Net Neutrality - Will the FCC Get It Right?
These are not easy questions to answer. Further, they are not the only questions to be asked. Among the questions yet posed is how will either winner of this debate go on to affect any given enterprise in terms of its bottom-line and operations? How, for instance, will a win on either side affect IT?
It isn't an idle question. The results could range from debilitating costs on the one hand to debilitating latencies and service drops on the other. Of course, those are the extremes of the spectrum but there are plenty of lesser consequences to fill up the middle. The bottom-line remains the same, however: whichever side wins, IT will surely pay the penalty. It is, therefore, incredibly unwise to leave the outcome of this squabble solely to the industry players directly involved.
It is also prudent to note that nary a whisper is made of the potential effects on business -- the old "let sleeping dogs lie" tactic at its finest. Instead, the argument is couched in terms of consumers who are generally presented as spoiled children or, conversely, as masters of the universe.
"Let's be clear," said Jim Lakely, co-director of the Center on the Digital Economy at The Heartland Institute, a respected libertarian-bent think tank based in Chicago, "the concept of Net neutrality is good, as long as it's a market-driven concept of 'best practices. Consumers can, and do, demand all the 'neutrality' they need. Pocket-book decisions correct any potential 'abuses' of consumers by ISPs."
In theory, that statement is true. In practice, it falls woefully short of the customer experience. To wit: The U.S. offers among the slowest broadband speeds in the world, yet providers charge the highest rates on the planet.
"While Europe and Japan have Fiber to the X (FTTX) services, we have not rolled out much here in the U.S.," said Asif Hazarika, senior director of Product Management at IP Infusion. "The issue that we see is that the US has a great deal of legacy deployment and thus, to match the speeds with GPON or EPON, the cost is much higher."
It's a cost that U.S. carriers are not willing to bear despite the fact that they charge much higher rates than their European and Asian counterparts. Why?
"There is not much competition and at this time, they are not being forced to improve," explained Hazarika.
Adding salt to the wound, the FCC's recent Broadband Performance report found that broadband service across all technologies -- cable, fiber, DSL and satellite -- generally delivered 50 percent of the speeds the providers advertised. The FCC also made a series of tests available so that the public can test broadband speeds for themselves, the first of which can be found at http://www.broadband.gov/qualitytest/about/. Consumers are now aware they're getting ripped off, but what of it? It's easy for consumers to know which provider to fire, but to what provider can they turn for relief? None. The findings were across the board leaving few to no competitive alternatives.
This mirrors the predicament business finds itself in. Global businesses in particular have known of the gaping disparities between U.S. and other countries' broadband speeds and rates for years. The problem is that there are no competitors offering anything better in the U.S. so business is stuck with whatever it can get. This creates myriad disadvantages for businesses in the U.S. Poor speeds and high rates diminish businesses' ability to compete with foreign peers. Lack of broadband in U.S. rural areas deprives businesses of access to cheaper American labor and new customers who may buy online if they had the opportunity to do so.
Add to that the insult of deep packet inspection (DPI), the method ISPs use to protect themselves against protocol noncompliance, which in the consumer end of things generally means peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing. This practice means that the ISP can inspect all packets coming and going from any user's computer. The ISP can and does read the content of everything uploaded or downloaded that isn't encrypted. That should trouble big business as much as it does the man on the street. For example, instant messages (IMs) are not encrypted, neither are most low-level business files or communications by staff working at home or using mobile devices.
DPI can be used for data mining, eavesdropping and censorship. How much of it is directed against businesses is unknown as there is no way for a business to detect it. There is no anti-virus/malware program nor a traffic metric or anything else capable of exposing the practice. IT would never be the wiser. At the very least, DPI should be illegal for this very reason.
If ISPs were to control the Internet too, competing services and broadband intensive services could either be dropped entirely or hit with a surcharge high enough to remove any real sense of competition. Verizon or Verizon Wireless, for example, could elect to squash Google Phone, Vonage or Skype.
"Skype worries that its service, which requires a lot of bandwidth, could be throttled by the ISPs," said Lakely. "Yet it is incumbent on Skype to prove worthy of hogging lots of bandwidth to both consumers and ISPs -- not to get government to step in and validate its business model."
One could argue, however, that it is not the government that would be validating Skype's business model but rather the ISP that was invalidating Skype's entire existence. Net neutrality, at least in concept, opens the Internet to all without favor or bias whereas an ISP could presumably use its own benefit as the sole criteria for allowing or disallowing an Internet service such as Skype or YouTube.
There is the separate question of whether Skype or other Internet telephony users should have to pay more for the extra bandwidth use, but few are looking at the impact of rate hikes or denial of service on companies outside the telecom sphere.
What will it do to enterprises if Internet telephony is blocked from use or its rates pushed through the roof? Is it fair to force businesses to use traditional phone providers (who also happen to own a piece of the ISP market) instead? Is this not a hijacking of the rest of the business world? Do ISPs have the right to command a larger share of every businesses' expense column?
"Unless you happen to be an internet provider, there seems to be little debate that preserving that aspect of Net neutrality (the part that protects against anti-competitive behavior) is desirable," said Dan Griffin, founder and managing partner of JW Secure, a Microsoft Enterprise Security MVP. "The real debate is regarding whether that aspect should be regulated, and if so, how to do so effectively."
Hence the FCC's long, drawn-out process of testing and taking comments before making any further official moves on the matter.
Quality of service
When it comes to other aspects of Net neutrality, things get a bit fuzzier; especially when it comes down to quality of service.
"For example, should the internet provider be able to slow peer-to-peer or gaming traffic in order to maintain what it believes to be a fair allocation of bandwidth?," asked Griffin. "After all, if the people playing the game are paying the same monthly fees as the people who are just surfing the Web, or watching a video, isn't it their right that their application can function optimally?"
The rub is in who decides what fair allocation of bandwidth is -- the provider, the application developer, the companies that build networking equipment? "And, finally, how do you implement bandwidth allocation guarantees and limits -- that's more complicated than it sounds," he said.
But Net neutrality, as currently proposed, will disallow packet delivery prioritization rendering that question moot but raising another.
"If a business is disrupted because someone else in that same geographic area is downloading tons of porn, how is that fair or desirable? The failure of this aspect of Net neutrality is inevitable," said Griffin.
However, disrupted is perhaps too strong a word for the actual impact. In reality, a business would not be disrupted, but files may download slower because of a neighboring porn enthusiast. Considering broadband speeds are subpar already, it's questionable how noticeable the impact would actually be - if it ever happened at all. In fact, ISPs would likely feel pressured to build up their networks to handle the load. That might not be such a bad thing, other than driving up broadband costs of course.
If broadband service overall is not improved in the U.S., the impact on business will eventually be severe and highly noticeable. This is undisputed among Net neutrality supporters and dissenters alike. The fear is that Net neutrality rules will discourage ISPs from investing further and that no one else will step forward with the money. The argument is that ISPs will invest more if they are granted control over their investments. The other side offers the counter-argument that the Internet will decrease in value because of increased ISP control and subsequent anti-competitive or profit protective maneuvers.
So, is enterprise and IT better off with or without Net neutrality regulations?
"In the short term, Net neutrality would create a new regulatory regime that would need to be sorted out by providers and users," said Mark McCarty, partner in Alston & Bird's Technology Group. "In some instances, that process could include litigation over the nuts and bolts of how Net neutrality should be applied to specific situations. In addition, Net neutrality has the potential to force broadband providers to build in more excess capacity to manage high usage periods and that could increase costs, but the true long-term impact is difficult to predict."
One thing is certain, the free market has so far failed to improve broadband rates and speeds in the U.S. and there is little evidence to point to any real change to come in the foreseeable future. The industry is stagnant at best. To allow it to affix a chokehold on all American businesses in a purely self-serving effort to protect its own bottom-line is unacceptable. A free market is not free if it is controlled by a single industry.
A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making.