Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Illogic in the New Year

David McClure's "Hands Off Broadband Expansion" opinion piece in the Jan 1, 2009 Bangor Daily News was breath-takingly wrong-headed. He proposes recent election results as a repudiation of Net Neutrality legislation currently under discussion in Washington.  To label this a logical non-sequitar is to be kind.  The recent election results in Virginia and New Jersey say lots about Virginia and New Jersey. To say that prospective net neutrality rules had any bearing on either outcome borders on self-serving fantasy.

"Net Neutrality", and McClure's arguments against it,  are about control.  To what degree should the owner of a telecommunications link control how its customers use it?

The question seems simple at first, but its complexity and significance grow as one considers some examples.

 Should a phone company be able to restrict, or charge more to users of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephone links like Vonage or Skype?

How about a cable television company that wishes to block access to movies or television programming delivered over the Internet?

Should an Internet Service Provider be able to constrain services that compete with their own offerings?

Would it make a difference if, instead of assessing an end-user surcharge, the firm strong-armed providers of such services -- Netflix, Amazon, Google, Vonage, etc. -- access to the customers on its network?  Notwithstanding that such vendors already pay huge bandwidth charges to enable the sheer volume of their traffic to travel efficiently across the net.

Let's shake off the "spin".  The continuing growth in Internet traffic itself guarantees both a demand for expanded capacity and willingness of customers large and small to pay for it. From McClure's perspective, this should be ignored and connectivity providers should erect virtual tollbooths to extract additional funds from deep-pocketed Internet companies (Google, Microsoft, etc.).

That being said, there are also a few valid reasons for constraint on link usage. Well-documented violations of the law -- fraud, child porn, virus and worm propagation being just some of the activities that should be excluded. There may well be cases where excessive traffic volumes dictate moment to moment management actions that protect other users from service impairment. I have reservations about the potential of large amounts of high-definition video to choke an ISPs network with insufficient capacity to carry it.  These legal and logistical concerns, however, are much different from control for the purpose of revenue enhancement.

The Net Neutrality movement arose out of recognition that "toll-booths", deals to favor one content provider over others, and similar proprietary traffic management schemes, could prevent realization of the full potential of high-bandwidth global communication links. Broadband has become so important that its corporate providers must acknowledge some degree of responsibility. Finding the appropriate balance point between a pure "public utility" perspective and the greater vitality of entrepreneurial Internet services is difficult.  It is where we are now.  We should not be swayed from the nuances of the arguments by such broad-brush political arguments as those of Mr. McClure.

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