Net neutrality is one of those topics we’ve been hearing more and more about in recent years. The basic idea of net neutrality is that all Internet traffic should be treated equally no matter what. It shouldn’t matter if it’s email, web sites, or streaming video. It shouldn’t matter if the traffic is coming from Wikipedia, Netflix, Youtube, etc. It shouldn’t matter which Internet Service Provider you choose. This is the way the Internet has worked since it’s inception. Of course, not everyone agrees that this is how things should stay. We didn’t always have the technology to filter and classify traffic. Now that it’s here, some believe that we should be able to classify internet traffic and treat it differently based on that classification.
It seems like much of the tech savvy community argues that net neutrality is a “given right” of the Internet. They believe that it’s the way the Internet has always been, and always should be. The other side of the argument is generally lobbied by Internet service providers. They argue that ISP’s have the right to classify Internet traffic that flows through their equipment and treat it differently if they so choose. As for everyone else, just about everyone these days relies on the Internet for business, banking, and entertainment but many of those people have no idea how the Internet works, nor do they really care. It’s like the electricity in their home or the engine in their car. As long as it’s working properly that’s all that matters to them. If they can check Facebook on their phone while watching Breaking Bad on Netflix in full HD, why should they care how that stuff gets prioritized? It work’s doesn’t it?
The Internet backbone
Why is this even a topic for discussion? If the “open Internet” has been working fine since it’s inception, why are we even discussing this now? To understand the problem, it helps to first understand the basic concept of the “Internet backbone”. The Internet is roughly made up of three different tiers of service provider. Consumers purchase their Internet service from a tier 3 provider such as Comcast or Verizon. These tier 3 providers in turn purchase their Internet service from a tier 1 provider such as Level 3. The tier 1 providers are connected to each other and make up the Internet backbone.
While you might pay your ISP $55 per month for a 30Mbps connection, your ISP is “peered” with some tier 1 provider for a much, much faster connection. Their connection has to handle all of the Internet traffic for all of its users at the same time. These peering arrangements vary based on the particular situation, but often times neither company pays the other as long as the traffic getting sent back and forth is roughly equal. If one company was sending much more information than they were receiving, that company would likely pay the other a fee.
Other service companies, such as Netflix, pay an ISP for access to the Internet just like we do as consumers. They would pay a tier 1 or 2 provider for a bigger and more stable connection than your average home user has, though. A company like Netflix would have to purchase their own Internet connection that is fast enough to stream video to all of its users at the same time. The home user just needs a connection fast enough to stream their one video at a time.
The key thing to remember is that everybody pays some kind of ISP for access to this global entity we called “The Internet”. If you pay an ISP, you get online and you can talk to everyone else.
Comcast vs. Netflix
With Internet speeds getting faster and faster all the time, consumers are demanding more and more content. Some ISP’s claim to be struggling to keep up with the demand. A good example of this can be seen with the recent Comcast vs. Netflix battle. Comcast is a major cable television and Internet provider in the United States. For many people, it’s the only realistic option for Internet access in their area. Satellite is too unreliable for them, 4G is not fast enough, etc. It’s also important to note that in the United States, most people only have access to one cable provider in their region. If they decide that cable is the best option for Internet access, they are stuck with whichever provider happens to be in their region. Thus, many people find themselves “stuck” as Comcast customers.
Last year, many Comcast customers noticed a quality reduction in their streaming Netflix video content. This didn’t start happening until just last year. So what changed? Was Comcast slowing down Netflix on purpose? According to Comcast, that was not the case. Comcast has stated that they had a peering arrangement with their ISP, Level 3. Level 3 was sending roughly twice as much traffic into Comcast’s network as Comcast was sending back. Up until recently, the two companies considered this fair and neither was paying the other any fees
Content Delivery Networks
Then something changed that somehow caused Netflix to start working slowly on Comcast’s network. Netflix used to use a Content Delivery Network (CDN) service through a company called Akamai. Akamai has distributed centers all over the world that can more easily send the large quantities of data that Netflix users demand. Since Akamai was sending so much data into Comcast’s network, they had their own peering arrangement with Comcast where they paid Comcast a fee to handle the large traffic load. This is a standard Internet practice. The diagram below helps illustrate what this might look like. The wider arrows represent more bandwidth.
This is where things get interesting. Level 3 (Comcast’s ISP) is not only an ISP, but they also offer CDN services that compete with Akamai. Last year, Level 3 won the contract with Netflix to start hosting and distributing Netflix’s content. As a result, Akamai no longer hosts Netflix content and therefore does not have to pay Comcast the same high fees that it used to have to pay. At the same time, the connection that Comcast already had with Level 3 became overloaded with Netflix traffic. Suddenly the reality of the network connection no longer matched the terms of the Comcast/Level 3 peering agreement.
The only way to fix this problem is for Comcast to upgrade their infrastructure to support the new load coming from Level 3. This of course costs a lot of money. Normal industry practice would be for Comcast to change the peering agreement so that Level 3 would now pay a fee to Comcast, which would help support the cost of the new infrastructure changes. This is the equivalent of Comcast charging Akamai. However the two couldn’t come to an agreement, and Level 3 claimed that Comcast was singling out Netflix traffic and was therefore violating principles of Net neutrality.
Netflix eventually got tired of waiting around and purchased new connections directly from Comcast. These network connections give Netflix a direct connection to Comcast customers, bypassing Level 3 all together. In essence, Netflix is now paying Comcast directly to handle their large traffic load.
Shortly after the new direct connections were setup, Comcast customers unsurprisingly noticed a great increase in video quality coming from Netflix. The below graph illustrates how Netflix speed dropped suddenly for Comcast customers around October 2013, and then spiked back up significantly after January 2014 once Netflix purchased direct connections to Comcast.
How this relates to Net Neutrality
On the surface, it looks like Comcast is requiring Netflix to pay for faster access to Comcast subscribers. That is the distilled essence of the current net neutrality debate. Should ISP’s be allowed to offer priority access to certain types of traffic, people, or companies? Comcast argues that this is not a net neutrality issue because they are not actively throttling Netflix traffic. In their eyes, Netflix was clogging up the connection and the backbone provider was violating the peering arrangement. They just wanted to work out a new agreement that was reasonable.
One might argue that Comcast customers pay for access to the Internet as a single entity. Therefore, they should be able to stream Netflix all day, every day if that’s how they choose to use their connection. If Comcast offers every single subscriber a 30Mbps connection, shouldn’t their customers be able to use that connection however they see fit? Does it really matter if all the data is flowing in or out?
The other side of the argument is also clear. Peering arrangements were agreed upon and then changed. These arrangements have always worked a certain way, and now it seems as though companies are questioning that practice.
Life in the fast lane
The most recent entry in the net neutrality saga involves what people are calling the “Internet Fast Lane”. This United States’ FCC proposal would allow for broadband ISP’s to offer up faster connections for companies willing to pay more. This is very similar to what is happening with Netflix. On the surface, it sounds like maybe it’s a win-win situation. Companies get to pay more money to have faster access to the customers of various ISPs, and the ISP doesn’t have to continually pay to upgrade their infrastructure to support all this different content.
The downsides are not as obvious to most people. For one, there are ethical issues at play. Comcast is not only an ISP, they are also a cable television provider. They also own NBC Universal, which produces television content. Comcast also is part owner of Hulu, a streaming media service. Clearly Comcast is, to some degree, a competitor of Netflix. So now how does this look? One might think that Comcast took advantage of the situation in order to hurt their competitor. Why should Comcast care if Netflix is slow? This would give more incentive for Netflix customers to purchase cable TV service through Comcast, or use a different Comcast service such as Hulu. There isn’t any clear evidence that this was happening, but you can’t help but wonder. Even if this was not actually an attempt to attack a competitor, what’s stopping other companies from doing exactly that? An “Internet fast lane” may unintentionally permit ISP’s to hurt their competitors in a similar manner.
This also may be bad for competition. This deal with Netflix and Comcast has set a precedence for others to follow suit. Once the Comcast deal went through, Verizon stepped up to the plate and the two companies signed a similar deal. If this trend continues, we may find that only some ISP’s will carry high quality Netflix content whereas others without these special deals will not. The result is that consumers may have to choose their ISP not only based on which has the best quality Internet connection, but also which has the best quality Netflix connection. You can bet that it’s the smaller ISP’s that will suffer, resulting in less competition in a market where competition is already severely lacking. A “fast lane” law may end up supporting this type of Internet.
There’s another way in which the “fast lane” can be bad for competition. A giant company like Netflix might be able to afford to pay for “fast lane” service, but what about a new start-up? Imagine if a new Netflix competitor wanted to start-up but couldn’t afford to pay for all of these fast lane fees to all of the various ISP’s? They might never even get off the ground. Competition is good for the consumer, so we need to make sure the rules foster competition and not hinder it.
How is this a hack?
This is where [Kyledrake] comes in. He sits proudly on the pro net neutrality side of the argument. Rather than simply add more complaints to the ever growing pile, he decided to make a more powerful statement. [Kyledrake] wrote a custom Nginx script that throttles certain users visiting his own web server down to a crawl at 28.8kbps. The catch? His web server only throttles traffic coming from known FCC IP addresses. The desired result is that users browsing his website from FCC networks will experience a slow connection. Nobody else will notice a difference.
Now, [Kyledrake] is a reasonable man. He just wants to ensure that the FCC is paying for their share of [Kyledrake's] bandwidth. Therefore he is offering to put the FCC into their own “fast lane” service for a nominal fee of $1000 per year. He is calling this “The Ferengi Plan“.
[Kyledrake] hopes that more Internet users will start using the script and follow suit. It’s obvious what [Kyledrake] is doing here. He’s trying to show the FCC the downsides of this “fast lane” proposal in a very direct way. It obviously can be abused, but the question is will it be? Will there be protections in place to prevent this abuse? Will those protections actually be enforced?
We’re curious to hear what Hackaday readers think about this whole net neutrality thing. There are many questions here and not all of them have obvious right and wrong answers. There’s a lot of hypothetical grey areas that muddy the waters. Here are some questions to get everyone thinking.
- Should ISP’s be allowed to throttle web traffic as they see fit?
- Should ISP’s just pay for their own infrastructure upgrades to support their own subscribers?
- Is this “fast lane” proposal a good idea? A bad one?
- Do you have any other ideas on how to keep things fair for everyone?
- The Internet is an international entity. Should government just stay out of it?
You also may want to check out the FCC’s comments system. You can leave them a comment in regards to many FCC proposals. Feel free to leave them a comment letting them know how you feel about this issue.