Debating the Internet's Future

Debating the Internet's Future

Network Netrality graphic, Getty Images

Aspen Institute panelists agree on at least one thing: more bandwidth is better.

Author: Stewart Schley

Section 706 of the Communications Act may play a starring role. Drawing from traditional Internet peering practices may help solve tricky policy issues. Broad support for anti-blocking rules could be a rallying point.

But the best solution of all to the prickly task of assuring an open Internet may a simpler concept: more bandwidth.

That was one remedy that seemed to provoke general agreement during a debate about Internet regulation hosted by the Aspen Institute.

Here’s who was on the panel:

  • Jim Cicconi, senior executive vice president - external and legislative affairs, AT&T 
  • Anna-Maria Kovacs, visiting senior policy scholar, Georgetown University Center for Business and Public Policy
  • Blair Levin, Fellow, Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program
  • Chris Libertelli, vice president - Global Government Relations, Netflix
  • Anna Slomovic, visiting scholar, Center for International Science and Technology Policy
  • Tim Wu, professor of law, Columbia Law School

Levin, who oversaw development of the U.S. National Broadband Plan during the second of two stints at the FCC, commented that parsing the nuances of FCC regulatory authorization was like the Woody Allen parable about humankind being at the crossroads between despair and hopelessness on one side, and total annihilation on the other. “Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose wisely,” Allen quipped.

The point, said Levin, is that while the net neutrality debate continues to simmer, as it has for years, “why don’t we focus on just getting a lot more bandwidth in the system?” Doing so won’t eliminate contentiousness over content blocking, paid prioritization and favoritism, but it will “mitigate it greatly,” said Levin.

Levin is serious about the bandwidth idea. The former investment analysis is also Executive Director of Gig.U, the next-gen network research organization working with 30 U.S. universities to accelerate deployment of gigabit-speed networks. 

His point about the tension-easing contribution of greater Internet bandwidth drew support from AT&T’s Cicconi, who said improving network capacity and performance elevates the playing field for everyone. “We don’t think the idea of fast lanes and slow lanes is a good idea…the better investment to make is these increases in capacity to everybody,” Cicconi said. AT&T has announced it’s studying the possibility of building gigabit networks in up to 100 U.S. communities as it seeks to match or out-do rivals including cable companies and, in some cases, Google’s fiber network projects. 

The grand theory here is that creating more bandwidth does more to preserve an open and fair Internet than adopting an exhaustive rule set that conceivably may place conditions on everything from how Internet providers deliver end-user bandwidth to the way content providers connect to last-mile networks.

Scarcity issue

The controversial notion of a bifurcated Internet – fast lanes for some, reduced performance for others – is a bandwidth issue more so than a strategic focus, according to Cicconi. The idea of slowing down some traffic, if it happens at all, is most likely to happen because of scarcity – when providers feel pressure to ration capacity in some fashion, Cicconi said. But as a business strategy, the fast lane/slow lane idea is a non-starter. “We don’t think there’s a business there,” he said. “I don’t know what you’d sell.”

It was among many remarks from the AT&T policy advocate that seemed designed to ease concerns about potential bad behavior by Internet Service Providers in general, and AT&T in particular. Cicconi reminded listeners that AT&T is on record pledging to abide by rules of the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order, key parts of which were declared unlawful during January in a court challenge brought by Verizon. That ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit triggered the current FCC focus on restoring some form of network neutrality regulation. Among other things, the 2010 rules demanded transparency, prohibited blocking of lawful content and barred unreasonable discrimination to protect Internet openness. Even though the rules are now moot, AT&T and numerous ISPs say they’ll continue to honor them. And in the bigger picture, Cicconi said most big players in the game have a deep financial interest in an open Internet. “The most important thing is the major companies in this environment have made their business plans and investments based on a net neutrality environment…based on the 2010 rule, based on Internet principles.”

Cicconi thinks the FCC can craft new regulations preserving these norms by drawing on Section 706 of the 1996 Communications Act, which authorizes the commission to monitor Internet abuses on a case-by-case basis. (Although not everyone agrees this is a good idea.)

And not surprisingly, he’s against applying strict common-carrier style regulations to ISPs under the Title II classification provisions of the Communications Act of 1934.

The bigger controversy on the panel reflected goings-on farther up in the network, at the points where various participants in the global Internet firmament connect with one another. As Kovacs pointed, out, the Internet has long depended on “handshake” agreements between various network providers who hand traffic back and forth to one another. So long as there has been a relative balance between the amount of packets exchanged, providers have been content to accommodate each other’s needs. And as Kovacs said, this tradition of voluntary peering has allowed the Internet to thrive without the sort of cumbersome regulatory oversight and litigiousness that long haunted the public telephone system.

But as traffic patterns have become severely lopsided, with video a key culprit, interconnection has become increasingly contentious.

The poster child example is Netflix Inc.’s 2014 arrangement to pay a fee to Comcast, the largest U.S. retail Internet provider, for accepting and distributing Netflix streams with quality of service guarantees and for dedicating circuits exclusively to Netflix within Comcast’s data centers. Netflix claims the arrangement was necessary because Comcast had knowingly allowed Netflix streams to degrade, a charge Comcast has (quite vocally) denied

But the barb was tossed again during the Aspen Institute debate by Netflix’s Libertelli, who said Comcast “was congesting pathways to their network so they could charge us and other CDNs for access to their eyeballs.” The upshot: “We paid our way around congestion.”

How or whether the FCC will address these issues of traffic exchange and interconnection farther up in the network is one of the great unknowns of the net neutrality debate. A back-and-forth argument between Libertelli and Cicconi over how interconnection arrangements should work, and what role the government ought to have in overseeing them, exemplified the challenge here. Netflix thinks ISPs like Comcast and others are trying to rake in money from both ends of the Internet delivery chain – the content provider and the end customer alike. AT&T thinks it’s simple economics. “Somebody has to pay for the transmission of the traffic,” he said. He pointed out there’s precedent for it, considering Netflix and others have long relied on content delivery intermediaries like Cogent to speed the transmission of their packets to last-mile providers. “Netflix has been paying since its inception,” he said.

This tension between longstanding Internet practice and codifying behavior into the rule of law is a big part of the complexity of network neutrality. It’s visible even in the seemingly benign area of content blocking. With the exception of unlawful traffic like child pornography or illegal gambling, nobody thinks Internet providers should be in the business of blocking what users can access over the network.

Or do they? Here again, there’s precedent for blocking certain types of packets, even if it leans toward the benevolent. Think about network intelligence that sniffs out and blocks malware and spam, for example. Any new regulatory rule set will have to accommodate the need to selectively block certain traffic types, said Kovacs.

Central concern

All of this discussion flows from a central concern: that the Internet, at least in the U.S., is at risk of becoming a fiefdom where money and influence, more so than ideas and innovation, determine who gets to succeed. The debate over net neutrality, according to Wu, “sort of asks if the Internet is still the American frontier.”  His concern is whether "equal treatment over the last mile, particularly, gives companies a fair chance to compete on the merits as opposed to who has preferential treatment from the carrier.”

But this is complicated terrain, as Slomovic pointed out, because there is a long history of prioritization of certain packets over others. The common practice of co-locating Internet servers within the facilities of last-mile carriers, a staple of the Content Delivery Network trade, can be construed as a form of preferential treatment, she argued. “The fact is, even now, the Internet is not neutral in that way…If we go to some form of net neutrality, do we want to change the way the network operates?”

Wu, however, devoted most of his commentary to the last-mile component of the Internet. He’s especially concerned about what he calls a “terminating monopoly,” referring to what he regards as a captive relationship between an end user and an Internet provider. Because this relationship is (usually) a singular one – in other words, there is no alternative choice at the time of connection for receiving Internet packets from another provider – the provider has inordinate power to determine what content may or may not flow to the customer during that session.

And here again, not everyone agrees:

Wu doesn’t disagree with the idea that more bandwidth is a good thing from a net neutrality context. But he answered an audience member’s question about the “terminating monopoly” concept by saying that new regulations should be mindful of the danger of encouraging network congestion as a business leverage point. For instance, ISPs could profit by charging content providers for preferred treatment, leaving others mired in congestion. “More bandwidth is as American as apple pie,” said the originator of the “network neutrality” phrase. “The questions are what are the incentives to get you there?”

Wu doesn’t disagree with the idea that more bandwidth is a good thing from a net neutrality context. But he answered an audience member’s question about the “terminating monopoly” concept by saying that new regulations should be mindful of the danger of encouraging network congestion as a business leverage point. For instance, ISPs could profit by charging content providers for preferred treatment, leaving others mired in congestion. “More bandwidth is as American as apple pie,” said the originator of the “network neutrality” phrase. “The questions are what are the incentives to get you there?”