Tagged: net neutrality

Defend Net Neutrality…Again

John Oliver did it again. Two nights ago, on Last Week Tonight, he covered net neutrality, explaining it in an accessible way, and advocating everyone to visit the FCC’s website to comment on the proposed rules.

As he explained on the show and what should not come as a surprise given the corporate lapdog that now runs the FCC, commenting on the proposed rules to revoke net neutrality regulation is a lot harder than before. But the Last Week Tonight producers made it easy to comment. They mapped the domain name http://gofccyourself.com to the comment form. (Deep linking FTW!)

While Oliver explains a lot of reasons why net neutrality is important, it might be better to see this from the perspective of Title I vs. Title II. Oliver offered to contrast it, but the explanation comparing the difference between the two didn’t materialize. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to think about Title I vs. Title II in these terms:

  • Title I is an information service. A cable company operates under Title I because the cable company curates the channel lineup and offers a package of television channels. Users have little choice in what channels they get, aside from choosing a tier of channels.
  • Title II is a common carrier utility. A landline telephone company operates under Title II because it doesn’t not select or curate your phone calls. It simply connects one telephone to another.

Most of us think of our Internet service provider as a common carrier. We subscribe to one ISP versus another based on a few factors: upload and download speeds, reliability, and price. We don’t do so because of “exclusive content” or any synergistic nonsense like that. With any ISP, we expect to reach any website, connect any device, and run almost any application.

On the other hand, we think of major platforms on the Internet, such as Facebook or Google, as an information service. However, no one relies on only one of these platforms. Remember when Facebook partnered with HTC to make a “Facebook Phone?” It was a disaster because no one wants to live in this walled garden, even if we might spend a lot of time there.

We have only had net neutrality for two years, but we must keep it because we don’t want our Internet service providers to become an information service.

When an ISP acts like an information service, we get something like we had with America Online (AOL). Today, most people shudder when I mention AOL because think of slow dialup connections and the shrieking modem-handshake sound. But honestly, what made AOL so bad was that it was your internet service provider and your content provider, and while it was easy to use, it was really bad. It was not only a walled garden, like Facebook today, but unlike Facebook, you paid by-the-hour while you were on AOL. I don’t think any consumer wants to go back to these days.

AOL CD 700 Free Hours

You don’t want to know how much you had to pay after AOL’s free 700 hours.

The same is true for wireless. The iPhone was revolutionary, not only as a mobile computing device, but because Apple insisted that it have complete control over the hardware: the wireless carrier could not install any software nor brand the phone. The iPhone was a success in part because Apple relegated AT&T to the role of a wireless common carrier, keeping them from acting like an information service.

I certainly remember this was not the case with some of my old phones, such as a Sprint-branded phone that I got in 2001, that came with the “wireless web.” It was basically an AOL-like service provided by Sprint that had local weather, news, and sports scores. It sucked. The only redeeming feature of this service was that it allowed you to enter a URL, and there were a handful of sites that offered mobile WAP sites, largely because of the success of Palm handhelds.

Sprint PCS Wireless Web, circa 2001

This was the Web on a Sprint PCS Wireless Phone, circa 2001.

The one thing that Pai gets right about “net neutrality” is that is a confusing term. But in this case, let there be no confusion. Internet service providers are by their very nature common carriers. That’s how they market themselves, that’s why consumers subscribe to one ISP versus another, and that’s how the Internet as we know it has flourished in the last decade and a half. Moving ISPs to Title I—as information services—will invite those ISPs to become gatekeepers and walled gardens that stymie innovation. Let’s not go back to the days when “surfing the web” meant scrolling through a mobile “wireless web” browser’s menu or, heaven forbid, entering AOL keywords.

Tell Chairman Pai: Go FCC Yourself-dot-Com!

Take the Internet Health Test

The Attorney General of New York, Eric Schneiderman, has been on a populist mission lately. Not only has he essentially banned the daily fantasy sports sites from New York state, he was also been an advocate for access the Internet. Earlier this year, he hired Timothy Wu—the professor at the Columbia School of Law, coiner of the phrase “network neutrality,” disenchanted United Airlines passenger, and author of one of my favorite books on media technologies—as a special advisor on “technology, competition, and internet policy and legal issues.”

The New York Attorney General’s office is asking the public to test its broadband speeds to determine whether customers are getting the advertised speeds to all network services.

The test measures the connection to several different CDNs to determine whether those connections are “healthy” enough to be considered “network neutral.” If a connection to a particular CDN is consistently too fast (or too slow), it could lead investigators to learn whether an ISP is deliberately accelerating traffic to its partners or debilitating the throughput as an anti-competitive measure.

Unlike voting, you are encouraged to take this test frequently to help provide the AG’s office with more data on the health of those connections.

Take the Internet Health Test

HBO Now and the Technology We Need

Monday’s Apple event wasn’t just about an ultralight notebook computer that I really want and a watch that I don’t. There were also two announcements regarding television that were quite interesting.1

  1. The price for the current Apple TV dropped to $69. This third-generation model has been on the market since 2012 and was available for $99 as recently as this past weekend. I imagine that this is an intermediate move on Apple’s part. There are clearly better options for OTT streaming devices, even for die-hard Apple nerds, and I would hope Apple plans to release an improved version in the near future for the $70 same price. (Or not… what do I know?)
  2. HBO Now will launch exclusively on Apple devices for $15 per month. In some ways, this move is big because it marks the first time HBO is available without a multichannel TV subscription and could be a threat to multichannel TV as we know it. Consumers begged HBO to offer something like this, and now we know that it will be a full-featured service, not a crippled version that only the pay TV subscribers get.

In my most recent New Media class, I addressed the second announcement as an example of a technology adapting to our needs. We were discussing how social network sites were great for, you know, networking socially. Facebook has been great for sharing with your nearby friends, distant classmates, and obsessively doting relatives. After a while, though, we learned that our unsavory activities, such as our party pics, can be found by a potential employer, a college recruiter, or that human you are trying to date. The sharing aspect of Facebook is great, but the permanence is not. So, we now have something like Snapchat, and that is where we share indiscriminately because of its evanescence. We found a technology that better suited a particular need.

HBO Now is intended to provide stream HBO to those without pay TV subscriptions. But a lot of people I know already stream HBO programming with HBO Go. They just use someone else’s credentials to access it. As intrepid cord cutters, we already figured out how to get the product we need without HBO offering it. I’m not going to guess whether HBO Now is going to succeed. It could be a decade-long lifeline as iTunes was for the music industry or it could be as negligible as News Corp making an iPad-native Daily newsmagazine.

The Technology We Deserve

Net Neutrality plays an important role with this OTT service. Chris Morran at Consumerist speculates about the power of an ISP without net neutrality rules, where one could theoretically “throttle HBO Now while still allowing HBO Go to get through at full speed, effectively saying that the only way to get a decent HBO streaming service is if you have a cable package.” But with net neutrality rules, the two services should operate at the same level of performance. I won’t need to have my TV polluted with reality TV shows and shitty reruns in order to watch The Wire in 1080p.

The only not-neutral thing about the HBO Now service is that it will initially launch on only Apple devices, such as Apple TV, iPad, and iPhone. Roku, Amazon Fire, and Chromecast users will have to miss out on Game of Thrones until midsummer. Perhaps Mark Cuban was right when he said that we shouldn’t worry about the power of ISPs and that instead we should “worry about Google and Apple” because they make the operating systems of our mobile devices.

The Technology We Don’t Need

A few years ago, only the most devoted Internet libertarians were cognizant of that an ISP could potentially throttle or block a service it didn’t “like.” Today, even casual Internet users are skeptical about the control their ISP could potentially wield. For example, after the HBO Now announcement, Comcast subscribers were unable to access the http://hbonow.com website. It turns out that it was a technical problem caused by a DNS issue on HBO’s part, not some sinister shenanigans at the hands of Comcast. But because everyone hates their cable companies and because Comcast is as big as a cable company gets, the Internet reflexively blamed Comcast.

https://twitter.com/Peekaso/status/575110519369129984

It’s hard to shed a tear for Comcast though. As I mentioned earlier, when a technology fails to meet our needs or desires, we move on to something else. Cable television as we know it evolved from two converging technologies: Community Antenna TV and satellite cable.2 CATV was a demand-side technology. Starting in the 1940s, CATV operators piped TV signals to TV set owners living in areas where an over-the-air signal wasn’t available. CATV was almost a necessity for people living in a valley, such as in rural Pennsylvania, or in densely populated and overbuilt area, such as Manhattan, because the terrain blocked the radio signals necessary for TV reception. Satellite cable, on the other hand, was a supply-side technology. Beginning in the 1970s, it allowed national distribution for emerging television channels, such as Ted Turner’s WTBS-TV in Atlanta and the Manhattan-based Home Box Office. In both cases, CATV and satellite cable—eventually merging as the modern cable TV industry—enabled TV viewers to get what the broadcasters were failing to provide them. Today, however, the cable companies are the ones failing to provide us what we want, and that’s why we’ve migrated to something that does.

And, I’m sorry, Apple. As of right now, I still can’t figure out why I need a smartwatch.


  1. All that health stuff was not interesting. 
  2. Read Megan Mullen, The Rise of Cable Programming in the United States: Revolution or Evolution? (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003) for a great account of the evolution of the cable TV indusry. 

Title II > Title I

It’s been an exciting week for Internet advocacy in the United States. To put it in crude, succinct, and kinda androcentric-and-infantilizing terms, the Federal Communications Commission grew a pair and ruled to…

  1. regulate ISPs as a Title II Common Carrier instead of a Title I Information Service Provider.
  2. prohibit restrictions against community broadband, such as those in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, where they get faster and cheaper Internet access than in New York City.

Everyone has gone gaga over the first ruling, but I think the second one is just as crucial. Why? If net neutrality is “Obamacare for the Internet,” community broadband is the “public option” we didn’t get with the Affordable Care Act. It subjects commercial ISPs to competition that is primarily concerned with serving its citizens rather than enriching its shareholders.

The commercial ISPs have complained that if they were subject to Title II common carriage regulation, they would be less inclined to invest in their infrastructure. They would be less likely to expand access, and they would be less likely to increase broadband speeds in the coming years. In other words, they would act like a telecommunications monopoly with little incentive to improve their product. Guess what? They already behave that way.

Most of the country lacks access to viable broadband. For many of those who do have access, they face a Hobson choice when selecting Internet service providers. As for average broadband speeds, at 11.5 Mbps, the United States is hardly in the lead. We rank somewhere between Taiwan (9.5 Mbps) and Singapore (12.2 Mbps) among Asian nations and between Israel (11.4 Mbps) and Finland (11.7 Mbps) among EMEA nations.1

Throughout the twentieth century, AT&T, the telephone monopoly in the US, improved the technology to connect local and long-distance calls more efficiently, but the end-product was more or less unchanged for seven decades. AT&T held a monopoly over US telephone service beginning in 1913, under the Kingsbury Commitment, until 1984, when it was forced to fragment and sell its local exchanges into seven regional Baby Bells. In that time, there were very few functional improvements to the telephone receiver.

Comparing two receivers—one from the 1930s and one from the 1980s—it’s hard to tell what specific improvements there were. Both receivers consisted of a dial and a corded handset, and you could have one in any color you wanted… as long as you wanted black. Why was there no speakerphone? Where is the touchtone keypad? Why couldn’t someone put a call on hold or mute the receiver? If someone missed a call, why couldn’t the phone indicate so with a notification? And, why could someone not walk around any further than the length of the receiver’s cord?

Carterphone

The Carterphone from the late 1960s allowed telephone users to bypass the telephone cord.

The key reason why AT&T did not innovate and improve its product for the consumer was not because it was closely regulated as a utility and that it had to provide universal access, it was because it was a monopoly and no had little incentive to innovate. It was not until the 1980s that consumers were finally able to connect foreign attachments to their telephones, such as answering machines and modems, purchase their own phones, including cordless and touchtone devices, and choose their own long-distance telephone provider and calling plan.

Touchtone telephone

Touchtone “dialing” finally arrives in the 1980s. Was that really so hard?

In other words, with viable competition in underserved markets, commercial ISPs will be forced to, in the words of countless entrepreneurial free-marketeers, “innovate or die.”

Updated because the new WordPress for iOS app turned my Markdown into HTML. Yuck.


  1. This is based on Akamai’s State of the Internet report for the third quarter of 2014. http://www.akamai.com/dl/akamai/akamai-soti-q314-infographic.pdf 

Lapdogs Unite Against Net Neutrality

Next Thursday will be a big day for telecommunications policy in the United States. The FCC is scheduled to vote on whether it will reclassify broadband Internet service as a common-carrier utility (Title II) instead of its current destination as an information service (Title I). Classifying broadband as a utility would allow the FCC to enforce regulations aimed at prohibiting discriminatory and preferential treatment of Internet traffic. In short, under Title II, the FCC could institute and enforce net neutrality rules for an open Internet.

Because these rules threaten the status quo of telecommunications companies, particularly the MVPD (“cable companies”) that dominate the broadband market in the United States, there is an offensive designed to turn public opinion against net neutrality.

One unexpected place for this anti–net neutrality discourse came from the FCC itself. Earlier today, the FCC posted a press release on its website titled “What People Are Saying About President’s Plan to Regulate The Internet.” The document is a selection of quotes that oppose net neutrality, characterizing it as a regulatory burden on the innovative broadband industry.

According to some veteran communication lawyers who monitor the FCC, it is unprecedented for the FCC to release a preemptive, partisan position, such as this one, especially since this is a collage of quotes rather than an actual announcement. Press releases are intended to give news agencies content to reproduce or adapt for their publications. By releasing a series of quotes without any background, this release could serve as the basis for anti–net neutrality news articles, in the coming days, on the eve this potentially historic vote. This is especially troubling since, under the banner of the FCC, it sounds like a quasi official endorsement of these positions. Moreover, the title of the release includes references to “people,” giving the position a folksy, common-sense tone, and to the “president’s plan to regulate the Internet,” which not only sounds like a top-down executive decision but also a push to impose burdensome regulations on “our Internet.”

If this language–of President Obama threatening free-enterprise with regulation–sounds like a tired-old Republican talking point, that’s because opposing net neutrality is a tired old Republican position.

The FCC has five commissioners, each is appointed by the president. In order to ensure some political balance, no more than three commissioners can be from the president’s political party. The source of the press release referenced above is Brendan Carr, a staffer for Commissioner Ajit Pai. Commissioner Pai is one of the two FCC Republican-party commissioners and a net-neutrality opponent.

Another one of Commissioner Pai’s staffers, Matthew Berry, has been active on Twitter promoting Pai’s appearances on conservative talk shows decrying net neutrality and also childishly referring to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as a lapdog. for following the call of President Obama—and nearly four million comments from the public—to reclassify the Internet as a utility.

Even former chairman Robert McDowell (yes, another Republican) has chimed in comparing Obama’s push for net neutrality to the actions of Saudi and Russian dictators. Throughout his seven-year tenure at the FCC, he dogmatically opposed communications policies like net neutrality, universal access, and reviving the Fairness Doctrine. It’s nice to see he has been keeping busy since stepping down from the Commission in 2013.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve last lived with a dog—a small Tibetan Spaniel named Capella—but I think I know what a corporate lapdog looks like.

Update: The press release now indicates that it was issued from the office of Commissioner Ajit Pai.

Why Streaming Media Buffers and Why It’s Better To Take the Train

This week, FlowTV has a great lineup of articles on digital media. One noteworthy post comes from Kevin Hamilton, who distinguishes the difference between throughput and latency as the components of broadband. He compares throughput to traffic moving on a roadway. As a highway can only carry so many cars in a given amount of time, a broadband connection can only carry so many megabits per second. Once that limit is exceeded, there’s congestion, which we colloquially call “traffic.”

The second part of broadband is latency, which he compares to pneumatic tubes. Although he abandons the highway metaphor because he didn’t find it fit his understanding of latency, the pneumatic tube example didn’t work for me. As I’ve always understood it, latency is the delay in starting a transfer. Perhaps, if we could go back to the highway metaphor, latency could be compared to those traffic signals at freeway on-ramps that I remember seeing as a child in Los Angeles. (If you are driving with one or more passengers, you can bypass the signal, but who would ever do that?) At any rate, you can’t travel on the highway until you actually get on the road. Incidentally, the purpose of the signal is to reduce highway congestion, but I don’t think it makes anyone’s overall trip any faster.

Carpool Lane On Ramp with Traffic Signal

Planes Are Fast… Sometimes

Speaking of transportation metaphors, my favorite way of comparing latency and throughput is in terms of airline travel. It can take hours to move a few miles to get started on your trip. For example, you take a taxi to the airport, wait in line to get check a bag (if you still do that), clear security, wait for your flight to begin boarding, board the plane and get to your seat, wait for the flight crew to secure the aircraft, and wait for your pilot to queue up for take-off. At the end of all that, you’re finally airborne. All that waiting is latency, and it’s why it’s much faster to take a train to Philadelphia from New York than to fly there, unless you’re just traveling from one airport to another.

Throughput, on the other hand, is the time you’re in the air, en route to your destination. In airline travel, that’s relatively fast, but as anyone who flies in and around New York knows, there’s plenty of congestion which slows your travel time. And because so many flights go through New York, it wreaks havoc on the nation’s air traffic. The same thing happens in inclement weather in other airports, such fog in San Francisco and snow in Chicago. In those cases, the capacity of each airport diminishes because fewer flights can get through.

Not Net Neutrality

Understanding these terms help explain the recent Netflix-Comcast agreement that some critics hailed as the death knell to net neutrality, but as I wrote here some months ago, the agreement has little to do with net neutrality. Thompson explains that it was not a preferred throughput lane that Netflix bought, instead it moved into a crash pad closer to the airport.

By most technical accounts (and even these may still be wrong), the recent agreement between Comcast and Netflix seems to have addressed a throughput problem through an effort at latency reduction. Where many net neutrality advocates worried that Netflix was paying Comcast to give them faster throughput, the agreement is more oriented around removing a middle agent that was introducing latency into the system. Cogent, the company that transported Netflix data to Comcast for delivery to consumers, was not keeping up with demand – not enough staff in the tube transfer room, so to speak – so Netflix worked out a deal to tie their system more integrally to Comcast’s.

Another way of thinking about it was that Netflix cut out some steps towards getting on the plane. It no longer checks a bag, it got PreCheck to go through security faster, and it maybe even gets a ride on a Mercedes right up to the aircraft. Oh, and it always fly nonstop. All that makes the trip faster, cutting down on latency, but it doesn’t get you to the next airport any faster because as far as we know, the Netflix-Comcast peering agreement doesn’t include increased throughput.

At least, not yet.

Not Neutrality

It’s been a busy month for those of us who love streaming video and are suspicious of the cable or telco companies that function as our broadband providers.

First, there was the announcement that Comcast is acquiring Time Warner Cable to increase its position as the largest provider of multichannel video and broadband Internet in the United States. Second, Netflix released the second season of House of Cards over President’s Day weekend led to some quality of service issues for Verizon customers in the Washington, DC area. It was such a popular story that it was the basis of a sales pitch for a Roku Streaming Media player, warning that the days of streaming video might be numbered. Third, over the weekend, a Comcast announced that it had struck an interconnection agreement with Netflix. All of this news comes within the context of a DC district court ruling that the FCC lacks the authority to enforce net neutrality rules over wired Internet service providers.

Dan Rayburn, who writes for the insightful Streaming Media blog, takes issue with the coverage of the Netflix-Comcast deal.

Many of these same people are also implying that because Netflix has to pay Comcast, consumers will foot the bill for this as Netflix will have to charge more for their service. This could not be further from the truth. Those stating this have no clue how Netflix delivers their content today or what costs they already incur. If they did, they would know this is not a new cost to Netflix, it’s simply paying a different provider, and it should be at a lower cost. It should actually be cheaper for Netflix to buy direct from Comcast, and they also get an SLA, which also improves quality and that’s a good thing.

Netflix and Comcast: Get a Room

I’m still trying to figure this out, but it appears that with this agreement, Netflix connects its own routers with Comcast’s. That obviates the need for Netflix to use and pay a third-party content delivery network, such as Cogent or Level3, to route its traffic directly to the ISP. Instead, Netflix will have a direct connection to the Comcast’s pipes and to its broadband customers.

One of the crazy facts about the Internet is that is very much like the telegraph network of a century and a half ago. Yes, both disrupted our conceptions of space and time, but they also share two technical details: both are based on a binary code, and both rely on relays for interconnection. Almost every single transaction you do on the Internet is converted to binary, grouped together as a stream, and then broken up into packets[1]. It then goes through a series of routers that transit your packets to your intended destination. In the days of the telegraph, your message would transit from one telegraph office to another until it finally arrived at its final destination. Messages were priced according to length and distance because you were using up more resources than someone sending a short message to the next town.

A popular Internet service such as Netflix doesn’t have just one server to distribute all of its video content. It has dozens of them. They are located in places that are nearest to their customers. The aim is to minimize not only the distance each data packet has to travel but to also minimize the number of hops. Netflix contracts with companies that provide this service, each is known as a CDN. It appears that this deal merely cuts out the “middle man,” a third-party CDN that transits the data in this case, and allows Netflix connect directly to Comcast’s routers and have access to its customers all the way to the final mile without a third-party intermediary. Comcast subscribers should have a better experience streaming video from Netflix.

Is This Neutral?

With this deal, Netflix on Comcast will be better than Netflix on Verizon. Netflix on Comcast will also be better than another comparable video service (YouTube?) on Comcast that doesn’t have an interconnection agreement. But it should not impact upstart content providers. One of the major concerns of net neutrality is whether smaller players will have their traffic treated equal to the major players. In this case, it appears that the answer is no.

That argument however doesn’t consider Netflix’s size and its footprint on broadband networks. If it truly accounts for nearly a third of all Internet traffic in the US during primetime, it has few, if any, peers. Netflix has joined a new tier of Internet content providers, something like:

  1. Websites, blogs, and commercial services hosted on one server. If you’ve ever paid for a web hosting account, chances are you did this. You can get away with doing this because you are not serving much content and can stay within the bandwidth limits of your hosting plan. A dedicated server would be next option once you outgrow your shared hosting account.
  2. Websites, blogs, and commercial services hosted across different servers. Once a website becomes even more popular, it could outgrow that one server, and will have to shift its content across a number of servers. Many sites pay a CDN for the trouble of locating servers across different locations because it can be expensive— think rent and utility bills.
  3. Netflix. It is in a class by itself, connecting directly to the ISPs network. It has outgrown the third-party CDN model and struck a deal with the ISP itself. It is both a content provider and a Tier 2 network.

Again, I’m still trying to understand all of this, but it appears that net neutrality is still important even if it doesn’t apply to this case. Content providers in the first category above are safe because their volume of bandwidth is relatively low and won’t overwhelm ISP networks. Content providers in the second category should also be safe should they not overwhelm ISP networks. However, content distributors might have cause for concern if too many of their customers are like Netflix and begin overwhelming their peer networks. It’s just hard to determine what the line might be and how much it will cost to join this elite class of an upper-tier network. It’s also hard to predict if peer agreements effectively constitute preferential treatment.


  1. This is largely metaphorical. Forgive me if my use of this terminology is imprecise.  ↩