Net Neutrality: Paying the Piper

There's a huge amount of noise surrounding proposed legislation now in Congress that addresses so-called "Net neutrality." Like so many things these days, this catchy term means different things to different people, vastly complicating the debate.

There are several different issues marching under the banner of Net neutrality, but the one getting the most attention is the idea that the Internet will, in effect, be split into a fast lane and a slow lane, and anyone wanting to travel in the fast lane will have to pay for the privilege. What makes the idea complex -- and odd -- is that websites will have to pay extra for high-speed delivery, but users won't have to pay extra for high-speed delivery.

From a technical perspective, it doesn't take much bandwidth to post a 100 megabyte video to a website. What does eat up a lot of bandwidth is when 10 million people download that video. If we are truly trying to rationalize the use of Internet resources, it makes sense to charge users, not website operators. Indeed, in the model currently proposed, website operators are effectively being penalized for posting desirable, free content on the web, which doesn't strike me a good public policy.

The other part of the discussion that confuses me is that website operators already pay extra for faster delivery. That's why a website owner expecting a large volume of traffic hooks up with an ISP with massive amounts of bandwidth, and generally pays extra for the privilege. Bigger pipes mean better throughput, and you pay extra for the privilege of having access to them. In addition, many website operators pay substantial amounts to so-called "edge networks" to gain distributed delivery of their content to improve delivery speeds.

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Further, every ISP agreement places a limit on the number of bytes transferred by a website operator per month, an excellent proxy for bandwidth consumption. Generate too much traffic and you'll need to pay your ISP more or risk getting cut off for the balance of the month. In short, there are already ways for a website owner to get faster delivery of their content, and there are already economic constraints in place to discourage a website operator from abusing Internet bandwidth resources. However you look at it, website owners are already paying the piper.
As far as I can tell, it seems the phone and cable companies are now saying "we want to be pipers too." If you want access to the Internet, you buy a data line that you can use to your heart's content for a flat monthly fee. ISP's do exactly the same thing; they just resell this bandwidth to their customers. So it's not as if the cable and phone companies aren't getting paid exactly the amount they ask. Rather, it seems they are regretting the revenue model they have chosen because it limits their revenue opportunity.

So here's my take on the Net neutrality debate: the people who own the pipes have now decided that they deserve to be pipers. Why? Because as everybody knows, you've got to pay the piper.