On March 5, I participated on a panel at the Telecom Exchange West in Denver to debate the topic of net neutrality. Joining me on the panel were Steve Davis (News - Alert), executive vice president or public policy and government relations at CenturyLink, and Dr. David Reed, interdisciplinary telecommunications faculty director at the University of Colorado. The panel was moderated by Jaymie Scotto Cutaia of JS&A. And it was, if I may say so, a lively and interesting discussion.
Given the recently announced Comcast (News - Alert)-Netflix private peering agreement, the festivities began with talk around what is in fact net neutrality. To properly frame the discussion there are two threshold issues that need to be addressed. The first is the difference between consumers and businesses that could operate their own networks. The second is the difference between what network means and what Internet means. Network neutrality and Internet neutrality are two completely separate things just as Layer 2 is not Layer 3 in the OSI model.
Netflix is very much a consumer service that is delivered using IP (Layer 3) over the public Internet and, or in the case of the Comcast relationship, over a private, dedicated physical connection that has nothing to do with the Internet at all. On the subject of the consumer Internet service dimension I had this to say: “Internet consumers are hostages to the carriers and the service providers because they have no control over the quality of the service they receive and little, or no, choice in how they receive it. Service providers are saying this is the best Internet for you. Consumers can’t build their own Internet. Consumers are hostages who are being told this is the quality you get and pay for.”
My quote caused quite a stir during and after the event. Whether or not anyone wants to openly admit it, beyond deep packet inspection, beyond the blocking and shaping of certain packets, and well past the sheer lack of fiber and associated lit capacity in certain areas that causes an unavoidable and inevitable congestion situation there exists the truth – there are multiple, present realities. The only constant is change and from one location to another everything changes in terms of physical access to the Internet. The bottom line is that it all comes down to control of access to the Internet – and not the Internet itself. Layers 1 and 2 and the IP that flows over those layers vs. public Layer 3.
After I made my “hostage” remark, Dr. Reed said: “Comcast-Netflix is not a net neutrality issue – it is not about the Internet.”?I could not agree more.
Davis commented that, “describing consumers as hostages is nonsense” and the notion that people can only buy what is being sold “can be applied to any industry or walk of life, but that doesn’t make them hostages.”
I suppose consumers do have a choice, a Henry Ford kind of choice. You can have any color you like as so long as it is black. Consumers could also choose not to try and connect to the Internet. It is not really that important anyway, right?
No doubt this is a tricky issue for consumers. For certain network operators that know their way around, though, this net neutrality thing does not even apply. Those that understand and have access to a physical path that can be leased or built to get to a neutral peering point or meet-me room can bypass any service provider standing in their way.
End user consumers, particularly those on mobile devices, simply cannot do that. They are trapped and subjected to whatever their access provider decides for them. The ability to charge a certain rate for a service and a premium for a service that actually works all comes down to the lack of viable alternatives. Infrastructure costs real money, and it is difficult to earn an attractive return on investment within a near-term time frame. Cogent was reminded of this when Comcast made it clear to Netflix who controls the access to the consumer. That is why Netflix now pays and connects to Comcast directly – with no Internet service provider in between.
Edited by Maurice Nagle