Nobody expected the net neutrality debate to die down with the installation of a Democratic majority in Congress, but even now, few realize that it will flare so powerfully as it is likely to do later this year.
A new IPTV service from the developers of Skype and the filesharing service Kazaa is set to force the issue. Joost is a peer-to-peer-based television-over-IP system that streams (relatively) high-quality video to users’ computers over their Internet connections. This eats up a lot of bandwidth: 320 MB in downloads and 105 MB in uploads per hour, according to the developers. They also note that “the application continues to run in the background after you close the main window,” presumably to help Joost’s developers save a bit on bandwidth costs by piggybacking on their users’ broadband connections. Running full-time, that amounts to about 225 GB downstream and 75 GB upstream per month, far more bandwidth than the average broadband user consumes today.
How much more? Comcast is one of the largest and fastest broadband providers in the U.S., offering peak speeds of 6 or 8 Mb/sec in many areas, which is enough to support Joost. Its all-you-can-eat service has an informal cap of 200 GB per month to prevent high-bandwidth users from imposing “an overly large burden on the network.” This is enough to download around 50,000 MP3 songs. Joost would hit that limit in the last week of every month. And keep in mind that Comcast, compared to other providers, is generous with bandwidth.
The bigger question, though, is whether Comcast’s and other providers’ networks could support the burden of hundreds or thousands of users in every neighborhood maxing out their bandwidth capacity around the clock. Certainly not. Like the electricity grid, data networks aren’t designed to pump full capacity through every wire at once–it’s just not cost-effective. When the tubes fill up, everything slows down, including important services such as voice over IP. And remember that net neutrality can get in the way of Internet providers’ providing priority routing to services like VOIP.
If their users adopt Joost en masse, Internet providers will have to respond with traffic shaping (that is, limiting the bandwidth available to Joost) or by blocking Joost altogether so that their customers don’t suffer massive Internet delays (if this is even possible; Skype can slip under many locked doors). Most of today’s networks just aren’t ready for such a bandwidth-intensive application.
In the long term, the solution is to upgrade networks to support higher-bandwidth uses, something that providers are doing today anyway. But Joost and similar offerings will make providers put the pedal to the metal in ramping up speeds, at great expense. Should cable-TV companies and the telephone companies that are just beginning to offer TV over IP service be forced to shell out big bucks to effectively subsidize a competitor?
The FCC’s current net neutrality “principles” would impose that burden. Consumers are entitled to access any “lawful Internet content,” “run applications and services of their choice,” and enjoy “competition among…application and service providers, and content providers.” Although the principles are not explicitly a part of any FCC rule, the agency has said that it will incorporate them into its policymaking, and it is already working behind the scenes to impost them on individual providers in exchange for OKing mergers and other activities that require its cooperation. With the agency’s leverage over service providers, it could impose net neutrality by fiat. To some extent, it is.
Congress passing a law mandating net neutrality would have the same effect. A few neutrality bills were introduced last year, and legislation has already been proposed this session.
Those on both side of the debate say that their respective positions would best encourage innovation and serve Internet users better. Joost will certainly put that latter claim to the test. As for the former, one wonders that transmitting regular TV programming over the Internet is especially innovative. Unlike, say, YouTube, this isn’t participatory media. Joost looks like a means of broadcasting that avoids the costs and headaches of cobbling together a broadcasting network, such as a string of network affiliates or a set of wires running to most homes in the country. It’s awfully convenient for Joost that someone has already undertaken this expense.
It is inevitable that as consumer demand for bandwidth continues to rise, network capacity will rise in tandem. The real issue is who pays to build up the networks. In the end, application providers (such as Joost) and service providers (such as Comcast) pass their costs onto consumers in one way or another–otherwise, they go out of business. In the long run, net neutrality means that all Internet users pay for high-bandwidth applications. Non-neutrality means that the users of those applications pay. The biggest bandwidth users are younger, more tech-savvy, and from disproportionately well-off families. Net neutrality is, in a sense, a subsidy for these users paid for by everyone else.
If net neutrality applies to Joost and similar applications, think of it as a sort of regressive tax on broadband subscribers for the benefit of those who probably need it least. So that they can watch TV on their computers. Apparently, Americans do have a right to TV, whether they want it or not.