Lack of Net Neutrality will be a competitive liability in the future for the US

Net Neutrality could be dead in the US and I think that this creates problems for companies that do business in other parts of the world. Or rather, it creates incentives for companies based in the US to focus on non-US markets for conducting business. There are several reasons for this. Let’s take this from a Netflix perspective, assuming they were able to get the same catalog they currently have in the US and took it into Europe (this has been difficult for US companies while it’s been easier for EU companies to come into the US – see Pandora and Spotify as references). Let’s assume that can happen and they have they opportunity to continue to work in one region or the other.

The EU has recently enacted end-to-end Net Neutrality as the law of the land. So, Netflix traffic cannot be slowed down because of the volume. It cannot be slowed down because it is Netflix traffic, all traffic if it needs to be groomed happens at the same time (likely random or everything gets slowed down). Netflix cannot be charged by the ISP to ensure specific speed to guarantee quality of product, if Netflix wants to control this, it’s up to them (they could manage this through increased buffering before the video starts, for example). The average internet speed is significantly higher than in the US, so the quality will be higher and the need for buffering lower, because the speed can account for dropped packets much more effectively. This means if they charge 8 Euros a month, they are able to keep more of that.These conditions would also apply in Argentina.

In the US, Netflix traffic is now subject to the whims of the ISP. the ISP can slow down traffic based on the time of the day, based on the source of the traffic (using deep packet inspection). They can and have charged Netflix for equal access as, for example, Comcast Xfinity’s streaming service. The US has some of the lowest average internet speeds in the industrialized world. Netflix charges $8/month they have to pay Comcast to ensure that their service meets their end users requirements.

As a company that makes money based on the fact that they are able to deliver high quality content (where the price of said content is continually rising), I would prefer to operate in the EU rather than the US. I will have significantly less issues with the ISPs because they can’t discriminate my traffic and I won’t have to pay to make sure that they do not discriminate my traffic. This means that my quality will increase and my cost per user will not increase as it will in the US. I would begin focusing on providing local language content as well as the best content I can provide from the highest quality sources in the world.

As we start moving towards higher speed requirements in our applications, this will become a larger problem. I know of people online that have issue streaming up to Twitch and Mixify as well as streaming the content to their computer. This is a problem now. We will be moving into significantly higher quality video and games (PS4 streaming a game to your console, that will require a lot of bandwidth and low latency $$$$$). Furthermore, if we start having more tele-medicine we’ll need higher quality video feeds to ensure best results.

These are all examples of applications we know of that will suffer from a lack of net neutrality. As we get people that develop applications for gigabit connections, we’ll start to see net neutrality as paramount. These companies will not be able to afford the required costs for the internet speeds required for effective applications.

This means that the EU and other net neutral countries may become the source of innovation for these applications or companies that create them in the US will need to move to markets like the EU for a user base that can fully exploit their application.

We’ll effectively be playing on an Xbox 360, when high quality PCs are out there. We’ll be at a serious disadvantage.

Who’s responsible for the internet’s capacity?

AT&T thinks that Netflix is trying to pass off the cost of network connections to end customers. There have been a few different displays of the architecture of the internet. Netflix operations at a different layer than AT&T does – Netflix is an application, so it runs on a layer above the network layer, which AT&T operates. Netflix doesn’t really care who actually sends their bits to the end user – they just care that they get there in a fashion that enables high def video. To this end, they purchase bandwidth from a company, mostly Cogent, and I pay Comcast (others pay AT&T) for me to receive those bits from the bandwidth provider of Netflix. I pay Netflix for access to their content.

Based on this payment model, if there’s not enough bandwidth for Netflix and I’m paying AT&T or another ISP for accessing Netflix, it’s up to them to make sure I have that connection. Content is King, so for me, it’s most important that I can access what I want when I want. That’s why I have an ISP so they can let me see what I want.

I think that the best analogy for content trumping gate keepers are the examples of higher premiums from popular channels. In some cases Timewarner cable pushed for lower rates to show a specific channel to their subscribers. In this example Forbes points out that ESPN costs $5.54 per viewer, they wanted to lower that price and pulled the channel out of rotation. This made a lot of people unhappy and in some cases people left Time warner over the issue.

Essentially, this is the same thing that is happening with Netflix. The ISPs don’t want to pay to upgrade their infrastructure to ensure that the consumers of media online (many of these people paying for higher download speeds and higher data caps). Netflix is providing a service that these people are willing to pay for but cannot control how the ISPs interact with their intermediaries so is in a tough spot. It’s a target because of it’s popularity and has no control of how anything gets to a specific user. That’s why it’s looking at the peer2peer model (which is how Skype keeps their rates low) so it won’t need to go through Cogent and will likely burden other parts of the network very differently.

I believe that if an ISP cannot meet it’s advertised speeds 90% of the time, then they need to update their infrastructure to meet my needs. If they throttle a popular service I’m watching and thus make it unwatchable, they need to upgrade their infrastructure. Most ISPs have an extremely high profit margin, which means that it’s coming out of their infrastructure investment and are not actually adding value.

There are many companies that are responsible for the capacity of the infrastructure and all of them can negatively impact our ability to use the internet. However, from an end user perspective, my ISP is on the hook first, then everyone else.

Is Net Neutrality regulation commie nonsense?

Network Economy

Regulation’s a bad thing, right? Personally, I think there are instances where regulation is an amazingly good thing that drives innovation. We also need to be cautious about who is saying regulation is good or bad. Back in the 90’s we’d hear that regulating in anyway to prevent acid rain would cripple business and kill our economy. This clearly didn’t happen, we have acid free rain for the most part, we have more productive manufacturing than ever. We also hear that regulating CEO pay by median rather than average is significantly more complicated to the point that a place stacked full of MBA’s can’t figure it out. Then there are regulations that pick winners like Solyndra and turns out to be a disaster. These cause higher taxes and are actual drains on the economy (personally I’m on the fence about experimenting with new technologies and having the government support them, but that’s me).

What about the FCC “regulating” net neutrality? I think that it’s important to look at how this all started. First, I’ll start with a bit of a history with the telecoms, then move to how the internet was developed, and move to comparisons between other monopolies.

AT&T has been described as a natural monopoly. This was partially helped by the US government because the government wanted coast to coast telephony and selected AT&T as the standard for that activity. This gave AT&T incredible market strength, but was also extremely fragile as it was continually under threat of being broken up for being a monopoly (which is was). To do everything they could to avoid this, the geniuses at Bell Labs continually designed ways to keep their costs down, improve quality, and make very thing better. They also had some government deals that helped them a lot (military contracts for telecom stuff, like the first satellite). The value of AT&T’s network grew every time a person joined the network.

The fact that one person joined Network A over Network B could further impact the growth of that network. Let’s say Person A is friends with 5 people and is already on Network A, it’s likely, if they are really good friends and A is known for making good decisions, that those five people will join A on Network A. The value increases by more than simply 5, because all five of those people can talk to each other as well as every other person they know on Network A. Now if Person A has more friends, but not as good of friends and they actually are better friends with Person A’s friends they will also likely join Network A. This sort of cascade effect will continue to happen. This is also known as Metcalfe’s law.

When AT&T was force to break up, all of that interoperability remained. Instead of one big monopoly there were regional ones instead. As we’ve seen over time, these same regional operators have slowly re-joined back into 2 Bells versus the non-Bells. AT&T being split is a type of regulation for sure, but it did spur some interesting competition for a time.

How the Internet was designed:

The internet was originally designed to operate in many different application layers. Essentially the bottom of the stack was Internet Protocol which was agnostic to the type of information being sent across it. At the time, the most efficient method was over Ethernet so there was not any requirement to be concerned over the application medium. Over time there would be some concern, but that was really addressed by the protocol.

What would happen is that the applications that required information to be sent on either end would translate the information to be used by the layer below it to send out, such as a web browser to the OS, to the network driver to IP, across the internet to the network driver to the OS to the web server application. Across this entire process the actual data being sent was unknown to any of the nodes in between the application layers. (If you’re interested in this check out Internet Architecture and Innovation).

Of course the companies providing the bandwidth for that did not want to find itself in a similar role as they had after the break up of AT&T where they were forced to become “dumb pipes” for whatever people wanted to send across their network. To prevent this they created capabilities like deep package inspection and other tools to identify what content was being shipped across their lines. This also was the beginning of violating “True” net neutrality.

Why were they dumb pipes? Because they were defined as a common carrier to increase competition across the land line providers and ISPs the telephone companies had no choice. This lead to the explosion of ISPs like AOL, Century Link, and so on. What has happened since? The broadband lines have been ruled that they are not “Common Carriers“. Meaning that the data across the line can be treated however the companies that own the lines want.

Why is this bad in a network economy?

In a network economy, being able to fully control anything and everything can be very bad for the consumer if there is no other option. Now, you could argue that there are options, but in most cases because of other monopoly rules there are few options for allowing a new ISP.

A perfect example where a network monopoly isn’t a big deal is in Smart Phones. The iOS App Store is a natural monopoly in a network. The more people using the iPhone the more valuable it became and more app developers developed apps. It never became a problem that Apple regulates the entire experience BECAUSE there were other networks you could shift to, such as Blackberry, webOS, Windows (whatever mobile version you want to include), and, of course, Android. All of these ecosystems offer very different options for devs. Additionally, within Android there are competing App stores which further benefits the consumer. If there were no other competitors to iOS and it’s App Store the constraints that Apple puts on their product would likely be viewed as very anti-competitive and a type of “foreclosure.”

Market foreclosure is using one monopoly to enable another monopoly. Now, regardless of if you think that this should have happened or not, it did. Microsoft was hit for using it’s Window’s OS to foreclose on the internet browser market and was looking to do the same with their music player. What resulted was that MS was required to offer other browsers when a new Windows OS was launched and helped to reduce the market share of IE.

How does this apply here? Comcast is already trying to do the same with Netflix in the streaming video business. Comcast owns the content (Universal, NBC, etc), the connection (Comcast Cable ISP), the rules (data caps), and if they want to charge to access their network or not. Eliminating the rules of net neutrality tilt the table in the direction of Comcast to a degree that Netflix may never recover. If Netflix, at one point 2/3 of all internet traffic, had to pay for every bit they streamed to allow for an enjoyable streaming experience they would be bankrupt in very short order.

I get that Comcast’s of the world don’t want to be dumb pipes, they own the content and that’s king. However, not every ISP owns content (Verizon/AT&T) so they aren’t at such an advantage to companies like Netflix. However that’s where AT&T’s data plan comes in. Which would essentially level the table compared to Comcast. We, as end users, wouldn’t see any benefit out of this. It’s not that our subscription fees would lower or we’ll magically get faster internet. This is simply rent seeking behavior and bad for the economy overall. Only true new competition can lead to that. Changing these rules have zero impact on that competition.

What it does do though is negatively impact the creation of new businesses that want to stream video or provide a novel product that requires high bandwidth and equal rights to streaming. Removing the protections on net neutrality dramatically increases the cost of streaming that otherwise could go into building that startup’s infrastructure. Think of the problems at Twitch.TV with their growth. My subscription fees pay for the growth of the network that I subscribe to regardless if it’s something like Twitch or Comcast. Anything else will go to shareholders and CEOs.

Could we develop other options like a Mesh network? It’s possible, but for that to work the option would have to be a public/private venture. Most citizens aren’t going to help create that and likely don’t have the technology savvy to do so. To further complicate this issue many ISPs are actually pushing to make it illegal for cities to create their own ISP.

In many cases regulation is bad for business. However, in cases like net neutrality it’s returning the net to it’s roots and enabling much stronger competition based on the merits of the company providing the service, not the arbitrary whim of network owner.