Archive for the ‘Technology Policy’ Category

The State of the Internet: Losing Net Neutrality

July 23rd, 2011

Well, it has been a while. Living in New York City can really drain into your free-writing time. Originally, my next post was going to be about Google+ and the benefits of competition and what it does better/worse than Facebook. However, due to recent news and discussions with people, I decided to switch over to net neutrality. Side-note: Happy 1000th unique visitor to my page (Also almost 500 downloads of my Arabic keyboard!)!

What Is Net Neutrality?
The term, net neutrality, is a term used to describe something that (in my opinion) shouldn’t even have a term because of how basic, intuitive and “god-given” it should be. To put it in the most simplistic of terms, it says that all internet should be treated like a “dumb-tube”, a tube that has no knowledge of what any specific user is using their bandwidth for. Because of this lack of knowledge, it is then unable to discriminate between the user who streams videos from netflix and say, another user who discriminates from Hulu. At this point, it should all sound fine and dandy. Users get their internet, providers get their money for providing (technically distributing but whatever) the internet. Everyone is happy, right? Unfortunately, as of the past few years, ISPs aren’t happy..neither is RIAA but they should have no say in the matter.

The Argument to Discriminate
The argument presented by ISPs to justify throttling/discrimination of packets used by people performing specific actions (i.e. torrenting) or “consuming all the bandwidth” (for Comcast it is going over 250GB in a month on their highest plan). They state that: 1) illegal actions should be allowed to be discriminated against, and 2) hogging all the internet is not fair to other paying customers.

Let’s start with the first statement, probably one of the most beaten dead horses you could run into when it comes to the internet. It has been shown, explained, and reiterated so many times but I will state it once more: torrenting is not illegal, it is the files that one torrents that make it illegal. Torrenting is merely a method to distribute files efficiently and effectively (just ask, among many other companies, Blizzard Entertainment). This argument is just so absurd, dated, and ignorant that I am not going to delve deeper into this.

The second argument makes sense when you look at it from a face value. However, realize that they are arguing to discriminate against types of network traffic (i.e. watching Netflix vs being on Facebook). Now ask yourself, if there is network congestion and issues with too many people using the “same tubes” in an area, why should they bother discriminating? It would make much more sense to fully throttle everyone to a specific speed at peak hours (i.e. being reduced to 4mbps during peak hours and then have everyone restored to regular speeds when congestion dies down). Well, it’s been proven time and time again that the ISPs actually don’t usually have congestion problems when they throttle, they just state they do: The recent judge ruling against Comcast covers this more [1].

The Problem Today
So if net neutrality is in place, then what’s the problem? The problem is that the near-duopoly that is the wireless carriers in the US combined with the home ISP setup and constant lobbying from companies in the aforementioned area are starting to see progress in net neutrality regression. Earlier this year FCC commissioner Meredith Baker left the FCC to be vice president of government affairs at Comcast [2]. What’s the issue? Shortly before leaving, Meredith Baker was one of the four members of the FCC who approved Comcast’s deal to acquire NBC Universal. The problem with this? Al Franken and Craig Aaron put it best:

“When the same company owns the content and the pipes that deliver that content, consumers lose,” -Franken

“This is just the latest–though perhaps most blatant–example of a so-called public servant cashing in at a company she is supposed to be regulating, no wonder the public is so nauseated by business as usual in Washington, where the complete capture of government by industry barely raises any eyebrows.”-Aaron

The other issues come from the likes of Verizon and AT&T (while Sprint is a player in this game, they are too small and their network relies too much on other players to create a large enough of an effect). Verizon and AT&T have argued and lobbied that wireless internet (phone data plans) are different because they simply do not have the networks to handle high amounts of traffic. This has allowed them to do various actions, which should anger the American public.

Two of the main recent changes that irritate me currently are the recent introduction of extra charges for phone tethering and tiered data plans with no “unlimited data” option (and extremely absurd prices). The first portion, is just blatant milking of something that should be free and something that (in my opinion) is not justifiable.

Mobile tethering, for those who don’t know, is essentially connecting your phone’s data connection to another product (such as your laptop) this data still goes through your phone, all it does is enable you to use your laptop/tablet whatever you want to have internet in areas where you might not have a free connection. The data still even counts against your data plan (before they switched it over to two separate plans). This goes back to net neutrality. It should not matter what my data does, what I am doing with it, or where it is going. I paid for my (now grandfathered) unlimited data plan from Verizon and I expect to be able to use it in any which way I please.

Tiered data is just a step in the wrong direction. The prices are ridiculously high ($30 for 2GB, $50 for 4GB, $80 for 10GB), keep in mind my unlimited data plan that I am grandfathered into is $30 for unlimited. On top of this, they are still charging for text messages. Text messages are just like any other portion of data, except very small. The fact that “unlimited” text messages costs $20/mo is just wrong. I would be *okay* with $5/month. I say *okay* because it is still charging customers for essentially nothing, but it is a much smaller profit margin per consumer than $20. To put it this way, text messages are about 5kb a message. Say you send and receive 5,000 text messages a month:

5,000 * 5kb = 25,000 kb ~= 25mb.

So, sending 5000 text messages are equal to 1/3 of Verizon’s current smallest data plan ($10 for 75mb). 5000 is a lot of messages, about 7 texts an hour, every hour, all day, every day. If “data” can be bought for $10 for 15,0000 text messages, then why are texting plans $20?

Obviously its profit margins “because they are a business looking to make money, not a charity”. To be blunt, this statement pisses me off. There is a difference between a company making money and a company slapping you in the face while punching you in the gut with prices. I understand companies making money, but the way American companies attempt to save every cent they can while at the same time extorting everything they can from the customers is just saddening. The UK is known for having much better plans and customer treatment (before you tell me to move there, I plan to).

“Vote with Your Wallet”

I hate this statement as well. Not because I don’t agree with it, but because in regards to wireless carriers, you can’t. Where do you go? AT&T? They do the same thing. T-Mobile? They are being bought by AT&T [3]. Sprint? I don’t get service where I live with them. These same issues can be applied to ISPs as well. The problem is, when the public can’t vote with their wallet, and the government won’t stop the companies from treating us like absolute crap, what more is there to do? The FCC isn’t on our side anymore; they are all lobbied by telecom companies and continually have shown that they do what interests their wallets and not the public. I am all for capitalism, but without any regulation companies end up becoming too large and powerful and dictate what the customers will pay and won’t pay.

The Other Source of the Problem: Apathy

Another problem with the customers who do care having any effect is the apathy and ignorance of the larger portion of the country towards the issue. The sad part is, if you even understand net neutrality, you are already in the minority of the population. The majority of the population just listens to what the corporations tell them, and they accept it. They don’t question whether there actually is a problem with bandwidth consumption nor do they realize that text messages are data. As with all things tech, these issues aren’t really cared about. The ones that do care are in no position to fight it, no leverage to grab the attention of the majority. Which is where the FCC was supposed to come in and save the day from unruly treatment from these gigantic corporations. These same corporations, who say that it costs them too much money for unlimited data, just reported record profits [4]. Here’s an idea, why don’t they use some of the billions in revenue to build better networks? Of course, they have no incentive to. Why should they care then the population does not? Why should they waste their profits improving something that they can just use an excuse to extort the customers? I don’t know where US internet is going to be in the coming years, but at the rate it has been going in the past few years, I enjoy living here less and less.

Sources:
[1] – Ars Technica seems to have deleted their article on this (or I can not find it at the moment). I will update accordingly.
[2] – http://news.cnet.com/8301-30686_3-20062054-266.html
[3] – http://www.engadget.com/2011/03/20/atandt-agrees-to-buy-t-mobile-from-deutsche-telekom/
[4] – http://www.engadget.com/2011/07/22/verizon-is-on-a-roll-posts-another-27-billion-in-q2-revenue/

More Information:
1. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2011/06/bloomberg-comcast-is-already-violating-conditions-of-nbcu-merger.ars

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