Not a good thing….
Right from the get-go, in spite of statements that may be made to the contrary, the current administration in the US has made it clear that lives of the common man are not at the top of its priority list. Government is supposed to work for the people, but the folks in power have gone out of their way (and gone about it with a vengeance) trying to gut programs that have been designed to support those who truly need help. There is the driving focus to shift more of the government support and the nation’s wealth to the corporations and the rich. There is also a desire to go back to the good old days, and a yearning for a way of life that seems to have worked in the past for a demographic of people in the country who are now diminishing, a group who now find themselves being left behind.
Programs for addressing healthcare, poverty, housing, education, etc., topics that are most important for the less privileged, are those that folks seem to be intent to tear into and tear apart. Top this off with the disdain of the folks in power today for the environment and for science, and the tinge of racism and xenophobia that people now feel freer to admit and act upon openly, it is hard to see anything good coming out of the political sphere during the next four years.
Yes, they are in the process of gutting even the regulations for our essential communication systems that were meant to protect the consumer.
Below is one aspect of the rules in place that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the process of changing.
FCC: Your cybersecurity isn’t our problem
Our privacy was on life support. The FCC is pulling the plug.
The dramatic headline “The FCC is going to war over set-top boxes” brought back memories of the time I was dealing with regulatory issues in the world of entertainment. I think some things will never change as long as there is big money involved and there exists the institution of lobbying. The battle to change the existing paradigm regarding processing and delivery of entertainment content to consumer eyes from signals that are delivered to the home by the cable companies, and to a certain extent satellite TV companies, has been ongoing for years. It is the traditional television content delivery guys trying to protect their turf against the home entertainment guys who want to expand the reach of their systems and control how the consumers interface with the cable TV guy’s signals. If you think that the opposition to the current cable TV signal handling paradigm in the home comes from organizations that are trying to protect the consumer and have their goodwill at heart, think again. It is companies like Google and Sony who are on the other side, with their own business interests at heart.
It is all about business and money at the end of the day. And I have to throw up my hands and laugh at the absurdity of all of it, because all of this fuss, and the use of significant monetary resources, is about entertainment and the distraction of the population, something far removed from the more basic needs of the people at large. While reading the article above I came upon this video from John Oliver from a long while back on the topic of Net Neutrality. It is dated at this point but still hilarious!
There is another battle well underway in parallel in the entertainment world where the forces of business are trying to change the way entertainment actually gets into your home. Companies like Netflix and Amazon actually deliver entertainment content via the Internet, which is of course a very non-traditional approach to doing things. Considering that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are almost always the cable companies themselves, this leads to the development of interesting business strategies by the cable companies to try to optimize return to their shareholders, all of which is supported by suitable lobbying of the government that is hoped to result in regulatory regimes that benefit one company or the other.
For heaven’s sake, it is only entertainment!
I wrote a blog on the subject of Net Neutrality a while back when the FCC was in the process of putting into place rules for the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with regards to how they manage traffic from different sources within their networks. Essentially the FCC ruled that all traffic has to be treated the same, i.e., in a fair manner. At that time I noted that this was easy enough to say, but could be difficult to implement, considering the diversity of the data and the kinds of traffic carried on the Internet. At that time I noted that the FCC should act with a soft touch with regards to enforcement of regulation.
It turns out that we did not have to wait that long to see an implementation of traffic management in a ISP’s system that seems to violate the FCC’s rules. But this implementation is being presented by the vendor as a feature that benefits the customer. Witness T-mobile’s Binge On service.
The data service paradigm for most mobile service providers in the US is that you pay the vendor based on the amount of data that you use, or wish to use (if you sign up for monthly quotas). So anything that reduces the component of the data that you receive that actually counts towards measurement of your usage should be considered a positive for the customer according to T-Mobile. (Of course, this assumes that the customer has signed up for receiving an amount of data that really matches what he or she needs.)
But what has happened in the recent past is that the mainstream service providers have been trying to force customers into service packages that include a lot more data than they need, with the hope that they get hooked onto new services that will chew up this additional bandwidth resource. This is what happens when folks start streaming video services on mobile networks. As usage increases and begins to match what the customer has actually subscribed for, he or she will become more inclined to pay for additional data services on the network. (This will also serve as justification for the mobile service providers to lobby to buy up more of the nation’s bandwidth resources for their own networks.)
Enter T-mobile. They say that they will not count the amount of data that a customer who has signed up for Binge On receives for certain video streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, etc..) against the customer’s data usage limits. It sounds good, but what they are also doing is controlling the amount of the data in those video streams for people who are signed up. They are in fact lowering the quality of the video being delivered, i.e., they are treating these video streams differently from how they would treat them normally in their networks.
You might say that this is OK since the customer knows that this happening. It turns out that the customer really may not know what is going on. It seems like this service is being offered today as an “opt out” service, i.e., unless you mention anything, you are signed up for it. Also, it has been observed today that the customer’s video services are throttled even for video service providers that have not signed up with T-mobile for supporting the service. It is not clear if the customer still pays for the data being received in such circumstances.
What is happening is exactly along the lines of my expectations. Due to the nature of the Internet today, there are bound to be scenarios that develop to do not meet the notion of net neutrality in a simplistic fashion. The FCC will have to adapt, and as it does, the set of detailed regulations that need to be considered will tend to change and continue to expand.
When people complain about government and bureaucracy, it is useful to remember that most of this happens a result of people and organizations creating situations where they try to manipulate the system to their own benefit, where simplistic approaches for enforcement will no longer work. Very often this is done in the pursuit of big money, not necessarily the betterment of man. After all, who will argue that entertainment, which is the application for most of the streaming video that tends to dominate the bandwidth usage of the Internet today, is most essential for our living, and should dominate the use of our resources.
Its a crazy world we live in!
Historically, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been have been able to provide their services without any real regulation targeted specifically towards the conduct of this business. This situation is about to change. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided that the broadband Internet will be regulated going forward (link) under the umbrella of Title II of the Telecommunications Act. The concept is called Net Neutrality. The ISPs will not be allowed to manage their Internet resource in such a manner as to discriminate against users, whether they are companies that use the Internet or consumers. This is huge! You might wonder why this is happening and what all the fuss is all about. Let me give you my own take on this.
For the past several years the growth of the Internet has been primarily driven by the Internet Service Providers who happened to have access to customers because they have traditionally provided other services to such customers such as cable TV and voice services. This service might have been provided via a traditional landline connection to the home, or through a mobile phone connection using a wireless cellular network. There have been a few exceptions, but the big players today not surprisingly happen to be companies like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, etc.. In the case of services to the home, these companies started out by taking advantage of existing infrastructure, and then building on this infrastructure (coax or copper-based) or moving to new infrastructures (such as fiber optics) as the demand for greater levels of service grew. The growth in the mobile area on the other is being spurred on by new technologies from the ground up, including use of new wireless bandwidth resources that have been assigned for this purpose, and development of advanced transmission technologies that are able to support higher speed data service (as opposed to voice service) requirements more effectively.
In the early years, the applications that drove the use of the Internet were fairly simple, starting out with basic point-to-point requirements across the network infrastructure (think e-mail), and gradually evolving towards more client-server type interactions. The amount of data being transferred across the internet kept increasing as this was happening. The primary flow of data that came with functions like browsing were primarily unidirectional – to the home. The data movement patterns became less uniform in a certain sense from the early day. But the type of applications running in the home have also further evolved significantly in the last few years, with applications that involve significant downloads of data from the home to network servers, and also significant peer-to-peer traffic. People can now even stream videos from devices like smartphones to others, something that was unthinkable a few years ago. The traffic patterns in the network are a constantly changing story because of the innovation that is going on.
New kinds of applications are also increasing the traffic in the Internet further in many different ways. Video streaming services such as Netflix dominate bandwidth usage to the consumer these days. (link)
These days, Internet traffic is not necessarily driven by the customer. You have data that is being pushed to people who even do not know that something like this is going on. Then there is advertising data that is being pushed to customers based on data that is being collected about you on network connected devices that monitor your Internet behavior. Then you have routers on the networks that are intercepting data traffic and taking actions based on what is being seen – such action including sending of additional data to the customer. In many cases, the Internet Service Providers are themselves affecting the amount of traffic in the system. When customers interact with vendors across the Internet, such interaction can initiate further communication between these vendors and one or more third parties that will now form a part of the transactions that are going on. And then we have the data traffic from illegal or semi-illegal goings-on on the Internet where entities, unknown to end-users, bury software in their computers, that will generate traffic to and from these computers without the user’s knowledge. (Such is the danger of always being connected to the Internet.)
And all of this is only a viewpoint only from the consumer applications. All networking for commercial interactions also use the same resource that the consumer applications are sharing.
Essentially, the Internet is the Wild West out there in terms of the nature of the data traffic. This was the promise of the Internet and I am not sure if it will also become its bane. I am not certain exactly how the ISPs keep a handle on the traffic on the network links today. Innovations in Internet applications happen constantly and each one of these has the potential to change the nature of the traffic on the network and the manner in which ISPs manage their bandwidth resource. In such a happy circumstance of innovation, one has to ask why anybody would think there is a need for regulation. There is a need to look at all of this from a different angle.
First of all, here is something going on in the global picture that might be shocking to some people. The US is far behind some other countries when in come to the Internet. If one were to just look at the average speed of Internet connectivity available to customers, several countries in Asia appear at the top of the list while the US is nowhere near the top. Also, according to one study of Internet penetration done in 2013 the US ranked 29th in the world, with a penetration rate of 84.2 percent (link).
What is probably happening is that in a completely market driven environment the ISPs are selectively focusing their efforts and attention to where they can get the most bang for their buck. At the end of the day they have to make money for the stockholders. It turns out that there are still underserved and unserved areas in the US as far as mainstream broadband Internet access is concerned, and it would appear that this situation is not about to change on its own. The other aspect to consider is that the Internet can no longer be considered a luxury for the common man. It is becoming a basic necessity just like any other public utility. Our lifestyles have changed significantly during the last few years, and it will continue to change because of the Internet. It is not just the new applications that are made available on the Internet that move us in this direction. More and more of the traditional service providers are trying to adjust their operations so that more and more of their interactions with the customer happen through the Internet. In fact, people who do not keep up with this rapid change in the way business is done are in danger of being left behind. It is now beginning to make sense to consider the Internet as a basic necessity. This is a point at which government has to begin playing a role in what is going on so that people are able to get what they need. This aspect of the development and use of the Internet has already been recognized by more forward looking countries. Governments have taken a more active role in helping shape the development of this resource.
The ISPs have also become smart to the game and have determined that there might be additional money to be made by not just charging the customers, but by also selling vendors that use their networks access to these networks. If they do so, they will be able to influence and control the experience of the customer to services from these vendors directly. This is already happening (link)! The ISPs can now have control over how businesses that use the Internet may succeed and fail, and ISPs may themselves even try to get into the business of providing such services to customers while giving themselves an advantage (e.g., Comcast might stream NBC programs with better Quality of Service (QoS) simply to give Netflix, HBO, ESPN or ABC a bad name). Companies like Google and Netflix support Net Neutrality while those like AT&T and Verizon do not.
But the tricky part about regulating the Internet is that it is still an evolving mess. Any regulation that is put into place has to be done with a light hand. If not done properly, this can basically stifle the industry. There has to be room for the Internet to continue on a path of development. ISPs will need to continue to improve on their networks to support new capacities and capabilities that are yet to be determined, and applications and traffic patterns that continue to evolve. There should really be no issue if network capacities are always beyond the data loads being carried. But there does come a point where traffic needs to be managed, either when there are temporary bursts of traffic due to the nature of the applications running across the networks, or if the networks are themselves not properly sized to support all the traffic that is allowed to connect into it. The ISPs should be free to manage the data flow, even slowing it down as needed in order to manage the bottlenecks, but they must do it in a way that is fair. But how does one define what is fair? Should one type of traffic fundamentally have priority over others or is all traffic equal? For example, is Netflix streaming more important than regular data transmitted to a browser (e.g., a Skype session), and, if so, what speed of Netflix streaming must be allowed. Do different kinds of browser traffic have different priorities? One has to try to find a way to find non-specific and generic answers to such questions like this. It can become quite messy and dirty if one tries to solve each of the problems individually by jumping into the weeds in each case. If the FCC thinks it already knows the answer, they are fooling themselves. Hopefully they will keep an open mind and make sure they have some intelligent and experienced people working on this. Regulators need to have insight about the global implications while dealing with the specifics of each element of regulation carefully. And they have to do all of this even while they are being harangued by the lobbyists from various factions of the industry who have their own differing interests at heart.
Some say that regulation will stifle innovation. My take is different. I believe that it will shape the nature of the innovation rather than stifle it. It might even shape it in a very significant way. It could impact the businesses that end up being successful in the industry. And what is wrong with that? The truth of the matter is that a lot of the technological innovation in industries like this happens today because of the rules that the industry lives by, not necessarily all related to improving service to the customer, and sometimes because of regulation. The entertainment production and distribution system is a prime example of such an environment. As an example, a fundamental element in the conduct of the entertainment distribution business is copyright protection. Rules of the game come from the both the government and the industry in this regard. Many unique systems are in place from the perspective of content protection, not necessarily all for the benefit of the customer. Regulation does not necessarily drive away all innovation, sometimes it creates opportunities.
Will regulation lead to more cost to a customer? Will regulation be such that ISPs and users of the Internet are able to continue to innovate and grow their businesses and provide an adequate and fair level of service to their customers? I think we do not need to be afraid in this regard, but only time will tell if I am right or wrong.