Net neutrality seems like it would be just what it says, a neutral Internet. While that's the basic concept, there's a lot more to it when you hear the phrase bandied about on podcasts and news programs. It's a complicated issue, one that Senator Al Franken earlier on Wednesday called the free speech issue of our time. He's not far off.
Part of the issue is the goal of pro-Net Neutrality people to keep "Internet access" synonymous with "phone line." While we take it for granted today, a phone line is a wire provided by one company that allows you to choose who you call, whether they are using the same telephone provider you use or not.
Many large telecom companies want to change that for Internet connections. They want a regulatory framework that allows them to throttle who they want, when they want, and to be able to charge content providers for the privilege of delivering that content at a usable speed. Doing so would greatly enhance their profits while greatly degrading the free flow of information.
Mark Taylor of Level3 wrote a blog post titled Observations of an Internet Middleman, discussing Internet connectivity for its customers, as well as for consumers. Level 3 is one of “Tier 1” Internet service providers, which in highway system terms means they build and maintain a good portion of the interstates used to help make the information superhighway a truly global enterprise. There is a TON of information here that is pretty in-depth if networking isn’t really your jam, but I’m going to give you the good bits. Here goes:
Level 3 is a company that helps connect the world, from my house to the TMO website to post this, from your house to the site so you can read it. Level 3 doesn’t manage the connection from the street to the house though; they’re connecting ISPs to their network, which is connected to other networks, which is how I can gain access to any site around the world.
Each of these networks agrees to connect to other networks, and that agreement is called peering. As usage increases, sometimes portions of the network will max out. This is mentioned in the post, saying that currently Level 3 has 51 peers, and 12 of those have “congested ports”, where the traffic saturates the connection 90 percent or more. Six of those are currently being upgraded and Level 3 is working with the other peers on getting it done.
Net who to the what now?
You may notice that leaves six maxed-out connections, and here’s where it gets interesting. Peering agreements are also made with companies selling broadband to consumers. That part where broadband runs to the house is the “last mile” part that has had a lot of discussion lately. This is the part controlled (in the US) by companies like Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and Comcast. And it doesn’t appear they’re doing a very good job of it. Here’s a section of the post, emphasis mine:
That leaves the remaining six peers with congestion on almost all of the interconnect ports between us. Congestion that is permanent, has been in place for well over a year and where our peer refuses to augment capacity. They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfill the requests their customers make for content.
Five of those congested peers are in the United States and one is in Europe. There are none in any other part of the world. All six are large Broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market. In countries or markets where consumers have multiple Broadband choices (like the UK) there are no congested peers.
In short: You are paying for broadband that sucks, and that isn’t changing. It isn’t like upgrades aren’t possible, I just looked up earnings and Comcast made US $17.4 billion in Q1 of 2014, Time Warner made $5.58 billion. I am not a broadband engineer but I have a hunch it wouldn’t cost anywhere near ONE billion to upgrade a pipe or two and ease some of that congestion. But why would they, when there’s no reason to? It isn’t like there’s competition most places, so what does it matter if your broadband sucks?
Another Level 3 blog post from March titled Chicken talks about some of these last mile providers, and what makes net neutrality such a big deal. So big in fact that Level 3 filed a brief (PDF link) with the FCC about it.
Next: What You Can Do about It