you’re a Verizon customer and want to buy something from Nordstrom — which is on a different network — using funds from your PayPal account, which is on yet a different network, and it’s shipped by UPS (which is on a fourth network) it doesn’t matter. All those networks talk to each other, and do so seamlessly, so you can’t even tell it’s happening.
It all occurs pretty fast, too. I’ve been a technologist for more years than I care to count, but I’m still stunned at how incredibly fast remote computer interactions take place, despite the dizzying number of things going on in the background, often across dozens of computers — thousands of miles apart. It’s that blazing speed that’s one of the things at risk in the net neutrality debate.
The original design of the Internet was based on what’s called packet switching. Everything that’s sent around the Internet, whether it’s a Kindle novel being downloaded, an email to your congressperson, blueprints for an F-15 or a photo of your Aunt Tillie, is first broken down into small packets of bits. Those packets are then injected into the Internet and routed around various "nodes" until they reach their destination, where they’re reassembled into whatever they started out as and presented to whoever is supposed to receive it.
So half of that photo of your Aunt Tillie can end up in Dubai, cross paths with the specifications for an F-15’s landing gear in Frankfurt, and travel with Chapter 15 of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" in and out of downtown Los Angeles, Calif. before being put back together so it appears on Cousin Binky’s laptop in Van Nuys, Calif.
How it gets routed around depends on a lot of factors, but the general criterion before being passed from one node to the next is efficiency: Which path has the least traffic, which node is the least loaded right now, which have the fewest error rates, and so forth. If a routing involving 50 miles of optical fiber is completely loaded, switching a packet through 1,000 extra miles of lightly loaded cable might actually get it to its destination faster, with less stress on the overall system.
However that routing ends up looking like, though, there’s one fundamental rule in effect: Everything moves around as fast as the system can possibly move it. So it doesn’t matter if that photo to Cousin Binky is traveling side-by-side with an emergency e-mail to dump a crashing stock as quickly as possible, both sets of packets transit the Internet with the same speed.
As a matter of fact, the Internet (for the most part) doesn’t know which packets are important and which ones are just tweets from politicians. It doesn’t even know what’s in the packets, other than their destination addresses, or where they came from or who sent them, because what difference would it make so why bother looking inside?
That kind of indifference to the nature of what’s being sent around is called net neutrality, which is short for "network neutrality." It’s the same philosophy the U.S. Postal Service uses for first class mail. Don’t bother telling the post office what’s in the envelope because they don’t care. Everything gets handled the same.
Net neutrality means that the network owners who are moving our stuff around don’t play favorites. Nobody gets blocked or slowed down; no one gets special favors. Nobody pays more money, or less, depending on what they’re sending, where it comes from, where it’s going, what kind of equipment they’re using or who the sender or receiver is.
"But wait!" you say. "The postal service has other classes of mail. Pay extra for priority and it gets there faster. Pay even more for express and it’s there tomorrow!"
Ah. This is where things get sticky on the Internet. What if not all data are created equal? What if (as George Orwell put it) some are more equal than others?
You’re seeing something like this already. If you have an "absolutely no limits on how much data you can use each month!"plan from your mobile phone company, read the fine print. Yes, there are no limits, but whereas the first 10 or 15 gigabytes are zipping around at intergalactic speed, above that threshold they might slow you down to about half the speed of smell. That might not make a difference when you’re texting the ingredients of your lunch, but if you’re trying to watch a movie or submit your thesis, that slowdown, known in the industry as "throttling," can give you a case of the screaming meemies.
It’s possible for mobile phone companies to do this because your voice and data communications aren’t moving over the Internet. They’re moving to and from cell towers owned outright by the phone companies, and then across land lines also owned by those companies. If you happen to use your phone to access the Internet, then yes, net neutrality applies during that part of the interaction when the phone company is communicating over the Internet. What they’re throttling are the data passing between your phone and their towers.
In other words, if you’re watching "Pinocchio" on your iPhone, your phone company might be getting it from the Internet at 500 million bits per second, but they can dribble it out to you at one one-thousandth of that speed, reverting the newly-anthropomorphized wooden boy back into a jerking puppet before his time.
Back to the Internet. In 2014, then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed a new policy that would overturn the net neutrality philosophy and allow broadband carriers like Verizon and Comcast to create special higher-speed "fast lanes," charging selected customers for their use. "So what?" you might well ask.
Maybe nothing. But bear in mind that this is little different from effectively also creating "slow lanes" which would discriminate against other customers. A lot of Internet-saavy people saw this as a blatant attack on the kind of unrestricted, First Amendment-justified, free-wheeling nature of the open Internet.
The public outcry was swift and strong, and Chairman Wheeler eventually replaced his proposed plan with a new one, approved by the Federal Communications Commission in early 2015, that was a resounding victory for open Internet activists and seemed to put an end to the matter. And that’s your (absurdly over-simplified) outline of the situation.
So why am I writing about it now? Because there’s a new sheriff in town as of Inauguration Day, and he’s got a new deputy who appears to be leading an effort to chip away the net neutrality rules that were adopted one year ago. The deputy is Ajit Pai, and he’s the new chairman of the FCC.
Today, Thursday, April 20, there’s going to be a vote on a seemingly minor matter that might have serious implications for the larger topic of net neutrality. The vote concerns a plan to do away with caps on what the big broadband providers can charge other businesses for data services.
Needless to say, the open Internet activists have attacked that proposal, for the reasons described above, but, as I said, it’s not that simple. It’s not just about big business doing its usual shark-feeding thing and getting ready to raise prices in outlying areas where there’s little competition. There’s an argument that loosening the regulatory reins might actually increase competition nationwide, which is always good for customers.
Regardless, let’s see how today’s vote goes before diving into Part Two, which will lay out the issues in a non-partisan way. (Yes, it’s possible.) However, if the proposal is turned down, there won’t be any need for Part Two, in which case I’m going golfing.
Spoiler alert! The proposal is going to pass. See you next week.
Lee Gruenfeld is a Principal with the TechPar Group in New York, a boutique consulting firm consisting exclusively of former C-level executives and "Big Four" partners. He was Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Support.com, Senior Vice President and General Manager of a SaaS division he created for a technology company in Las Vegas, national head of professional services for computing pioneer Tymshare, and a Partner in the management consulting practice of Deloitte in New York and Los Angeles. Lee is also the award-winning author of fourteen critically-acclaimed, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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