Joost Internet TV Set to Revive Net Neutrality Battle

by on February 22, 2007 · 14 comments

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.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Wouldn’t another solution simply be for Comcast to make its bandwidth caps explicit? i.e. you pay $40/month for a up to 100 GB/month in downloads (say) and some higher price for truly unlimited bandwidth. Or maybe you’d pay a flat rate up to some reasonable cap, and then a per-GB rate for usage above the cap. Then it would be up to the user to decide if Joost’s increased bandwidth demands are worth the cost.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Wouldn’t another solution simply be for Comcast to make its bandwidth caps explicit? i.e. you pay $40/month for a up to 100 GB/month in downloads (say) and some higher price for truly unlimited bandwidth. Or maybe you’d pay a flat rate up to some reasonable cap, and then a per-GB rate for usage above the cap. Then it would be up to the user to decide if Joost’s increased bandwidth demands are worth the cost.

  • http://www.heritage.org Andrew Grossman

    Tim -

    I’m skeptical. Don’t today’s more-or-less all-you-can-eat plans reflect revealed consumer preferences? Keep in mind that most users go nowhere near the caps and so pay for more than they use.

    And there is also the matter of social norms (more broadly, transaction costs of marginal pricing). Users might well feel that TV is something that ought to fit within the bounds of the “standard” plan, no matter how much bandwidth that takes.

    Due to the endowment effect, they’ll be reluctant to give up what they already have–virtually unlimited bandwidth, even if they’re not using it all–and so the impact of something like Joost will be felt in more subtle ways: degraded service (especially by clever traffic shaping) and faster price increases. Everyone pays.

    So could Comcast or any other consumer provider charge for bandwidth on a marginal basis? Yes. Is this likely to happen? Probably not.

  • http://www.heritage.org Andrew Grossman

    Tim -

    I’m skeptical. Don’t today’s more-or-less all-you-can-eat plans reflect revealed consumer preferences? Keep in mind that most users go nowhere near the caps and so pay for more than they use.

    And there is also the matter of social norms (more broadly, transaction costs of marginal pricing). Users might well feel that TV is something that ought to fit within the bounds of the “standard” plan, no matter how much bandwidth that takes.

    Due to the endowment effect, they’ll be reluctant to give up what they already have–virtually unlimited bandwidth, even if they’re not using it all–and so the impact of something like Joost will be felt in more subtle ways: degraded service (especially by clever traffic shaping) and faster price increases. Everyone pays.

    So could Comcast or any other consumer provider charge for bandwidth on a marginal basis? Yes. Is this likely to happen? Probably not.

  • jeff

    Please do not confuse bandwidth with Net Neutrality. What you are discussing here is just bandwidth. We already have tiered pricing for bandwith (a dedicated T3 costs more than a DSL line) and that works fine. If someone wants to run Joost 24/7, they can pay a little more for the extra bandwidth.

    Net Neutrality is about preventing ISPs and all the middle-man routers giving preferential treatment to certain network data based on nearly arbitrary rules that include business deals, what they like/don’t like, and other BS. Net Neutrality must be upheld at all costs. If we lose Net Netrality, the data and services on the internet will be controlled, similarly to how data is controlled on cell phone networks. All you need to do is look at the $15/month fee to download 20 youtube videos on cingular to see how much that sucks.

    Bandwidth != Net Neutrality. Please don’t confuse people, there’s too much at stake with Net Neutrality to add confusion to the mix.

  • jeff

    Please do not confuse bandwidth with Net Neutrality. What you are discussing here is just bandwidth. We already have tiered pricing for bandwith (a dedicated T3 costs more than a DSL line) and that works fine. If someone wants to run Joost 24/7, they can pay a little more for the extra bandwidth.

    Net Neutrality is about preventing ISPs and all the middle-man routers giving preferential treatment to certain network data based on nearly arbitrary rules that include business deals, what they like/don’t like, and other BS. Net Neutrality must be upheld at all costs. If we lose Net Netrality, the data and services on the internet will be controlled, similarly to how data is controlled on cell phone networks. All you need to do is look at the $15/month fee to download 20 youtube videos on cingular to see how much that sucks.

    Bandwidth != Net Neutrality. Please don’t confuse people, there’s too much at stake with Net Neutrality to add confusion to the mix.

  • http://bandwidthbuyersguide.com Mark Tomin

    I agree with jeff. Not everyone is going to be using Joost and users can always close the background application to preserve the bandwidth. What really should be done is an update of U.S. Internet networks up to world’s standards. U.S. Internet providers (Comcast, for example) are experiencing enormous growth but yet prices keep increasing and speeds decreasing. It just seems simpler and cheaper to change the law.

    Bandwidth Buyers Guide is your #1 guide for instant comparisons on T1 lines, T3 access, and various high speed providers.

  • http://bandwidthbuyersguide.com Mark Tomin

    I agree with jeff. Not everyone is going to be using Joost and users can always close the background application to preserve the bandwidth. What really should be done is an update of U.S. Internet networks up to world’s standards. U.S. Internet providers (Comcast, for example) are experiencing enormous growth but yet prices keep increasing and speeds decreasing. It just seems simpler and cheaper to change the law.

    Bandwidth Buyers Guide is your #1 guide for instant comparisons on T1 lines, T3 access, and various high speed providers.

  • Hashi

    This Joost service sounds really attractive. It also seems inevitable, as ad-supported shows migrate to the web. There’s a pretty well-informed essay on the shift on M. 3.0 (link). I buy this idea much more than a model on which we all buy individual shows.

    I’ll miss my TiVO.

    Hashi

  • Hashi

    This Joost service sounds really attractive. It also seems inevitable, as ad-supported shows migrate to the web. There’s a pretty well-informed essay on the shift on M. 3.0 (link). I buy this idea much more than a model on which we all buy individual shows.

    I’ll miss my TiVO.

    Hashi

  • Jason

    Re: Net Neutrality & Joost:

    What happens when YouTube or Joost start using technologies like Rivulet? Since technologies like these can pretty much obtain as much bandwidth as they need at the expense of others, those video providers simply get whatever they need up until a point. I think the net neutrality people simply don’t understand how difficult it is for the ISPs to even try and keep their networks “fair”. Since Rivulet just got a huge amount of funding from Menlo Ventures, and they’re rumored to be in discussions with YouTube/Google to use they’re technology, I think all bets are off when it comes to net neutrality and how the ISPs can enforce it even if they wanted to.

  • Jason

    Re: Net Neutrality & Joost:

    What happens when YouTube or Joost start using technologies like Rivulet? Since technologies like these can pretty much obtain as much bandwidth as they need at the expense of others, those video providers simply get whatever they need up until a point. I think the net neutrality people simply don’t understand how difficult it is for the ISPs to even try and keep their networks “fair”. Since Rivulet just got a huge amount of funding from Menlo Ventures, and they’re rumored to be in discussions with YouTube/Google to use they’re technology, I think all bets are off when it comes to net neutrality and how the ISPs can enforce it even if they wanted to.

  • Jeremy

    @Jason:

    Joost is already starting to use “Rivulet-like” packet shaping techniques… These approaches basically are not playing byt the rules and taking an advantage of a “bug” in the queue management systems’ interaction with TCP. The question is going to become what technologies the ISPs are going to be allowed to deploy in the context of Net Neutrality. If they can’t legally throttle Joost or Rivulet-based YouTube traffic because of net neutrality, then they’re SOL! Video will simply overwhelm their networks. Technically, they’ve got the same problem — particularly with Joost. The packet inspection boxes simply don’t work with “stealthy” applications like Joost and Skype. So, if I were an ISP today, I’d be looking for a solution that can throttle back both P2P video traffic and any other traffic that doesn’t play by the rules…

  • Jeremy

    @Jason:

    Joost is already starting to use “Rivulet-like” packet shaping techniques… These approaches basically are not playing byt the rules and taking an advantage of a “bug” in the queue management systems’ interaction with TCP. The question is going to become what technologies the ISPs are going to be allowed to deploy in the context of Net Neutrality. If they can’t legally throttle Joost or Rivulet-based YouTube traffic because of net neutrality, then they’re SOL! Video will simply overwhelm their networks. Technically, they’ve got the same problem — particularly with Joost. The packet inspection boxes simply don’t work with “stealthy” applications like Joost and Skype. So, if I were an ISP today, I’d be looking for a solution that can throttle back both P2P video traffic and any other traffic that doesn’t play by the rules…

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