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WTF is Net Neutrality, anyway? And how can we make everything better?

Ignore those beardies - here are the facts

The ever-changing road

Once again we need to look at the internet while remaining rooted in reality. I'll illustrate this by practical analogy.

Imagine you're a new, startup internet video company. You may have acquired a world exclusive for distributing, say, Breaking Bad, which nobody has yet seen. Or you may just have unique and brilliant videos you want people to see via the web. It doesn't really matter - and nor for the sake of argument does your "business model" matter here: you simply need to serve video, and serve it without delays. If you can't do that people will abandon you, they won't watch - and you're stuffed.

Behold the "Hyper-Giants" ... The internet looks different now Source: Atlas IO Report 2009

As the Neutrality protestors describe it, today you enter the "highway" on a slip road and your video floods over to the punter without you paying any tolls. Actually, that's a problem, the phrase "pay to play". You do have to buy bandwidth between your own network and the wider internet, which is not free. What the neutralists fear is that you have to pay twice, or an additional toll because a gatekeeper has interceded on the formerly free'n'open highway, positioning themselves downstream between the wider internet and the viewer, demanding a new fee.

And that's our second major problem. Fifteen years ago this is how "content" was delivered, with most content back then being web pages which were mostly text. It's how The Register and thousands of other sites got started. Fifteen years ago you merely bought bandwidth once - access to the public backbone - and the packets you wanted to deliver traversed along those public backbones and thus to the user.

But it's not how streaming video is delivered, now, today. It's not how streaming video has ever been delivered, in fact. Today, those backbones are dilapidated and weed-infested dirt tracks. No video provider uses them - or would even dream of using them. They can't carry video. With the benefit of hindsight we may rue not requiring large telcos (perhaps paid a tiny fee or tax) to maintain those public backbones - a kind of Universal Service Fund - to keep them in good nick. But hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Instead, video providers use - are forced to use, due to their performance requirements - private networks. This is where the great Darwinian advantage of the internet has paid off somewhat. TCP/IP was crude, but its crudeness and flexibility helped it grow. The internet protocols are merely a bare minimum set of instructions on how networks should interconnect - not what goes on inside them. So the fact you can now watch a ten hour video of unicorns dancing on rainbows is because providers can get the data to you across a fast private network.

(As an aside, almost two thirds of traffic measured by volume still uses the weed-infested public backbone, but it's almost entirely Bittorrent traffic and cyberlockers. People using Torrents and lockers tend to have lower quality demands than Netflix subscribers. It's free and the material is dodgy - I'm not going to sue the shopkeeper I'm robbing, the freetards reason, for making the sweets hard to reach. The rest of the public-network traffic is stuff that doens't need to get through fast, like email. )

And what kept things largely civil to date was that the various network players - ISPs and private delivery networks - tended to exchange roughly equal, or symmetrical, amounts of traffic.

What's changed?

In short, you as a video provider will hire a delivery network (or build your own - we'll come to that) to talk to your eventual customer's network (an ISP), faster than would normally be possible without the specialist delivery player. So to do video, you must hire a "fast lane", or build your own. Thus peering becomes important. It becomes highly political. Now we're getting to the core of the issues in play with Net Neutrality - but we can do so without being prisoned by our metaphors.

"The road metaphor breaks down because the road is constantly changing," is how Paul Sanders describes it. Sanders is both an ISP and a service provider who writes thoughtfully about competitive issues. And he's written for us - mostly about the failings of the music biz.

Another popular metaphor falls apart too, once exposed to the harsh daylight of reality. A network is a limited resource, with people always fighting for it.

"It is always contested even when it is not congested," notes Sanders.

Here ISPs face an uneviable dilemma. Many of the problems today would not be problems if the internet's design had been a bit less crude. Congestion control was discarded early on. Yet congestion remains a critical issue.

"The utopian view of network is everyone plays nicely. But other internet users are not neutral to you. Every packet is pollution to someone else and the polluter doesn't pay. So really it's a war, a battle for resources, in which the greediest application over the biggest pipe triumphs. The strongest will always win," is how Geddes describes today's internet.

As I said in the introduction, there are genuine competition implications - how could there not be? - when big bucks are at stake. What's happened this year, in a nutshell, goes like this.

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