Costa’s Confusion on Net Neutrality

I’m sad to see PC Magazine leave the newsstand, but I’m glad it’s not gone for good. Though I often enjoyed picking up a copy when stranded at a faraway airport, I usually read it online. Even after subscribing to the hard copy this year (which had to be the year it was discontinued) I absorbed most PC Mag content via my laptop.

I hope that the columnists continue to be a big part of the magazine. Not only is PC Mag home to my favorite cranky geek John C. Dvorak, but also some columnists I’ve enjoyed disagreeing with over the years.

Among them is Dan Costa, who I’ve often disagreed with on the issue of Network Neutrality. His most recent column, however, is a home-run—probably in ways he never intended.

Costa focuses on the idea that paying for the amount of bandwidth you use is entirely reasonable.  His closing line “Can’t we all agree that my mom and I shouldn’t be payin the same price for bandwidth?” is spot on.   Dan’s a professional tech writer and a huge geek.  He’s transferring a lot of a data in comparison to his mom’s rather meager consumption.

Though he certainly didn’t mean to illustrate this, Costa also illuminates the misconceptions people have about what Network Neutrality really means, or what it should mean.  Costa says he may be “bypassing” the issue of net neutrality when saying that such tiered service is OK.

This shows how confused the neutrality debate has become.  Tiers of service—like paying more for a faster connection or a larger bandwidth cap—shouldn’t enter into the debate.  Both are reasonable pricing structures for network owners to implement and neither would unfairly favor one group over another.  Tiered pricing is perfectly consistent with the “end-to-end” principle; that is to say, that it doesn’t involved network owners looking at data, slowing it down, speeding it up, dropping it, or otherwise manipulating it.

No, tiered pricing is still very neutral, other than at the last mile—that’s where network operators of all types make their money anyway.  If this weren’t neutral, one could argue that even those ISPs that only offer one connection speed with one bandwidth cap were non-neutral.  They would, after all, be offering a 0GB per month plan for those who don’t pay at all.  Charging itself would seem decidedly unneutral unless we acknoledge it’s perfectly normal to charge people for what they use.

Finally, I think Costa is right to bring up that consumers should be aware of the terms that many companies include in their contracts.  Sprint’s XOHM Wi-Max service includes language such as:

XOHM may use various tools and techniques designed to limit the bandwidth available for bandwidth-intensive applications or protocols, such as file sharing.

That’s a service caveat big enough to drive a truck through, or at least big enough to stop you from downloading an HD movie via Bittorrent on your Wi-Max connection.

My point is that the neutrality debate shouldn’t be about different levels of service being available for different prices.  That’s a no-brainer.  The real interesting debate to be had is talking about whether or not the end-to-end principle will always be the de-facto law of the Net, and just how forthcoming companies need to be if they plan on subverting that principle.

My stance?  End-to-end seems so valuable a model that it’s hard to conceive of a different one being at all desirable; but, many regulations have blocked or slowed technologies that could never have been imagined when the regulations were written.  So, let’s avoid neutrality regulations as no neutrality violations have occurred yet that haven’t be corrected by the market.

As for terms of service like XOHM’s, I think it’s up to the tech community to keep folks aware of TOS statements that leave the door open to Sandvine-like interference.  I still think it should be up to customers to decide if those non-neutral activities are OK, but companies shouldn’t be keeping methods secret or burying them in their TOS.

With that said, thanks agian to Dan Costa for a great column and farewell PC Magazine.  I will miss italicizing you.