Net neutrality

Net Neutrality is a complicated issue. It has often been accused of “regulating content” and is seen as a free speech issue by some. Well, no and yes. Like most everything, it does not reveal itself in those simple terms, as much as people like to scream it.

It is concerned not so much regulating content as throttling use and bandwidth.  In theory, the ISPs operate at the communication layer 1,2,3, and maybe 4. They only deal in transporting the content.  “Content” is up there at layer 5 and 6. They don't KNOW what the content is.  It is like the post office just delivering envelopes - they don't know what is inside. The ISPs just deliver ISP packets – the postcards of the Internet.

This has changed somewhat because of the following issues.  The ISPs have, more and more, felt they need to know what the content was, so they could choose to pass it or throttle it. You may wonder why.

In the past, and pretty much up to the present day, bandwidth was expensive. That is, the more "bits" you wanted in a given time, the more expensive it was to deliver. Like on a dialup line, your speed may have been 56kbits/s -- This was provided over existing telephone lines. On an ADSL you can get maybe 6 Mbit/s - over the same telephone line, but special added equipment is needed to provide it. On cable modem, maybe 50 Mb/s -over your TV cable, and an entirely different infrastructure than the telephone plant.  On fiber optic, maybe up to 100 Mbit/s - over fiber optic – no wires here. Each of these technologies is progressively more expensive.

So people started using bandwidth in "excess' of what their technology could provide. Or let's say they “used up” all the available bandwidth. Kids downloading software, movies and music were/are using up all the bandwidth on the existing pipes and equipment further upstream.  This PREVENTED their neighbors from even using their connections, since these connections are all "statistically multiplexed" further upstream. It is NOT like a phone call from you to me, where we have DEDICATED bandwidth between us - nobody can steal it.  In a "statistically multiplexed" technology, everybody shares the same upstream pipe, essentially, and any one person can use ALL the bandwidth on the pipe for as long as he wants, practically.  It is possible for one application [malware or "denial of service" software] to entirely consume the bandwidth and not let anybody else on the pipe.  This is like the ethernet coming into your cable modem from your PC, and other devices -- it is a Gbit/s technology that everybody can share.

In the current and past technology environment, the ISPs have felt the need to "throttle" certain content to permit all their customers to share the pipe. They have done this mostly by looking at the “apartment number” on the address of the Internet postcard to tell is it is a movie, or terminal communication, or anyof a number of possibilities. You can understand their concern when 2 or 3 kids on the block spend their whole day downloading movies and music and preventing their neighbors from using their internet connection [I say “kids” but of course they were only the early “abusers” of bandwidth – we all share in that nowadays!]. Going forward, the ISPs have come up with ways to force the sharing, by throttling, or limiting bandwidth use by individual customers, by for example limiting a customer to say 6 Mb/s on a 50 Mb/s line, or limiting him to 50GB/month, or limiting the “application” it sees.  So it could be a realtime throttle or a LIMIT on the total amount of data.  They have felt it necessary to do this because the uses of the Internet have outpaced their ability to grow the technology to handle all the bandwidth necessary.   These are private companies, and unlike the government, their bottom lines matter, so they cannot always upgrade their infrastructure to the next generation until “they have the money” or can borrow “reasonably [unlike the government]”

Also, various ISPs have a "sharing" agreement.  They all agree to transport the others bandwidth without charging them an “access” fee [say, I want to communicate with you via a VPN and VNC] as long as the bandwidth is approximately equal.  They only charge their end users “access fees.” Some times that is not the case.  Say everybody on my mountain is watching a Netflix movie.  So the bandwidth is pretty much entirely in one direction – to the end customer.  That is certainly not symmetric.  If I, as an ISP am providing transport for traffic from the other side of the country that fills up my pipes [at least one way], shouldn't I need to charge them? They do NOT do this between themselves in general. They only charge the customers subscribing to their service. Sometimes this imbalance presents a problem between ISPs.

More and more, the ISPs are deploying technology that allows them to keep up with the increasing bandwidth use.  This is called "throwing bandwidth" at the problem.  It really doesn't “solve” the fundamental problem that statistical multiplexing presents. Maybe they upgrade their fiber terminal infrastructure to 100GB instead of 10GB, or they add other wavelengths on the same fiber, enabling them to run twice or 4 times as much bandwidth as before, or they upgrade their physical fiber.  This is kind of a never ending battle.  But in the past decade I would say they have ALMOST kept up. I feel this may not always be the case!!

It looks like we always will be finding ways to increase our use of bandwidth in the Internet -- think of the movie streaming on Netflix or Amazon prime now - that is all over the Internet, as opposed to TV broadcast.  Right now, a movie in high def may take 2-6 Mbit/sec downstream.  This gives us

a "HD" of 720 lines of resolution.  [old analog TV was considered 420 lines of resolution]  Your TV is capable of 1080 lines of resolution.  TVs are mostly "1920x1080" these days - this is considered "Full" HD.  Digital Broadcast TV is usually 720p or 1080i these days.  Think what will happen when we get to 4x HD -- there are already TVs and some material to utilize.  You may already have a 4X HD TV in your house!

So the increase in our use of bandwidth looks like it is never ending.  Think what happens when you have your entire wall as a "super super HD" TV.  The ISPs and the internet technology will always be racing to stay ahead.....  and losing sometimes. Somebody has to spend money to keep up.

Another great area where this is especially important is wireless - your cell phone.  Telephone companies have gone from AMPs (analog cellular) to 2G [about 400Kb/s downstream] to 3G [maybe 1 Mb/sec downstream] to now 4G [not sure -- maybe 10 Mb/s downstream].  Wireless communication

is worse in some way because the "air" is an absolute shared medium.  You have to spread the available frequencies out in the air.  Fibers can be duplicated, so you can replicate the frequencies [wavelengths] over the different fibers. 

The "net neutrality" adherents, or “partisans” at least in the past, as far as I am concerned, wanted to just force the ISPs to pass their traffic no matter what it was. This was OK as long as the bandwidth was available to do that!!!  And the ISPs certainly want to do that – after all, these can involve “premium [read high bandwidth] services.” What if it is not available?  The ISPs are paid to provide communications for all their customers, not just those who consume all the bandwidth.  You can be sure that a very SMALL set of customers consume the majority of the bandwidth even now. This is OK as long as the technology supports it without detriment to those who are small consumers of bandwidth. There really are no usage fees as the consumer level right now. Let's hope we don't have to go there, like they have had to do with wireless.

Hopefully, the ISPs and the technology can keep ahead of the curve!  It is a never ending race to be sure.