Internet free for all

On 21 December 2010 the United States Federal Communications Commissioners (FCC ) voted 3 to 2 to adopt what its Chairman called a set of “strong and balanced” net neutrality rules. Opinion differs on that, covering the spectrum from sellout (from the left) to a step toward destruction of capitalism (on the right). Most of the hue and cry so far is despite the fact that the details of the rules have yet to be made public. Nevertheless the issues of net neutrality are important to all teleworkers because most of them depend on a well-functioning Internet if they are to continue as teleworkers.

To give you some perspective on what seems to be an abstruse subject, here are some of the fundamental points:

The physics: There are two ways of sending electromagnetic signals from one point to another: via free space or through wires or tubes (waveguides or optical fibers). Each of these options has bandwidth limitations; there is only so much room for signals in each type of medium. The trouble is that there is only one free space while there are many possible networks of wires/waveguides/fibers. Once fiber AB is saturated with data going between between points A and B one can overcome the problem by adding another fiber A’B’ between the two points. Problem solved. Not so with free space. Unlike closely confined signals on wires, waveguides or fibers, wireless signals are unconstrained except by solid obstacles like mountains. There is no alternative wireless route between A and B. So wireless systems need to be treated differently than wired ones.

The original concept of the Internet: A voluntary communications network with a standard set of protocols that anyone can use for any purpose and with no single entity in control: net neutrality. The action is all at the periphery, the edge; the network simply lets it happen without interference. This has been the key to the spectacular rise of the Internet as a global, unconstrained communications medium.

The main issue: Now that the Internet works so well that it has become wildly popular we run into the dreaded freeway effect; traffic always grows to exceed the capacity of the highways. In particular, video is much more bandwidth intensive than other forms of messaging. Not only does video take lots of spectrum space but it also needs continuity of transmission–no stoppage, no waiting for the light to change. Here’s where some ISP’s, notably Comcast, have stepped in to control transmission of traffic from bandwidth hogs (or at least impecunious bandwidth hogs). On top of this millions of new Internet users add to the communications traffic each week. This is where many network services owners are fighting to retain/regain control of traffic and where many Internet advocates are horrified by the prospect of the demise of the free Internet. Worse, in principle the problem is solvable in the wired part of the Internet by adding more fibers. But the wireless part of the net is still stuck with its finite capacity. With a finite resource and increasing demand (much of it from the rapidly expanding smart phone market) basic economics says the price will go up and the struggle for control will intensify.

And, of course, since there are heaps of money involved the struggle will continue to be highly political. There is a clear fairness argument that those parties who use the Internet the most (i.e., soak up the most bandwidth/priorities) should pay the most. But then, who should be in charge and who sets up the price structure when the core feature of the Internet is that no one is in charge? The recent decision by the FCC (which either gives rise to anarchy or is the next step toward Big Brother) is but a step in the long road toward . . . ?

Stay tuned.

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