There has been a lot of talk about the state and the future of broadband Internet lately. Since I am looking into the design of ubiquitous systems for my research and the legal perspective, I looked at the concept of network neutrality and its possible impact on wireless network infrastructure design. This year, the US Congress will probably enact legislation about network neutrality that could change the way Internet is, and not just in the US. Because of that, there has been a lot of activity and discussion about what network neutrality should be and how it should be protected.
But first, what is network neutrality?

[Network neutrality] suggests that (1) to maximize human welfare, information networks ought be as neutral as possible between various uses or applications, and (2) if necessary, government ought to intervene to promote or preserve the neutrality of the network. (Wikipedia)

Network neutrality basically means that whatever content you want to transmit over the network, this content will be treated in the same way as any other content by the network infrastructure. The Internet was built on a the principle of best effort delivery, which means it can guarantee you that it will deliver your content but it will do its best.

Best-effort delivery describes a network service in which the network does not provide any special features that recover lost or corrupted packets. These services are instead provided by end systems (Linktionary)

The 2 concepts of network neutrality and best efforts are usually associated to a third concept: common carrier.

A common carrier is an organization that transports a product or service using its facilities, or those of other carriers, and offers its services to the general public. (Wikipedia)

The best example of common carrier are post offices. A post office usually pick up and deliver letters and packages regardless of their content (unless the content is deemed dangerous to transport).

When Internet took off, telephone companies were considered common carriers and will transport the traffic from and to their clients to the Internet Service Provider (ISP) that the client has chosen.

When dial-up was still prevalent:

  1. The phone companies like BellSouth, Qwest or Verizon would provide the phone line (the “pipes”)
  2. ISP like Earthlink or AOL will provide the Internet service on top of the phone line.

But with broadband technologies like DSL, phone companies could better control both the pipes and the service .

And this is where the problem lies.

Since I have arrived in the US in 2001, I have been puzzled on how this country could have one of the most competitive marketplace for phone calls and one of the slowest and most expensive brodband Internet in developed countries.

The explanation came from Lawrence Lessig, in his post the fiction zone that DC has become

So while it is true that we have had both:

(a) common carrier like regulation applied to the Internet, and
(b) basically no effective regulation applied to the Internet

and it is true that we have had both:

(c) fast, fierce competition to provide Internet service and
(d) just about the worst broadband service of the developed world

it is not true that we had (c) when we had (b).

We had (c) when we had (a), and we have (d) now that we have (b). (Lessig)

From there, it all started to make sense.

Lessig then use a comparison between the price of Internet access in France and in the US.

Broadband in the US is “slow and expensive.” Verizon’s entry-level broadband is $14.95 for 786 kbs. That about $20 per megabit. In FRANCE, for $36/m, you get 20 megabits/s — or about $1.80 per megabit.

What he is not mentioning is that for this price, in France, people get also 100+ channels and unlimited national calling (excluding mobile). And since the beginning of this year, calls to some countries (including the US) are included too.

But it does not stop there. US providers (especially AT&T/SBC and Bellsouth) have claimed that they want to start charging content providers for delivering their traffic since it supposedly cost them so much to carry video and other kind of big files.

In Nov 2005, the CEO of the newly merged SBC/AT&T said in an interview

How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG ), MSN, Vonage, and others?

How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO ) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts! (Business Week)

Bill Smith, the CTO of Bellsouth said something similar 2 weeks ago

Higher usage for broadband services drives more costs that we have to recover (via OM Malik)

And just 2 days ago, the CEO of AT&T talked again about it

“We have to figure out who pays for this bigger and bigger IP network,” said Mr Whitacre, who was in New York ahead of AT&T’s annual presentation to investors and analysts on Tuesday. “We have to show a return on our investments.”

“I think the content providers should be paying for the use of the network – obviously not the piece from the customer to the network, which has already been paid for by the customer in Internet access fees – but for accessing the so-called Internet cloud.” (Financial Times)

What bothers me is that they are trying to propagate wrong facts. Saying that content providers should pay for Internet is totally inaccurate. Content providers are already paying to get access to the Internet cloud. They even probably spend millions of dollars on their connection. And SBC,AT&T and Bellsouth gets a cut of this money, whether it is directly or not. For each customer request from Bellsouth for example, the data is transmitted on Bellsouth network until it got passed to the network where the servers of the content providers. And the more traffic get exchanged, the more money the telecom carriers will make even though it is not proportional to the amount of the data transmitted.

So, the following statement in the Washington Post article The Coming Tug of War Over the Internet is incorrect:

Companies like Google and Yahoo pay some fees to connect to their servers to the Internet, but AT&T will collect little if any additional revenue when Yahoo starts offering new features that take up lots of bandwidth on the Internet. When Yahoo’s millions of customers download huge blocks of video or play complex video games, AT&T ends up carrying that increased digital traffic without additional financial compensation. (Washington Post)

Of course, content providers payment to the carrier will not change immediatly if traffic increases since on the Internet cloud, traffic is paid on a link capacity in data per second instead of total data transmitted. In other words, content providers pay for a certain “pipe” size to transmit their traffic rather than paying for the exact amount of traffic that goes through. So if Yahoo! customers decide to download one more song or one more picture , it will have no immediate impact on the business of the carrier except to have more traffic going through their infrastructure. But if all customers of Yahoo! decide to download one movie instead on one song, it is highly likely that Yahoo! would have to buy more capacity to the Internet backbone to keep the level of service to an acceptable level, which will benefit probably all the carriers on the path from Yahoo! to the final customers via peering agreement.

And in case we forgot, these same carriers used the ability to download music (yes, I saw it in one of their commercials) and big files to sell broadband to their customers. So, now that they can’t find any new customer for their overpriced service, they turn to the contect providers to try to collect some more money!

The issue is much more complex that it looks and I am preparing a presentation for the SIGCHI Public Policy workshop at CHI 2006 in Montreal in April so I will have more on this topic soon.

In the meantime, some interesting readings: