Not so neutral net neutrality?

Finnish MEP candidate Otso Kivekäs from the Greens recently compared the internet to road infrastructure. In his analogy, he said that removing net neutrality would be like allowing “the company that builds the highways to put different speed limits on different car brands: Audis could drive 100 [km/h] and all others 60 [km/h]. And everybody would pay the toll.”

If ISPs could discriminate as they wished and simply adjust the speed of different services, either according to the highest bidder or simply because of their own preferences (goodbye, Skype), this would surely be a great injustice to all internet users. A removal of net neutrality left completely unregulated is not ideal, to say the least. But let’s look at it from another perspective.

Wonder why Netflix, Google and Apple are such great supporters of this “consumer right”? Because 30 % of US internet traffic is used by Netflix, 15 % by YouTube and 2 % by iTunes, according to a study by Sandivine.  Still, these companies pay nothing for the infrastructure yet benefit from it immensely. It is not difficult to see why ISPs would seek to receive compensation from the two companies that use half of all bandwidth.

Sandivine: internet traffic statistics

Netflix and YouTube obviously top the charts because they are immensely popular services and because video uses a lot of data, especially full HD.

Now, using the road analogy once more, this is essentially a case where two companies fill up all the roads with their trucks and continue to be treated like regular commuters on their way to work.

An article from Financial Times also addressed this issue, and according to the editor, “net neutrality no longer works.”  FT applauded the FCC’s decision, expressing that “if customers are willing to pay more for a premium service, as they do with mobile phone contracts or business class travel, then they ought to have the right to do so.”

Business class travel is hardly a good analogy, as people already pay for faster internet subscriptions. Rather, one could take the road analogy one step further. There are a lot of rules which already dictate traffic in order to make it more effective: bike lanes, bus lanes, toll discounts for car pools, the obligation to give way to trams and so on.

What if internet traffic that serves the public interest could be given right of way? Setting aside the difficulty of defining the public interest for a moment, one could think of at least access to public documents and services to begin with. Services that eat up a disproportionate amount of all bandwidth (read: Netflix and YouTube), on the other hand, could then be “taxed” for their  excessive bandwidth use, a fee which would be earmarked for investment in new broadband infrastructure. Now, this might not be what the FCC (or FT) had in mind, but it is a conceivable alternative to net neutrality as we think of it today. Doesn’t positive net discrimination have a nice ring to it?

This would also prevent ISPs from using broadband infrastructure investment as their hobbyhorse excuse. Whenever proposals might make business more difficult (or less profitable) for ISPs, they always state that new regulation will slow down investment on broadband infrastructure (see here, here and here). The arguments are, of course,  just corporate BS, since in Europe broadband infrastructure has been highly dependent on tax money (roads anyone?). By combining so-called “premium access fees” with broadband investment, the ICT giants could help maintain the infrastructure they make their billions from.

 

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