Consider the economics in network neutrality

by Andy Oram

Four days ago, the FCC held a widely publicized hearing at Stanford about bandwidth regulation on the Internet. In my summary analysis and background explanation of an earlier hearing at Harvard, I referred to the oft-criticized Brett Glass, whose experience running a rural wireless ISP radiates a different perspective from all other commentators. Glass got to speak at the Standford hearing, and his brief remarks offer a readable explanation of a key technical issue--the effects of file-sharing on bandwidth--as well as an appreciation for the worries on all sides.

Small ISPs such as Glass's (and yes, they do exist, even today) have none of the incentives that network neutrality advocates attribute to major carriers to discriminate against voice, video, or other content. In fact according to Glass, new applications such as VoIP are great because they provide new business. "This week we hooked up a VoIP company which was dissatisfied with the quality of service it was getting from the incumbent in our area. We deployed a low-latency, high-bandwidth radio link just for them, at a cost (parts and labor) of about $1,000. We can justify the cost because we will be paid for the service. It's cost-shifting without compensation that's the big issue for all ISPs--large and small."

Glass has a stake at least as precarious in the current Internet economy as the media companies using peer-to-peer transmission as part of their business plans. Laws or regulations that fail to take economics into account, in his view, could put small ISPs out of business. He defends his position fiercely, and gets plenty of flak in return. I consider Glass a friend and have even planned to tap him as an author on some projects. So I want his view heard as a balance to the "just throw more bandwidth at it" proposals.

That said, I wonder whether the problem is really peer-to-peer protocols, which Glass focuses on, or high-volume media such as video. What architecture could handle the video experiences Internet users want. Compression can achieve impressive quality at reasonable bandwidth, but the sheer volume of everybody sharing the network stresses current transmission systems.