People who are arguing about broadband network policy using terms like “network neutrality” and “fast lanes” are missing the point. And framing this debate only in terms of winners and losers is leaving out an important part of the discussion. New networking technology is making it possible to implement such policies in “win-win” ways that have not existed in the past. Our networks can be smarter, more adaptable, and better aligned to the increasingly varied tasks we demand of them. We should stop fighting about how to apply outdated regulatory schemes to the Internet and instead start discussing how we can get smarter and better networks deployed faster to more people.

First, it is important to note that the Internet, though we refer to it as a single, coherent entity, is in fact a complex interconnection of many private and public networks. The interconnection of these networks relies upon three basic types of agreements:
  • Technical agreements: how data is treated as it is passed from one network to another, which is governed by what we call “standards.”  Most of the standards that govern the Internet are open technical standards, which have been developed by broad communities of experts and are not owned by any one entity. These open standards are one of the critical factors in making the Internet possible, and thus the idea of open technical standards is often the reason people say that the Internet is a “free and open” network.  But this technical openness is only a portion of what is required for the Internet to run smoothly.
  • Real estate agreements: since networks ultimately require communications equipment to be located in physical locations, connecting these networks also requires equipment to be located in mutually accessible physical locations. These locations nearly always require payment of rent, utilities (electric and cooling, primarily), and reimbursement for technical services provided to network owners. These agreements take myriad forms and structures, depending on who the parties are, where they are, and what other relationships they may have.
  • Financial agreements: since the owners of larger networks incur significant costs of ownership, including leasing real estate through which their networks pass, they generally require owners of smaller networks to pay in order to interconnect and pass traffic along to other networks. Think of it this way: If you have a Wi-Fi router in your house, even if you didn’t have any Internet connection, you would be able to create a local network with all of your various devices and computers connected to one another. However, without paying for a connection to another network – such as an Internet service provider like your cable company or telephone company – you would only be able to use or view resources already on your privately networked devices. And because your cable company knows this, it can charge you for the privilege of connecting to its network, which is connected to other networks in the Internet and just happens to run right by your house.

The claims that many people have made recently about the Internet being the only “free” and “open” network, ignores the other kind of agreements that are necessary for the Internet we know today. An article in Slate by Andrew Russell goes into more details, but stated simply, the Internet has never been fully open, nor fully free. Just think of it from your own point of view: Are you able to connect anything you want, wherever you want to, without paying anyone?

Large-scale broadband networks -- whether they're the ones from your house to city-scale aggregation points (e.g., your cable company’s network) or the long-distance networks that connect all of those city aggregation points to one another (e.g., Internet “backbone” providers like Level3) – operate under a set of agreements that are much different than the one between you and your cable company. Technically those agreements are not different – they still refer to moving data over the Internet – but they are different in their business terms, especially in terms of real estate use and financial consideration given.

In fact, traffic between some large Web companies and Internet providers already travels over “fast lanes,” moving in prioritized pathways different from (and faster, and better, than) the ones you and I have at home. Timothy B. Lee describes this in more detail on Vox.com, but there is nothing new about peering agreements or paid interconnection between larger network providers and content networks. Add to that the efforts over the past 10 years by service providers to engage in “traffic shaping” and “network optimization” or other techniques designed to limit certain kinds of activity at certain times, and you end up understanding that the delivery of information to residential end users has not happened over a “neutral network,” perhaps ever.

So instead, let’s look at why people are considering paying for “fast lanes” over the Internet, and let’s see what else can be done to alleviate concerns over this approach.

Today’s Internet is not suffering from a technical problem – it has the technical capacity for much more traffic, including more streaming video. It is suffering from a business model problem – the real estate and financial arrangements that have brought the Internet to where it is today are strained. There is more demand generating more Internet traffic, all riding over the same infrastructure that has been in place for decades.  When demand is rising and supply is constrained, prices go up – just what we are witnessing today. And people are responding to those constraints by proposing to pay for the prioritization of certain traffic, like streaming movies from Netflix, that they find important and profitable.

But instead of just paying for some traffic to be faster in order to address constraints in the broadband business model, what if there were a way to use technology to overcome those constraints?  What if, instead of your Internet experience being controlled primarily by contracts between big companies, the network was fast enough to handle all of your needs and smart enough to know what you are doing and how best to enhance your experience?

Network policy and performance is not a zero-sum game; there are some new ideas that can help create additional dimensions for solutions. The three technology enhancements outlined below offer opportunities to enhance our current networks to overcome these hurdles and stop focusing on how service providers manage the networks reaching us. These improvements include:

  1. Faster networks, more low-latency bandwidth to the end user, both for upload and download, available whenever it is needed. Some communities, including Chattanooga and Kansas City, already have gigabit networks that reach end users – we need more of these examples, and soon.
  2. Smarter networks that can create their own secure paths through the Internet on the fly via software-defined networking (SDN). This allows users and the applications they prefer to define how much bandwidth they need, when they need it, and what kind of other network characteristics they require. Instead of delivering everything to all users all of the time, even when they are not home or not using it, networks could be made smart enough to know what applications are in use and to provide the correct characteristics for optimum response, throughput, security, reliability and low latency. 
  3. Local cloud computing, which enables low-latency applications and provides a local edge tier of programmable computing and storage capability. By moving the data and computing power we are all now using “in the cloud” closer to each of us on the network, we will waste fewer resources sending our requests to far-away computers and have the benefit of highly responsive real-time response and control.
Much more about these network advancements and what they could mean for all of us can be found on our website. In addition, you can find descriptions of applications that could use this type of network infrastructure to solve some of our most complex public challenges.  But the point is clear: Instead of fighting about how to change the old rules while network operators try to squeeze more value out of existing infrastructure, we should be racing to build a smarter, more dynamic and more responsive network that understands what we are trying to do and how much bandwidth we need to do it.
 
Joe Kochan is the COO of US Ignite, a nonprofit that’s fostering the development of next-generation applications that provide transformative public benefit using new technologies like software-defined networks, cloud computing and gigabit to end users. This story was originally published at us-ignite.org, and was republished with permission.