As bureaucrats and lobbyists debate the future of Net neutrality, the people who actually know how the Internet works are stuck on the sidelines.
The Net neutrality debate is a technical issue that most people in the United States view through a political and financial lens. The principle was coined a decade ago by Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School. It holds that Internet service providers (ISPs) and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, and not charge differently according to content, applications or other considerations for the source and destination of packets.
Political appointees on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are weighing extremely technical policy issues while being heavily lobbied by ISPs that want to make more money and Web content providers -- such as Google and Facebook -- that worry they will lose money. Network engineers, meantime, can only watch and worry.
"A major reason I am personally worried about the regulation is that the major players in the debate are lobbyists and former lobbyists that are now policy makers [who] will be lobbyists again [someday]," said Dale W. Carder, senior network engineer for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The Net neutrality debate "is one of those things where -- at least to me -- there is a very clear way to do this, but it's not necessarily the way that will make money for the people who own a lot of this stuff," said Nick Buraglio, network engineer at a global research network who has also worked for a large Midwestern university and a rural ISP.
Over the last 10 years, the Internet has become the equivalent of a utility, something that most households rely on for daily life, Buraglio said. "It's no luxury item. It's a utility just like electricity, just like a phone system, just like water," he said. "I know people who have bought homes or not bought homes based around whether they can get broadband access."
The reasons why Net neutrality is vulnerable today
Net neutrality has historically been sacrosanct because of the original peer-based nature of the Internet. In its early days, the Internet was a "patchwork of communities coming together with the intention of serving each other cooperatively," said Andrew von Nagy, a network engineer and a technology evangelist for a wireless infrastructure vendor. "The varied parties all had an interest in making the Internet work well.
"But the dynamics underneath the Internet have shifted," he continued. "We have gone toward a content consumption kind of society as opposed to the early days of the Internet when it was much more peer-to-peer, [when] it was mutually beneficial for all parties involved not to inhibit the growth of the Internet. We are seeing a lot more one-way traffic flow from content creators down to consumers, and we're seeing the dynamics of the underlying economy of the Internet shift. Now it's not mutually beneficial for everybody to just cooperatively work together. There are distinct differences and competition over who has control over different parts of the Internet. Broadband ISPs, who face very little competition, wield a lot more control and have more ability to wring money out of the system than content creators who have much more competition."
If the Internet is a utility and the economic forces that kept the Internet open are changing, should the federal government step in to protect that openness? The FCC's former chairman, Michael Powell, sent the country down a path of uncertainty when he declined to apply common-carrier (i.e. utility) status to ISPs under Title II of the 1934 Federal Communications Act. That decision weakened the FCC's ability to regulate the Internet and enforce Net neutrality. The FCC's previous attempt to enforce Net neutrality was struck down by a U.S. appellate court because of the common carrier issue.
In response, the FCC has published draft Net neutrality regulations, which would allow ISPs to charge customers and content providers for paid prioritization or "fast lane" treatment of traffic, as long as such prioritization is deemed "commercially reasonable." The FCC hasn't codified these regulations yet; they are open to public comment until September.
ISPs are monopolies and the public is vulnerable
In a totally unencumbered free market, something like the Net neutrality debate would work itself out, said Matthew Norwood, a network architect for a systems integrator. "If you're messing with your customer's traffic and that gets discovered, you better be prepared for the blowback."
Unfortunately, most ISPs don't operate in a true free market. Broadband providers might face competition from a DSL provider in a local market, but DSL offers a fraction of broadband's bandwidth. Verizon's FiOS fiber-to-the-home service has added pockets of competition, but FiOS expansion has stalled because the technology is expensive to install.
ISPs face very little competition due to decades of public policy. Local governments historically granted exclusive franchise rights in their communities to cable companies, the largest of which then evolved into ISPs. Those cable companies and ISPs have consolidated to the point where a handful of them have virtual monopolies over most of the country. Most residents of the country's largest city, New York, have only one option for broadband Internet: Time Warner. And Comcast, another massive ISP, has announced its intention to acquire Time Warner.
In this environment, the government needs to step in, some engineers say. "Any time the government helps you be successful as a business at the expense of competition, that's when I say the government has every right to suggest or tell you what the parameters are. If the government didn't help you, then I would take a hands-off approach and let the free market determine the winners and losers," Norwood said.
"I believe telecom and broadband access are basic necessities in today's information age -- as well as natural monopolies -- that require a good amount of regulation," von Nagy said. Without good regulation, von Nagy worries the Internet will become a closed ecosystem controlled by a couple of major broadband monopolies.
To read part two of this story click "Engineers envision a messy future if ISPs win Net neutrality debate."