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Reason Foundation

All bits are not created equal

Steven Titch
January 10, 2006, 6:40pm

Jeff Pulver's January 9 blog entry at Pulver.com in favor of network neutrality drew some great feedback from readers who truly understand that bandwidth prioritization will likely be necessary in the broadband future and that carriers have as much right as anyone else to derive revenues from their ability to prioritize packets and partition bandwidth. It was surprising to see Pulver, who, along with being a VoIP entrepreneur, is one of the better industry analysts, fall back on myths that "all bits are created equal." A responder eloquently demonlishes this assertion:
"I disagree that all packets are created equally. As a service provider, there are packets we'd rather not receive at all. There are packets we (and our customers) wish could get to us sooner, and there are packets we can accept some delay on. Seems like capitalism is as good a model as any for us to help our providers and peers pay to upgrade their networks to help us treat our customers better."
Another responder, who admits he is no fan of the Bells, nonetheless cuts to the core of the network neutrality issue: How will bandwidth, though fairly abundant now, be apportioned when high-bandwidth files like feature-length movies and multiplayer games, begin to consume greater capacity, create greater congestion and eventually begin to degrade the performance of all applications, including their own?
"What you see here is a larger debate, unresolved even within the Internet community, of whether or not [Quality of Service] is important. Will network speeds & capacity keep going up so that QoS is not necessary 99% of the time, so that you can go without, or is the network a scarce resource that requires QoS mechanisms."
In short, at some point the law of supply and demand for bandwidth might kick in, and as owners and operators of the network, common carriers feel they are justified in charging a premium for prioritization of bandwidth-intensive services. To complain , as Pulver does, that the Bells are trying to use their ownership of the network to maximize revenues doesn't cut it either. Everyone else in the Internet value chain is trying to maximize revenues, from Amazon to Google to iTunes to your neighborhood ISP. I think it's this aspect which causes the most discomfort. Although many smart people have made a fortune levergaing the Internet, most, including Pulver it seems, can't get past the way the Internet has morphed into a commercial beast. Hence they fall back on platitudes that "no one controls the Internet" and "all bits are equal," which are all corollaries to main myth that "the Internet is free," expressed a few weeks ago by Washington Post columnist Jonathan Krim (See entry from Dec. 16). It was "free" when universites reserachers could send emails and batch files across phone lines their universities had already paid for. Today, when Universal wants to stream King Kong in full motion high-def as part to maximize its own entertainment revenues, I would say any carrier whose pipe is going to facilitate those revenues has the right to maximize its own.


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