On Friday, ArsTechnica put together a rather comprehensive look at the current state of the Comcast/Level3 traffic dispute, which has continued to simmer throughout the first two months of 2011. There has been no sign of any progress, in fact all we have seen is a hardening of positions – at least publicly. At the end of the article, ArsTechnica asks:
“With all this said, albeit little done, many questions and variables are now at play in this fight. But the most important of them is pretty obvious from this correspondence. Where in cyberspace is the dispute between Comcast and Level 3 located? On the Internet backbone, or at the last mile?“
Where? That assumes there is separation, which gets to the heart of what I’ve been trying to say, with limited success. Separation and classification is nothing more than a regulatory figment of imagination when it comes to internet traffic. The thing about the last mile, peering connections, transit connections, CDNs, datacenters is that they carry the same bits, often within microseconds of each other.
Think of a river system – stuff that happens upstream affects *everything* downstream. Well, the internet is a two way river system of immense complexity. Everything that happens at one spot inevitably affects the entire system, and there is no containment. Despite our ability to compartmentalize internet infrastructure into its component pieces for the purposes of both investment and regulation, there are strong economic linkages end to end. A change in the balance of interconnection power between traditional IP backbones and the last mile will send shock waves in pricing all the way up to the content providers.
Network neutrality in the last mile was designed to have an effect downstream in the form of greater consumer choice and all that. But the potential consequences upstream are just as important, and they have been largely ignored. This Comcast/Level3 dispute is just the first fish kill regardless of how it turns out. If regulators think they can keep it in a nice simple box, they’re definitely in for a shock. Think of the un-redeemable, spaghettified mess that telecom regulations became when it was just about which category a phone call fell under and who owned which pieces of what hardware. Regulating the treatment of data on the internet is much more complicated.
So what is the answer ArsTechnica’s question, “Where in cyberspace is the dispute between Comcast and Level 3 located? On the Internet backbone, or at the last mile?” I would answer simply ‘Yes’.
The thing is, despite the fact that both sides say they’d prefer to work things out, I don’t think either has much incentive to compromise. Anything short of a reversal would set a precedent that Level 3 is trying to avoid. And if things go south here, then Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and others can (and probably will) just point to it as a reason why network neutrality rules shouldn’t be imposed in the first place. Whether they do find middle ground or not, the times they are a-changin’ (apologies to Bob Dylan).
As for that title above, in which I mutilated an iconic phrase for the purposes of a cheap pun… it’s worth mentioning that Hemingway didn’t coin it first but rather quoted it from a guy named John Donne, whose poem is rather apropos:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
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