Many readers of this blog are well-versed in the key issues facing the software, media, and telecommunications industries today. I assert that there isn’t a more subtle yet important issue than net neutrality. In a nutshell, net neutrality is the idea that all internet access should be on a level playing field. Preference should not be given to certain protocols, applications, or internet protocol (IP) addresses.
Canadian professor Michael Geist regularly and eloquently discusses this issue on his blog.
Net neutrality is a great concern for me as a Canadian. I am especially concerned because there are people out there who believe that market forces should determine net neutrality. “Our position on network diversity/neutrality is that it should be determined by market forces, not regulation,” Jacqueline Michelis, a spokeswoman for Bell Canada, has said in an e-mail to the Canadian Press (quoted at CBC.ca). I like market forces and competition as much as the next guy, but there are three problems with the statement:
- The forces are in cahoots. Bell and Rogers don’t really have competitors in any particular geography. In fact, as wholesalers of network capacity, Bell’s “network management” or traffic-shaping policies have impacted the providers (like Acanac) who could and would offer competitive products. The competition Rogers now provides versus Bell (voice-over-IP as a replacement for traditional phone service) could be considered an exception but it amounts to two monopolies splitting a pot of gold — and see below why Rogers affects the other VOIP competitors like Skype.
- The market is clueless. Most consumers of ISP connectivity or other telecommunications have no idea about the issues of traffic shaping and the providers themselves do their level best to keep the issue out of the public eye. Additionally, average people believe that internet access amounts to web access; they infer (perhaps not consciously) that the hypertext transfer protocol is all they need. The advertising certainly doesn’t say: “advertised transfer rates not applicable for P2P applications, VOIP, or certain encrypted traffic like VPN”. They also don’t (of course) say: “Telus reserves the right to block access to websites that say mean things about our company or advocate for unionization of our employees.”
- This is fundamental public policy. When an issue is prone to manipulation by big corporations and is not well understood by the public, we need regulation. Witness, please, the recent sub-prime mortgage financial catastophe where market forces were essentially left to their own devices.
Recently Geist pointed out how net neutrality needs to be discussed on both the content and distribution side of the equation. This is because any impact to the delivery of service affects the content, even if indirectly. This aspect of net neutrality is worth its own separate post.
One example Geist provided in his article also highlights how anti-competitive some network shaping policies are. Rogers says they limit bandwidth on applications that tend to use excessive network capacity. An example they gave was VOIP. I know firsthand how bandwidth intensive VOIP services can be, and have been reluctant to switch over. But Rogers sells a VOIP service (which they call “Rogers Home Phone” and sales reps often deny being VOIP-based). Surely that puts them into an unfair competitive situation with other VOIP providers like Skype. If Rogers limits Skype users and keeps their own level of service on VOIP high, that seems clearly unfair.
I am especially revved up about this issue because my small and independent cable company (Aurora Cable Internet), that had provided me with years of unparalleled service, was bought by Rogers. I was “switched over” a few days ago and I am already noticing the difference in reliability and transfer speeds. I am paying top dollar for the biggest residential data pipe that Rogers offers and I feel like they have oversold me on the “maximum speeds”.
Here’s a nightmare scenario that some clever wag put together to show how scary ignoring net neutrality could become: