Not so neutral after all

Amid the recent saber rattling of Internet Transit vs Internet Content providers, a long-time rumble is finally getting detected on the public press seismometers. This is mainly because of the entrance of the big name players that bear weight of their public consumers. Back about four months ago, Verizon actually won a Circuit court judgement that basically said the FCC is overstepping it's authority. They believed the FCC had no business telling them how to operate their network, and the court basically agreed. The heart of the matter was a little something that has been lurking in the dark corners of the network for a decade- Picking and choosing what traffic gets carried on their infrastructure.

Under the best practice of the times, broadband carriers could not slow down one kind of traffic in favor of another kind of traffic. This effectively creates a paved lane for some traffic, and a dirt road for others. The trick has always been how to define those "kinds." In the beginning, it was peer to peer filesharing. This traffic ate up lots of bandwidth and was deemed generally evil because of the assumed-to-be-pirated content. What's worse, it was traffic that stayed mostly on their own network with users sharing among themselves. The ISPs had some control over this, and various "fair-use" schemes and speed throttling came into play. However, it was generally applied to the whole of the consumer's traffic. On their own network, this was reasonable.

Then along came Netflix. This type of streaming traffic usually brought more traffic in from the "outside" of the ISP network, so it started straining the already constricted connections between the various ISPs. This pressure was building for months, because the ISPs were clearly mandated not to filter or mark down traffic at the exchanges. They had some freedom on their own infrastructure, but it got a little stricter when the traffic changed hands. ATT and Netflix got into a spat over the lack of ATT infrastructure to carry all this Netflix traffic. I am sorry, but it is not the responsibility of an ISP to ensure the happiness of a Netflix customer. More on this in a minute. As an interesting follow-on on this point, ATT started floating a plan to let the traffic from some content providers (Netflix for example) flow through to their customers wireless phones without counting against their monthly bandwidth allowance. Hmmmm. I think it would still have to go through those same congested exchange points before it hit their wireless network. Well played, ATT.

OK, let me break this little scenario down. Technically this sponsored traffic would not be an ATT service, it would instead be a service of the content provider. It just happens to be sold, contracted, implemented, managed and monitored by ATT. But it is not an ATT service? I have my doubts. In any case, we have an interesting state of affairs developing. This also goes back to some failed efforts of various carriers to charge the big content providers for access to their customers. (As if they owned us) That was shot down, and this is just a new flavor of the same approach by wrapping it under a "Sponsored" reference. It has been the FCC that have prevented such schemes from becoming corporate practice.

In fact, Netflix recently inked deals with both Comcast and Verizon to ensure that their content can make it to their subscribers with some measure of reliability. While details are scarce, it is not that big of a leap to guess that more interconnect and transit bandwidth is being underwritten by Netflix. Should we feel sorry for Netflix? Are they being held at gunpoint in a superhighway-robbery by the likes of Comcast and Verizon? I think they actually are. Those same providers already get their monthly subscriptions for access to cool sites like Netflix and dozens more big services like Facebook, Dropbox, Amazon, Twitter and Google. I feel like there is a little bit of double dipping going on here. Comcast charges customers for access to stuff on the internet like Netflix, and then wants to charge Netflix for access to their own customers. Comcast is probably feeling the burn as more and more people opt for Internet services only, and then stream relatively cheap Netflix to enjoy the content that Comcast overprices. It is no wonder that the cost of Internet has quadrupled while the cost of cable programming has not changed or has even been marked down over the years. I digress.

Now, the FCC has had their wings clipped by the Circuit court. Are we really at the mercy of the big ISPs now? The good news is that there is a lot of interest in this topic, and it is a sexy one to get behind because both political parties see the mileage it can bring. The FCC made a quick about face on the topic of net-neutrality to embrace the possibility of some reasonable arrangements between the carriers it regulates and the content providers that make their product valuable. The whisper of such an opening lit up the blogs, and sternly worded open letters streamed out of the press offices of the big name web services. Google, Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter, Amazon and hundreds more have entered the debate, and it is working. The FCC has a powerful regulatory killswitch they can exercise in the matter, but they seem to be willing to talk through the issue. In parallel, the hill is cobbling some legislation together to try to make some apparent motion on the topic, and the White House is keeping mute about it for now. However, there is already a big grassroots movement afoot, akin to the Occupy movement. They are already encamped at the FCC headquarters. Oddly, I think there is more traction to be had from such bottom-up efforts than there is to be had from anything top-down. Ultimately, and ironically, the consumers are the ones who have the power here, despite their own ISPs unabashed efforts to corner the market on their access and choices, efforts to monetize their browsing data, hawking auxiliary services at every turn, locking them into contracts and bundles, and generally holding them up as a commodity that other companies should pay to access.