To: Mr. Lawrence Hammond – Owner of Hammond Motors
From: James Taggart – CEO Taggart Transcontinental
Dear Mr. Hammond
Upon a routine inspection of our Denver freight lines it was brought to our attention that a shipment of motors from your company was destined to arrive at one of our competitors on the Phoenix Durango line.
As you may be aware, congress has recently passed the Equalization of Opportunity act, and included within the provisions of this act we have the permission not to provide transportation for your freight if it is destined for one of our competitors.
I am aware that our previous contract specifies that we will provide you with such transportation regardless of the content or destination, but this letter is to inform you that due to this discovery, we are switching the locomotives on your line to an older, slower, steam driven engine and reducing the number of available freight cars by a factor of 10. You will still have access to Taggart Transcontinental freight services, but those services will be offered at reduced capacity.
CEO – Taggart Transcontinental
The issue of net neutrality consists, among other things, analogous to the situation above. Many of the complaints from end users of the companies most in the spotlight for ‘traffic shaping‘ and ‘bandwidth throttling‘ allege that such strategies are being utilized not due to capacity issues per se, but based on the types of traffic they are carrying. And the types of traffic, in the case of cable internet providers (who are the focus of most of these complaints) are types of traffic that are most often used by the competitors of Digital On-Demand services.
Should Comcast for example, be required to provide full capacity to competing technologies? That debate may be beyond the scope of this posting and my knowledge. But are cable providers selling the capacity to connect to ‘the internet’ which includes these competitors or are they only selling capacity to connect to those technologies they deem as ‘good content’ ?
Let’s draw another analogy just to understand ‘what’ internet providers are selling. We have all heard the advertisements promising these break-neck download speeds – of course proceeded with the failsafe words ‘up-to…‘ Imagine for a second that these providers, instead of selling internet services were selling municipal water services.
That coaxial line that runs to your house is the equivalent of the water company running an 8″ pipeline direct from the water processing plant to your house. Technically speaking, even if that 8″ line was split off to 1000 other houses, if all 1000 of those houses had their water turned off you could potentially get the same pressure and volume of water that is put into that 8″ pipe at the plant. But, as soon as a second house turns on their valve, your pressure/volume capacity is cut in half, a third house and it’s cut to a third. And so on for 1/x where x is the current number of other users of the same pipeline.
Although this is not a direct correlation, most of the connectivity is split off into sub groups to cover a local neighborhood and the larger capacity lines that interconnect those neighborhoods cut into similar sub groups. So when you start downloading a tune off of Rhapsody, you may well get that 3 Mbits they market as ‘speeds up-to‘ in their advertisements…. that is until your neighbor starts to watch a Youtube video. Again, the ‘realized’ capacity in an un-shaped system is 1/x where x is the current number of users (up to the total number of users sharing a given branch). And again, the branches then too are combined to the larger capacity lines in a similar fashion – i.e. your neighborhood is competing with all the other neighborhoods for the total capacity of the provider in your area.
The problem? The problems are actually two fold. One is that these providers are selling the ‘speed at the plant’ – or at least the potential of it – in their advertisements. Again, with the ‘speeds up-to…’ disclaimer to prevent accusations of fraud. The other problem is that there are two easy solutions to this. But the solutions they are using aren’t either of them.
One solution could be to place a cap on the total bandwidth allowed for a basic connection to any one user. But this would not mean ‘unlimited bandwidth’. Limiting the ‘free’ bandwidth doesn’t really amount to ‘unlimited access’ – something they are also marketing. (and in fact, FCC cases have involved Comcast ‘changing‘ their unlimited offering to include bandwidth usage caps)
But there is another problem. When these consumer end-user providers start charging a premium for bandwidth used above a certain point, there are people that would actually pay it because it would still be cheaper than commercial alternatives such as a fiber optic line or a satellite connection.
But this is a business opportunity right? No! Why? Because the reality is, many of these providers do not yet have sufficient infrastructure capacity to maintain the higher usages that they are selling in the firstplace! i.e. if every customer on cable high speed internet used just a fraction of the capacity (at the same time) that these providers are hocking as available for unlimited use, those provider’s speeds and services would grind to a screeching halt.
The other, more easy solution to this is intelligent packet routing or ‘traffic shaping‘ and this is where the big argument over Net Neutrality is coming into play. But if they are already traffic shaping, then what is the problem? It’s a matter of ‘how’ they are traffic shaping as well as ‘what’ specifically is being shaped.
The complaints of many of these providers, legitimately so, is that a small percentage of their customers are using a large percentage of their total capacity (see, ‘so charge a premium’ above, but keep in mind, this is capacity they are advertising as available to these customers – capacity they advertise as ‘unlimited’ in the package they are selling) The providers have begun throttling some of this usage under the premise that it ‘limits service capacity to their other customers’, also a legitimate practice.
If that was simply what they were doing, sure there would still be complaints but not nearly as many as there are now. The problem is that they haven’t begun limiting capacity based on load-on-the-system using intelligent, Quality-of-Service shaping strategies, but instead, seem to be limiting capacity based on the specific ‘type of traffic‘. (see the analogy above, this amounts to looking into the train boxcars and ‘inspecting the cargo’, and only then slowing down the train based upon what kind of cargo you find and where it is going)
Technologies such as QoS (quality of service) exist which would throttle back existing traffic based on additional demands being added to the current load. But this is not what has been generating complaints. The complaints that I have seen involve people getting throttled back regardless of load on the system because they are carrying ‘certain types’ of peer-to-peer traffic. (be sure to see “why are technologies like BitTorrent a problem” below)
And guess what? Many of these peer-to-peer network protocols are the very same peer-to-peer technologies used by companies that offer the downloading of music and movies – a direct competition to cable internet providers trying to sell ‘on demand services’ on the same ‘capacity’. (akin to James restricting boxcars because engines are being shipped to Phoenix-Durango)
You can debate whether or not a company like Comcast should be ‘forced’ to provide a means to their competitor, but ask first, did the company in question ‘promise to sell’ a means to get to their competitor in the first place? And can such a company then turn around later and limit or charge extra for what they already contracted to provide because they don’t like how it is now being used?
They are not answers for me to decide, but it is something that a consumer should be aware of before taking a side on the Net Neutrality issue. Are there private property claims involved? Of course there are. Are they legitimate? Of course they are. But before you condemn one side or the other, be fully aware of what both sides are doing, what one side is selling and what the other is agreeing to pay for!