Is There an Openness-Bandwidth Trade-off?

by on May 28, 2008 · 17 comments

weitzner-sm I’ve long known and liked Danny Weitzner, going way back to the CDA wars of the mid-1990s. Danny co-founded the Center for Democracy & Technology, which is were I first met him, and he currently serves as Co-Director of MIT’s Decentralized Information Group, which is part of the computer science department up there. Apparently he is also now serving as technology adviser to the Barack Obama campaign. In it is that capacity he made some remarks recently on a panel at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference that caught my eye. Specifically, according to this Ars article:

“Openness is more important than bandwidth,” said Weitzner, referring to the argument that “tiered” networks providing faster access to content providers who can pay could spur investment in fatter pipes. “I’d rather have a more open Internet at lower speeds than a faster Internet that has all sorts of discrimination built in. We’ve lived with tiny narrow little pipes and done extraordinary things with them.”

I’m a bit troubled by Danny’s statements. First, I think that many supporters of Net neutrality (NN) regulation have been crafting this sort of false choice between openness and bandwidth. I see no reason why we can’t have plenty of openness as bandwidth grows. After all, it is openness to new services and applications that will help spur greater demand for bandwidth. Of course, I don’t buy into the sort of conspiratorial theories set forth by some NN advocates who claim that broadband providers are going to engage in all sorts of blocking of online speech and applications. If you subscribe to certain ‘black helicopter’ theories of ISP manipulation of the Net, however, then I suppose you would be inclined to say we might somehow be better off with “tiny narrow little pipes” (a la dial-up connections) instead of high-speed pipes. But, again, I just don’t buy the argument that ISPs are out to quash “openness” in that sense. Assuming they could even succeed in such an endeavor, which is highly dubious, it’s just not good for business. It would create a huge consumer backlash, a PR hell, and ultimately not bring in any new revenue.

Now, it’s a very different matter if you define price discrimination and network management as forms of “digital discrimination” that should be made illegal by Net neutrality regulations. In this case, unfettered “openness”—which would apparently be defined such that pricing flexibility and network optimization were violations of FCC regs—might very well come into conflict with bandwidth expansion. Bandwidth is not unlimited, and growing the pie might require some forms of network management and price discrimination be used to ensure that America’s growing broadband needs are met. After all, most average broadband customers today are not griping about any lack of online openness; they can get to any service they want. Instead, they are generally complaining about broadband speeds not being quick enough to support all those fancy new services they have access to.

And so I wonder, how many folks would actually agree with Danny Weitzner’s statement that, “I’d rather have a more open Internet at lower speeds than a faster Internet that has all sorts of discrimination built in.” If that’s the trade-off that’s being forced upon us, then I will take the faster Internet, thank you very much. But I’d rather not have FCC bureaucrats involved in making this decisions for us at all.

  • dimitris

    And so I wonder, how many folks would actually agree with Danny Weitzner’s statement that, “I’d rather have a more open Internet at lower speeds than a faster Internet that has all sorts of discrimination built in.” If that’s the trade-off that’s being forced upon us, then I will take the faster Internet, thank you very much.

    Obviously it depends on the interpretation of “open”, but your automatic preference for speed may be troubling. Have you compared terms of service? For example, Verizon FIOS is fast, however:

    You also may not exceed the bandwidth usage limitations that Verizon may establish from time to time for the Service, or use the Service to host any type of server. Violation of this section may result in bandwidth restrictions on your Service or suspension or termination of your Service.

    No remote Slingbox for you on FIOS then, but it’s OK on (slower) Speakeasy:

    Speakeasy believes in the right of the individual to publish information they feel is important to the world via the Internet. Unlike many ISP’s, Speakeasy allows customers to run servers (web, mail, etc.) over their Internet connections, use hubs, and share networks in multiple locations.

    Oh, and on FIOS, all your data are possibly belong to Verizon:

    Content and Data Management by Verizon: We reserve the right to: (a) use, copy, display, store, transmit and reformat data transmitted over our network and to distribute such content to multiple Verizon servers for back-up and maintenance purposes;

    Well, at least it’s fast(er) :-)

  • dimitris

    And so I wonder, how many folks would actually agree with Danny Weitzner’s statement that, “I’d rather have a more open Internet at lower speeds than a faster Internet that has all sorts of discrimination built in.” If that’s the trade-off that’s being forced upon us, then I will take the faster Internet, thank you very much.

    Obviously it depends on the interpretation of “open”, but your automatic preference for speed may be troubling. Have you compared terms of service? For example, Verizon FIOS is fast, however:

    You also may not exceed the bandwidth usage limitations that Verizon may establish from time to time for the Service, or use the Service to host any type of server. Violation of this section may result in bandwidth restrictions on your Service or suspension or termination of your Service.

    No remote Slingbox for you on FIOS then, but it’s OK on (slower) Speakeasy:

    Speakeasy believes in the right of the individual to publish information they feel is important to the world via the Internet. Unlike many ISP’s, Speakeasy allows customers to run servers (web, mail, etc.) over their Internet connections, use hubs, and share networks in multiple locations.

    Oh, and on FIOS, all your data are possibly belong to Verizon:

    Content and Data Management by Verizon: We reserve the right to: (a) use, copy, display, store, transmit and reformat data transmitted over our network and to distribute such content to multiple Verizon servers for back-up and maintenance purposes;

    Well, at least it’s fast(er) :-)

  • http://felter.org/ Wes Felter

    Providing “unlimited neutral 7Mbps” costs an ISP $X/month, while providing “unlimited 7Mbps except P2P” costs dramatically less. An alternate way to look at is that for a fixed $Y/month, an ISP can promise more bandwidth if they can prevent customers from using it, or they can provide less but neutral bandwidth. Brett Glass’s Lariat is an example of this phenomenon.

    I’d rather have a slower neutral network but I know many of my neighbors would not, so I’m not ready to legislate neutrality either.

  • http://felter.org/ Wes Felter

    Providing “unlimited neutral 7Mbps” costs an ISP $X/month, while providing “unlimited 7Mbps except P2P” costs dramatically less. An alternate way to look at is that for a fixed $Y/month, an ISP can promise more bandwidth if they can prevent customers from using it, or they can provide less but neutral bandwidth. Brett Glass’s Lariat is an example of this phenomenon.

    I’d rather have a slower neutral network but I know many of my neighbors would not, so I’m not ready to legislate neutrality either.

  • Ryan Radia

    dimitris, you can do a terabyte a month on FiOS and you won’t hear a peep from Verizon. The ToS language you cite is also found in just about every residential ISP contract, but Verizon and AT&T have long had an extremely lenient bandwidth policy. So you can run slingbox with no worries.

  • Ryan Radia

    dimitris, you can do a terabyte a month on FiOS and you won’t hear a peep from Verizon. The ToS language you cite is also found in just about every residential ISP contract, but Verizon and AT&T have long had an extremely lenient bandwidth policy. So you can run slingbox with no worries.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis

    whawhawha?
    First, I think that many supporters of Net neutrality (NN) regulation have been crafting this sort of false choice between openness and bandwidth.

    Don’t you mean opponents? Going back through this blog alone it’d be easy to find dozens of posts and comments discussing how a NN regime would destroy the god-given capitalist incentives to invest in better bandwidth, so we’d never get fatter pipes. That is who is setting up the dichotomy, not NN advocates.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis

    whawhawha?
    First, I think that many supporters of Net neutrality (NN) regulation have been crafting this sort of false choice between openness and bandwidth.

    Don’t you mean opponents? Going back through this blog alone it’d be easy to find dozens of posts and comments discussing how a NN regime would destroy the god-given capitalist incentives to invest in better bandwidth, so we’d never get fatter pipes. That is who is setting up the dichotomy, not NN advocates.

  • dimitris

    Ryan,

    It’s not about the giga/terabytes, at least not primarily. If use is not excessive and/or content is not HD, bandwidth might not even be that high. It’s about the non-server policy, and the Slingbox, to be accessible remotely – its key selling point BTW – has to be a “server” under FIOS terms.

    I’m perfectly willing to believe that, currently, Verizon may not do anything, even for servers. But how do you know that, in the quest for higher ARPU through some video-on-demand add-on, Verizon won’t start enforcing the rules?

    Anyway, agreeing to contracts on a nod-wink basis doesn’t seem wise – or particularly libertarian, for that matter ;-)

    Now, I agree with Wes that there’s nothing wrong if one pays for the higher infrastructure costs of neutrality through higher prices/lower bandwidth. However, the persistently ignored elephant in the room is the (lack of) unbundling. If any Verizon can throw DSL competitors off its monopoly-era-sunk-costs infrastructure, arguing about “pricing” of neutrality seems pointless.

  • dimitris

    Ryan,

    It’s not about the giga/terabytes, at least not primarily. If use is not excessive and/or content is not HD, bandwidth might not even be that high. It’s about the non-server policy, and the Slingbox, to be accessible remotely – its key selling point BTW – has to be a “server” under FIOS terms.

    I’m perfectly willing to believe that, currently, Verizon may not do anything, even for servers. But how do you know that, in the quest for higher ARPU through some video-on-demand add-on, Verizon won’t start enforcing the rules?

    Anyway, agreeing to contracts on a nod-wink basis doesn’t seem wise – or particularly libertarian, for that matter ;-)

    Now, I agree with Wes that there’s nothing wrong if one pays for the higher infrastructure costs of neutrality through higher prices/lower bandwidth. However, the persistently ignored elephant in the room is the (lack of) unbundling. If any Verizon can throw DSL competitors off its monopoly-era-sunk-costs infrastructure, arguing about “pricing” of neutrality seems pointless.

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