Net Neutrality – It’s the Capacity, Stupid!

Chokepoints in the carrier’s backbone network are the real problem to fix. How about a little capacity planning please.

John B. Weaver shares his thoughts ...

This blog post isn’t about information security directly but does address availability as part of the information security triad (confidentiality, integrity and availability).  Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler’s latest effort to implement a multi-tiered Internet is nothing more than an attempt to help the major Internet service providers wring more profit out of their existing infrastructure without investing in additional capacity.  It is understandable, after all.  When calls to my cell phone roll directly to voicemail and never reach my handset, or a Google search never loads, I know that my carrier has oversold services beyond optimal capacity.  I don’t expect them to tell the next customer in the door, “sorry but we can’t sell you a smart phone because the network is full.”  But I do expect my service provider to increase capacity so that calls reach my handset and the data rate is usable.

It’s a zero-sum game. As network capacity is added, some inventive entity will be waiting to use it up.   Companies like Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo and others pay a hefty price for bandwidth already.  The problem is the same as the smart phone problem – the bottleneck is with the carriers.  The lack of capacity is usually not the connectivity of the content provider to their Internet service provider.  The carriers will happily accept millions of dollars per month for high capacity connections to their network.  The chokepoint then becomes the ability of the carrier’s Internet “backbone” to handle the level of traffic from all of their customers.  Their solution?  Prioritized handling of traffic for a fee and throw net neutrality out the window.  The carriers get more money from their existing infrastructure without making the additional investment for added capacity. 

And suppose a content provider does pony up the additional cash for priority handling of their traffic.  Others will have to follow in order to remain competitive.  Pretty soon we have the same zero-sum capacity problem as before only the carriers are making a lot more money, consumers pay more for content and the little guys are left in the dust.

Tim Wu, Columbia Law Professor and activist, is credited with coining the term “net neutrality.”  He has also used the term “net discrimination” in recent blog posts and interviews to describe a situation where valued content costs more to consumers and content providers who refuse or can’t afford to pay have their content relegated to whatever available bandwidth is left.  A ruling by the U. S. Court of Appeals in favor of Verizon was a blow to the net neutrality effort of the Obama administration.

It appears from the public response to Chairman Wheeler’s latest plan the vast majority of Internet users favor net neutrality.  Certainly content providers would prefer to only pay the carriers for high-capacity network connections and forgo the additional expense of also paying for “sponsored data services.”

John B. Weaver is president and CEO of JBW Group International with over 25 years’ experience in securing a free and open Internet.