Today, it's time to talk about the Internet. Which, as always, is a fun topic; mostly because it's so huge. Not to mention complicated.
Of course, huge, complicated things cause trouble and controversy. By definition. And why should the Internet be any different?
EDIT: I'm putting most of this below because, well, it turned out to be really, really long.
First, a few basics. Although the Internet seems to exist out in the ether somewhere, it actually only consists of a few basic types of things. You have your servers, which distribute content upon request, over the Internet. These servers make up pretty much all we see when we are websurfing; they're where webpages actually come from. Servers, or at least space on servers, can be owned by pretty much anyone.
Another major part of the internet is the actual cable and/or fibre that connects all the servers and computers. Some of this cable is actually wireless connections, but that pretty much exclusively occurs at endpoints; they won't come into this discussion too much. Large parts of the backbone in the US are owned by companies which specialize in, well, owning backbone connections, with most of the rest owned by telecommunications companies. Cable and fibre closer to endpoints is owned primarily by telecommunications and cable companies.
Finally, we have the many routers and switches which direct traffic from client to server, along the wired connections. These make sure that requests get where they need to go, and if set up incorrectly can halt traffic just as surely as a broken line. Routers tend to be owned by companies owning the surrounding cable.
Right. And I think that's enough background for awhile. On to current events...
Several interesting things have been happening in the world of telecommunications recently. AT&T has merged with BellSouth, making it, Verizon, and Qwest the be-all and end-all as far as US telecommunications goes. Mostly what this means is that lots and lots of internet traffic goes through telecommunications company-owned connections, either as part of the backbone they own, or through connections closer to endpoints populated by servers and local ISPs.
And now comes the fun part. The CEO of the new AT&T decided to say in an interview that Google should be paying them more, because they use more bandwidth. This is not the payment that Google makes in order to have a connection of X Enormous Amount Of Bandwidth to the Internet. This is further payment, related to packets of information going through AT&T's network. These packets could be, say, from Google's video service, which adds up to a lot of packets. However, the thing to remember is that these packets have already been paid for. Twice. Once on Google's side, as they pay for their Internet connection, and once on the client side, as some user at home pays for their Internet connection.
This doesn't immediately make a whole lot of sense. Actually, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense after prolonged thought, either. Anyway, this whole thought process that AT&T is apparently going through begins with the idea 'network neutrality' isn't actually a good idea.
Network neutrality says that the network itself isn't supposed to think too much about what is going over it. By network we mean, basically, the backbone, cables, and routers. Pretty much everything up to the servers and clients at either end. The idea is that the network is sort of like a giant road system, hence the term 'Internet Superhighway'. However AT&T, and possibly other telecom and cable companies are feeling a bit miffed about merely being traveled over by all these lovely packets and not getting paid for it. Hence the antagonism towards network neutrality, and the introduction of a bright little gem called 'tiered service'.
Tiered service is the idea that X Company, owning Y random connections along this highway of the Internet, can charge a bit more to certain companies, like Z Online Company, sending packets of information across the connections they own, in order to push those packets through a bit faster. Now X Company may or may not be already charging for the endpoint connections which the websurfer and Z are using. That's beside the point. What's important is that they want to levy an extra fee for going through cable that they own somewhere in the middle.
Which is all very nice for X, and all, but a bit problematic for everyone else. See, bandwidth is not technically limitless, even on the backbone. And, once you start promising extra speed to this person, and that person, and this company, and that company, you eventually get to the point where A) you need to add more bandwidth, or B) you start scraping bandwidth from people who've decided to not pay you the extra fee. Given that these are publicly traded companies we're talking about, and that B is cheaper, B is by far the most likely outcome.
And then there's other things. Like peer-to-peer file sharing systems, which nobody's likely to get extra money out of, and Voice-over-IP telephony systems, which are currently competing with land-line telephone systems. Land-lines, which ironically, happen to be run by telecommunications companies like AT&T. So they're apt to get short shrift at the best of circumstances.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the only way telecom and cable companies are going to agree to network neutrality over the long run is if they're made to. Which in most cases means government intervention. At which point the whole situation becomes extraordinarily confusing for me, although I currently think it tips out in favor of government-supported network neutrality.
First, this is arguably a matter of inter-state commerce, which the Constitution happens to give regulatory power to Congress over. Maybe not the best argument ever, but it could be made. Then, there's the point that telecom and cable companies are currently not held liable for data that passes through their network, because it just passes through. If they start sifting through the traffic, it seems to me that they should no long have the common-carrier status they have enjoyed. After all, they're no longer merely transporting the data, they're actively looking at it as it passes through, in order to determine whether it qualifies for Super-Duper High Speed Extreme Transportation.
Finally, there's the fact that in any given area of the US, there's only a few, at most, telecom and cable companies which are providing all of the data services of the community. In rural areas, it may be just one telecom company. And I'm not entirely sure the market can re-adjust itself to these companies, with little or no competition, having yet more power. I'm a big fan of the free market, but there are a few cases where it doesn't work so well, and this may be one of them. Best-case, you'd probably end up having telecom companies and large online entities fighting a war where they trade off denying services to each other.
To tell the truth, I'm not exactly sure what the best way to deal with this is, but it's shaping up to be not very pretty.Posted by Ardith at April 25, 2006 10:40 PM | TrackBack