This week has seen an escalation in the battle over net neutrality, as both content providers and transit networks are now demanding that the murky world of peering gets added to the agenda. While the original FCC net neutrality regulations never went past the last mile, ISPs have been applying pressure recently in the form of refusals to upgrade interconnections to relieve growing congestion. Their apparent aim? To get paid on both ends, by consumer and content, while forcibly cutting out the middlemen.
Netflix’s Reed Hastings has taken the gloves off at last, going public with a strongly worded blog post yesterday. While for now Netflix is paying for interconnection to Comcast and soon other last mile operators, Hastings is basically saying that he is doing so under protest while he waits for action. He is explicitly calling this a toll, which is of course a fighting word when it comes to net neutrality.
Meanwhile, Cogent this week asked the FCC to reclassify broadband providers as common carriers, thus making all this easier to regulate. Cogent was one of the providers Netflix had been using to reach Comcast subscribers until performance dropped precipitously. They’d have gone to the mat with Comcast if Netflix had a higher pain tolerance. If they had, this would all have come to a head quickly, as the way traffic growth tends to be the congestion would have quickly turned into something much worse.
And of course earlier this week, Level 3’s Michael Mooney weighed in with a blog post likening the behavior of last mile operators to playing chicken with the internet. A major point Mooney made was that the tactic of using congestion as pressure doesn’t just slow down Netflix, it also may interrupt 911 VoIP calls and interfere with online commerce in various ways. We use the internet in so many complex ways it isn’t that hard to break.
As for games chicken, I had a little fun with that myself calling for any chicken battles to be performed in the buff. Strangely I got few volunteers, but I have hopes for the future. But the point that I was trying to make is that one of the reasons the world of peering and interconnection is vulnerable to pressure in this form is that it is largely done with elbows in the dark. As a reader noted, sunlight is a powerful disinfectant, it must be part of the solution – if we ever find one.
Will other providers take sides too, or sit on the sidelines of the chicken match. Akamai? Large foreign ISPs with both their own last mile elsewhere in the world and a big transit backbone like Teliasonera and NTT? Independents like GTT, Hurricane Electric? Where is Google on all this anyway? (Besides Kansas City!)
Is there any way to find middle ground here? Something we can all live with? Some metrics that can encourage innovation and investment at both ends of the network? Because if we can’t find it, sooner or later someone’s going to let the internet break (not just bend) to make a point.
Right now we mainly have posturing, but little in the way of concrete proposals. At least ‘free interconnection for all’ as Reed Hastings seems to be calling for is hopefully just a bargaining position, because it sounds like a can, nay a barrel, of worms.
Tom Wheeler, I wish you luck untangling this one. Better get those new net neutrality rules out there before someone lights a match out here.
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