We should stop fighting about how to apply outdated regulatory schemes to the Internet and instead start discussing how we can get smarter and better networks deployed faster to more people.
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 We should stop fighting about how to apply outdated regulatory schemes to the Internet and instead start discussing how we can get smarter and better networks deployed faster to more people.
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: