Is your broadband unusably slow in the evening because your neighbours are using BitTorrent, and are you happy about that? Do you struggle to get a mobile phone connection because they’re live-streaming TV? And now that we’re entering the age when mobile phone networks are used for health and safety monitoring, is it acceptable for some people to die so that everyone else can do whatever they like on the net? Yes, yes, and yes?
If you wavered from the path of unregulated Internet use, you have failed the “network neutrality” test and some people think you’re against freedom and democracy. But while we tend to think of network neutrality as an American issue, it’s one that also concerns everyone in Europe.
Ofcom, which regulates the British communications industry, is running a consultation on Traffic management or 'net neutrality', and it wants your views. Online submissions close at 5pm on September 9.
The consultation could lead to changes in the way our Internet service providers handle traffic. We could get “net neutrality” along the lines established by America’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1996, which basically rules that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. At the other extreme, ISPs could prioritise certain types of traffic, charge extra for carrying it, or even block it altogether. They could split their bandwidth, offering some users a fast-flowing but expensive virtual network while restricting the free and open Internet to a dribble.
An ISP could, for example, charge the BBC for carrying iPlayer traffic and block BitTorrent traffic. Our open, creative Internet could soon turn into something like a cable TV network with closely controlled “channels” at different prices. And startups like Twitter would struggle because they’d be hit by high traffic costs before they had figured out how to make money out of having millions of users. These are the sorts of things that horrify net neutrality supporters.
All this is coming to a head for two reasons. First, Internet traffic is growing much faster than ISPs can increase their carrying capacities. Streaming video consumes vast amounts of bandwidth, and it’s growing fast.
Second, as more people buy smartphones, the voice-oriented mobile phone networks are turning into Internet data networks. Mobile networks started with much smaller capacities than the ISPs, and can’t easily increase them: they’re going to hit the wall first.
This is what the recent Google-Verizon announcement was about. It explicitly recognises that wireless networks like Verizon’s are different and therefore should not be held to the same principles.
The net neutrality mavens take the view that wired and wireless networks are just different parts of the same Internet, so the Google-Verizon proposal is a betrayal of Google’s previous support for net neutrality.
The problem is that, in reality, wireless networks have different problems, and AT&T popped up to say so. It sees “insatiable demand” pitted against finite shared resources that not even 4G networks such as LTE will be able to handle. AT&T can and does split cells into smaller and smaller units to increase capacity, but Americans who want better mobile broadband don’t necessarily want a new radio mast outside their window.
In fact, net neutrality doesn’t even work on landline networks. All ISPs do “traffic management” and some do “traffic shaping” just to keep data moving on their congested networks. And when ISPs prioritise traffic, it makes sense to hit one person who is using an "unfair" system like BitTorrent in favour of 49 people who are reading blogs, sending emails, playing games or watching YouTube videos.
The problem is that all data networks are, like public roads, shared resources. They are built and sold on the basis that most people won’t use them most of the time. For consumer broadband, the “contention ratio” is 50-to-1, while for business broadband services it’s 20-to-1. This implies that, if you’re a home user, you’ll use a fiftieth of your local network capacity. If 50 people want to use the network at the same time, usually on Friday evening, the system can’t cope.