Interconnection: Or How Big Broadband Kills Net Neutrality Without Violating 'Net Neutrality'
from the routing-around-the-problem dept
There has certainly been plenty of discussion about Netflix's recent interconnection deals -- starting with Comcast back in February, and Verizon just recently. As we noted back in February about the Comcast/Netflix deal, it wasn't really a net neutrality issue, because it was about interconnection, but we were equally worried about how this really demonstrated the monopsony power of major broadband providers. Lee's latest Vox piece dives much deeper into that distinction, and highlights some key insights:
- These are not technically "net neutrality" violations. The animated graphics in the Vox piece do a great job explaining why. Just go look.
- But that might not matter, because the end result is basically the same.
- Because of that, this is a really effective way for the big broadband providers to pay lip service to net neutrality, while getting exactly what they want anyway.
- The real problem, as always, is too much market power by the big broadband players, allowing them to do an "evil" thing almost no one thought they would do.
Comcast says it wasn't deliberately degrading the performance of Netflix traffic, which would have been a violation of network neutrality. But that implies that every website that used the same transit provider as Netflix was experiencing similar performance problems. That's obviously bad for Comcast customers, and it's also bad for startups that are trying to become the next YouTube or Netflix. If the only way to get excellent service on America's largest broadband networks is to negotiate a private connection directly to those networks, smaller companies with less cash and fewer lawyers are going to be at a competitive disadvantage.It's a neat trick. Comcast doesn't have to favor or disfavor any particular traffic. It just conveniently neglects to do the most basic things to make sure traffic flows smoothly from the various transit players -- and then offers to negotiate direct deals with big players to bypass third-party transit providers. Thus, it's not "favoring" anyone on its network. It's just creating a situation that favors those who pay up to access its network.
In other words, those public transit links that were providing Netflix with subpar service could become the de facto slow lanes on Comcast's network, while private, direct connections could become the fast lane.
And, again, the FCC doesn't seem to recognize this at all. Tom Wheeler has been fairly explicit that he doesn't view the interconnection issue as relevant to this discussion yet. And the various rules that are being fought over won't have any impact one way or the other on interconnection. And, as Lee's article describes, part of the reason all the commotion has been focused "over there" on "net neutrality" rather than "over here" on "interconnection" is because the very idea of Comcast doing what Comcast has been doing these past few years just seemed impossible to consider not too long ago:
One reason for this is that Comcast's hardball tactics are relatively new. According to Wu, "we never thought much about" interconnection issues when the concept of network neutrality was developed in 2002. That was "mainly because it seemed like, 'Why would anyone do that?'" It was generally assumed that consumer ISPs would always buy enough transit to serve their customers' needs.That last line is worth repeating: Big ISPs view declining network performance as a source of leverage, rather than a technical problem.
Wu worked in Silicon Valley prior to 2002. And he says he remembers that "solving a joint technical challenge" — that is, making the internet work as well as possible — "was the predominant motivation of the engineers." That's still true in most parts of the internet. But some of the largest ISPs now seem to view declining network performance not as a technical problem to be solved so much as a source of leverage in business negotiations.
And the only reason they can do this is because of the tremendous market power they have. And, once again, as we've argued for over a decade, that demonstrates the real heart of the problem: the lack of real competition in the broadband space. Either way, it's yet another must read if you're trying to understand the state of play today.