Day: June 25, 2006

Publishers and Net Neutrality

Previous apathy on my part
Normally I don’t get too riled at the idea of companies making money. In fact I rather like the idea. Normally too I tend to be on the other side of most “seemingly” popular outcries. But Net Neutrality is an issue that has been bubbling up in my consciousness for at least a month.

I was wavering. My instinct was on the side of the Telcos. Why the hell should they not be allowed to offer tiered service? It’s their investment after all and if someone doesn’t like the price they can not pay. They already offer tiered services on the consumer side. If service to corporations and business customers remains bad then competition is bound to follow though I can accept that it may come at a time lag.

But for those who doubt that investment flows to bandwidth just look at the glut that came with the Web Bubble of the late 1990s. Ireland was a key beneficiary of that glut with transatlantic fibre optic (If you want you can link to a Global Crossing [since in chapter 11] Press Release or Internetnews for a report) cable being laid and enormous data centres basing themselves in Dublin because of it.

Change of heart
So that is where I stood and even the clever appeals of Amanda Congdon and the Rocketboom team did little to sway me. But then I read I, Cringely yesterday and I got to thinking.

He pointed out something that has not really been addressed:

To recap: Giving priority to some traffic puts a hurt on other types of traffic and when that other traffic constitutes more than 30 percent of the Internet, the results can be severe for all of us. On the Internet everything is connected, and you can’t easily ignore the impact of one service on another.

So he tested the result of ending net Neutrality and discovered something a little unsettling:

My test results were clear. I had no problem downloading the same BitTorrent files, but it took longer. That was no surprise. After all, I WAS talking to my Mom, which would have taken some bandwidth away from BitTorrent. But the more interesting result was that the total bandwidth required to download the same files using traffic shaping versus not using traffic shaping was almost 20 percent more, which undoubtedly came down to increased BitTorrent overhead due to contention and retransmissions involving the priority VoIP service.

Now a bit of the technical points escape me but the reality is simply stated elsewhere in the article:

Let’s say Net Neutrality goes away and the broadband ISPs start offering tiered services. My simple test suggests that one possible impact is that Bit Torrent traffic, which currently uses, say, 30 percent of Internet bandwidth, is going to expand to about 36 percent simply because of inefficiencies created by the tiered services. This will increase the backbone costs for ISPs and will take back at least some of the very performance advantage they are supposedly selling to their priority customers.

The result of ending Net Neutrality under this scenario, then, is that the ISPs make money from tiered services but with higher overhead costs and lower priority service levels than one might expect. The ISPs then might try banning BitTorrent to keep it from messing with their tiered services, but we’ve already establish this can’t practically be done on a technical level because torrent encryption can always get around the ban. The only way, in fact, to limit BitTorrent traffic would be to have it made illegal and now we’re back again to the clueless Congress that started this whole mess.

I don’t think these latter ideas are even in the heads of broadband ISPs. They simply haven’t thought that far. But eventually, as they try trimming this and expanding that to solve a problem that shouldn’t have existed in the first place and can’t otherwise be solved, they’ll come up with something all of us will hate. I guarantee it.

So why is any of this relevant to publishers?
Publishers must be wary of this for several reasons. Firstly anything that reduces the usability of the web will reduce their ability to interact with customers and serve them with products that rely on the web. While in most cases this will not be of huge concern imagine the future scenario where a customer buys a new e-book online and choose to host that eBook with a publisher rather than download the title to their hard drive. If the tiered services make that at once more expensive and less reliable then the publisher has higher costs and a weaker product offering. That surely should be something to avoid.

The argument for Net Neutrality then comes down to something I understand and believe in, money, profit and business opportunity. These are things that publishers can dig too. Not for fluffy ideas of fairness and innovation. Not for the basic reasons that are currently being offered by the majority of Net Neutrality advocates should publishers resist. But on a simple platform of costs rising and potential growth markets being cut off publishers should be resisting the Telcos. Self interest dictates it.