January 24, 2014

Net Neutrality: Why Open Access Should Not Mean Free Access

Net neutrality is a term coined to define the principle that Internet service providers should provide equal access to all content and applications regardless of the source.  It is also a topic that is debated with all the fervor of a religious debate.  According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), net neutrality must be preserved so that consumers "are free to decide what lawful content they want to access, create, or share with others."    Nearly everyone can agree that freedom of choice to access lawful content is a basic human right.  Most would also agree that we need continued investment and innovation to evolve the Internet.  

However, the debate gets heated when deciding if Internet access should be a free service or even a universal service.  Before I address some of the more technology related issues, let me disclose my bias in this debate.  I contend that open access is not the same thing as free access, and someone needs to pay for Internet access and the core IP infrastructure to be built.  The concept of "universal service" was introduced by regulation when the PSTN was built to assure that everyone in the U. S. who wanted a phone at home could have a phone; I also believe that the Internet access should NOT be regulated as a universal service.    That said, open access to the Internet is critical to everyone given that we use the Internet to communicate, for commerce, to learn, and even to improve personal safety and security and open access must be maintained.

What most concerns me is how to guarantee open access that is affordable, because the promised growth of video (entertainment and video communications) will eventually overwhelm the Internet without continued investment.  

According to a recent Sandvine report, nearly one third of peak hour Internet traffic in the U. S. is generated by Netflix.  The Cisco VNI study predicts that "globally, consumer Internet video traffic will be 69 % of all consumer Internet traffic in 2017 [and] Wi-Fi and mobile-connected devices will generate 68% of Internet traffic by 2017." Obviously, enterprises have access to their own virtual private networks (typically an MPLS-based VPN); however, when employees are "off net" they use the Internet for access.  Many businesses also use the Internet in lieu of a VPN to save the costs of a private network connection.  

The Internet was built as a "best effort" service. The FCC equal access principles maintain that traffic on the Internet should not be favored or disfavored because of a given source, destination, content, or application.   As a result, Internet service providers typically can only charge for service based on speed tiers and they impose a usage cap to discourage "bandwidth hogs." By contrast, enterprise IP services offer class of service / quality of service tiers in addition to speed tiers, with service level guarantees offered for premium service levels. 

What I think makes sense is for service providers to be allowed to continue to offer a "best effort" Internet service, just like they offer best effort VPN service classes today.  But I also believe that Internet service providers (ISPs) should be given the option to offer class of service tiers with premium prices to those who want to pay for them.  Some may suggest that this would leave the "best effort" class behind those who can afford to pay for premium services, but based on the investments and revenues that ISPs have made to date, it seems unlikely that they would abandon those customers who only a best effort service.

I also believe that we should allow "toll free" data and other innovate billing models that encourage further investment.  For example, AT&T recently introduced a Sponsored Data service, which lets businesses pay for AT&T mobile customers' data usage for particular applications. Among the potential benefits of such a billing option: businesses with BYOD policies could pay for the data that employees use to connect to their corporate apps/services, including mobile video conferencing.  However, even this innovation may be subject to regulatory review.  Within days of the AT&T announcements, the FCC Chairman commented, saying "It may well be that the kind of offering AT&T has announced enables increased competition and increased efficiency--both things that benefit consumers. It is not the sort of thing that should be prohibited out of hand. But, again, history instructs us that not all new proposals have been benign. There has to be some ability on the part of government to oversee, to assess, and, if warranted, to intervene."  

A recent U. S. District Court of Appeals ruling that found the FCC had overstepped its authority on net neutrality regulation; however, the decision is sure to be appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court and it may come back to the U. S. Congress to decide on Internet policy and regulation.  But the only clear outcome so far on the regulatory policy so far is that the debate over net neutrality will continue for years to come.  

If you'd like to add your opinion, please feel free to join the debate by adding your comments on the entry link found on this page. 


I read this article with interest hoping to see a rational commentary on the topic but felt the author left out some important items.

It was mentioned that ISP's could offer a higher level of service, specifically, "class of service / quality of service tiers" but failed to mention for those to work the provider at the other end of the link must support them as well. It is possible some would but it's a chicken and egg scenario on who would move to this higher service and cost first.

Regarding the Netflix traffic, I believe Level 3 was the selected provider for the company and other ISP's complain about carrying this "foreign" traffic. If AT&T had been selected you wouldn't hear a peep out of them but would Level 3. Sounds like sour grapes to me. Maybe Netflix should have multiple providers so each ISP has direct access to their servers. Not discussed was Netflix's offer to install caching servers at no charge in ISP facilities to cut down on the bandwidth and most rejected that offer. That would compete with the ISP's own video offerings.

Finally, the most important fact that is left out of discussions like this is the customer pays for their access. it is not a free service. So when ISP's complain about Google or Netflix getting a "free" ride on their networks and want providers to pay "their fair share" all they really want is more money for doing nothing but the promise to complain less. Take Time Warner Cable and their Road Runner service. In TWC's annual report they show their costs for data access going down each year but poor mouth to justify an increase in prices. (Page 63 of the Time Warner Cable 2012 Annual Report.)

I also disagree with the opinion of the author's "toll free" billing models. ISP's getting paid twice for the same service and the customer will be footing the bill is not a good solution.

Yes, the arguments will go on for quite a while. That I do agree with.

As a clarification on the "toll-free" billing model, it is my understanding that this would be primarily for services delivered via a metered model, such as a cellular service. In this case, rather than the MBs or GBs used being charged against your device, they would be "free" data. So the ISP would not be paid twice.

However, it would seem to me that (without complex settlement arrangements between ISPs) the "toll free" service would have to be provided on an arrangement where the service being offered and the consumer are using the same ISP. For instance, XYZ ISP could offer an enhanced movie option where subscribing to the movie service includes the data to deliver that movie.

As Larry mentioned in the article in a different context, an enterprise might choose to have "toll free" access for BYOD users. Again, this works only so long as the device is on the same ISP.

“Sponsored data” is similar to a toll free phone number businesses commonly use for incoming voice calls. The business pays AT&T for the data session, and the data session appears on the consumer’s bill as “sponsored data” that does not count usage against the consumer’s data plan. AT&T does not plan to treat this Internet traffic any differently that other best effort services; it will travel at the same speed and the same priority as other Internet traffic on AT&T’s network. So Steve is correct with his analysis of the AT&T sponsored data plans.

When the plan was discussed recently at an AT&T developer’s conference, one large health insurance company envisioned using the plan to provide patient healthcare support such as wellness videos on a subscriber’s AT&T mobile device. Similarly, a florist had plans to implement “toll free” online shopping from the AT&T mobile device by paying for any mobile data charges associated with the customer’s order.

Your point is well taken that service classes might be affected once the user’s session leaves their own Internet Service Provider (ISP) network. For example, if I use a cable provider for my Internet access and the streaming video I want to watch is stored on a third-party network, congestion on that distant network or on the video server could affect my performance guarantees. However, this barrier could be overcome by intercarrier service contracts, much the same way carriers today negotiate with others to offer service level agreements (SLAs) that include multiple carriers. MPLS networks and performance management tool can help carriers manage and enforce traffic priorities in an Internet session just like they manage performance in a virtual private network today.

ISPs could also cache popular applications and content in their own network, subject to authorized digital rights management; for example, my cable operator could contract with Netflix to store the Netflix library as a way offer better performance management.

Of course, we know that nothing in life is guaranteed (except death and taxes), so just like we use compensation in business SLAs, a consumer SLA should spell out what happens when consumer performance guarantees aren’t met. In exchange for these performance guarantees and value added services, those consumers who buy premium for access should be expected to pay a premium price, and these premiums could be used by the carriers to pay for the costs of extra capacity, performance management tools, and intercarrier SLA management.

Thanks for your comments!

The first paragraph of this article conveys a solid idea with which I can find no fault. However, when switching to "Why Open Access Should Not Mean Free Access", the clarity ended.

--"However, the debate gets heated when deciding if Internet access should be a free service or even a universal service."--
--"I contend that open access is not the same thing as free access, and someone needs to pay for Internet access and the core IP infrastructure to be built."--
I apologize if I misunderstand but, this reads as though you actually believe someone thinks internet access should be free, as in no-cost. Although I am aware many have wished their internet service was cheaper, I have never talked to a single person who believes internet access should be without cost.

[Ed Note: This content has been edited slightly for clarity and length.]

Nations, and indeed the whole international community have proposed several ways to regulate the Internet. For example, some have suggested that Internet access is a human right like access to water or education, and that governments should provide it as a free service; however, this attitude is more prevalent outside the United states than in other countries. Others have suggested it should be an affordable and “universal service”, much like access to the PSTN is regulated as a universal service. Some have suggested that public Wi-Fi hot spots should be abundant and free, whereas others have gone so far as to suggest that every home should have a 1Gbps connection.

I’m not convinced that Internet access should be regulated as a universal service, and I certainly don’t advocate that access should be free of charge to every home. However, I do think it is reasonable for governments to offer free public Internet access through schools, libraries, and (if they can afford it) through public Wi-Fi access.

As I mentioned in the full article, we use the Internet to communicate with others, and to encourage a free flow of uncensored information so I do believe that access to lawful information and communications should be allowed. However, Internet network resources are not infinite. Today, we rely on usage caps and network congestion to meter out fair use, and I suggest that we need a more equitable way to manage and distribute limited network resources. ISPs can always raise their rates to pay for investments needed to support streaming HD video users or ultra HD interactive games, but I think a “pay for play” model may be more equitable when it comes to pricing Internet access for entertainment.

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