Why — and when — net neutrality is important

Woody Leonhard

Netflix and Comcast now have an agreement allowing Netflix to link directly to Comcast’s servers. Similar agreements are in the works, involving Verizon and many other ISPs.

Proponents of net neutrality believe all should have equal access to the Net, but the debate isn’t nearly as cut-and-dried as you think.

Netflix streamlines its video-delivery process

Among Web-based services, Netflix isn’t just huge — it’s ginormous. During peak hours — weekday evenings — Netflix accounts for about one-third of all Web activity, according to Web-monitoring company Sandvine, as reported in an All Things Digital article. Toss in Google-owned YouTube, and the two together suck up about 50 percent of prime-time downstream bandwidth. That’s consumption on a mind-boggling scale.

By comparison, Amazon takes up 1.6 percent of prime-time Internet bandwidth, Facebook and Hulu use about 1.3 percent each, and even BitTorrent downloads account for only 4 percent.

Add to that, Comcast and other ISPs provide their own video content. Comcast’s xfinity TV (site), for example, offers movies, TV shows, and many other products that compete directly with Netflix. If your Internet connection comes over a Comcast cable (as mine does), the company that’s actually delivering those Netflix movies to your home makes a lot more money if it sells you an xfinity TV subscription — a situation that has conflict of interest written all over it.

When, according to an Ars Technica story, Netflix’s streaming speed started dropping in late 2013 on Comcast and Verizon, some accused Comcast of throttling Netflix — specifically so Comcast could sell more xfinity TV. From what we now know, that most likely wasn’t the case. But the explanation is, uh, a bit complex.

Even before Comcast and Netflix ironed out their deal last month, Netflix would put its own streaming servers inside ISPs’ server farms. Netflix servers would sit — logically and often physically — inside a Content Delivery Network (CDN) provider’s area, which in turn sat in the ISP’s server area.

In the case of Comcast, Netflix had lots of server horsepower inside Comcast’s server rooms, but it could not connect directly to Comcast servers. Netflix paid third-party CDN providers — primarily Cogent and Level 3 — to make the logical and physical connection between Netflix and Comcast servers.

Most Internet users assume that ISPs such as Comcast must provide equal access to their servers from any other online source. In other words, Comcast is required to give Netflix, YouTube, and all other Web-service providers — including Windows Secrets — all the bandwidth they need.

But bandwidth is finite; there’s only so much to go around. (I always used to assume that, when an 800-pound Internet gorilla such as Netflix started soaking up bandwidth, WindowsSecrets.com — along with other smaller sites — got bogged down.) As detailed in Dan Rayburn’s StreamingMediaBlog Feb. 27 post, the concept of equal access for all simply isn’t the case — and never has been.

Here’s how Rayburn explains the situation:

“ISPs have something called a peering policy (Comcast page), which are rules that govern how networks connect with one another and exchange traffic. ISPs like Comcast will allow CDN providers like Cogent to connect to their network, for free, in what’s called settlement-free peering. However, once the transit provider sends more traffic to the ISP than they are allowed to, per the ISP’s peering policy, the transit provider pays the ISP for more capacity to get additional traffic into their network.”

That’s where things started breaking down for Netflix. When Netflix needed bigger data pipes to Comcast servers, Cogent wasn’t willing to pay Comcast’s price. In short, the agreement between Netflix and Comcast eliminated the transit-provider middlemen — Cogent, Level 3, and others.

Net-neutrality defenders immediately cry foul

When the Comcast/Netflix deal was announced, it quickly caught the attention of net-neutrality advocates. How can Comcast play favorites with Netflix at the expense of — oh, YouTube, WindowsSecrets.com, and others?

That’s an excellent question. To answer it, let’s start with the problem of defining “net neutrality.” The term has been bandied about a lot, but in fact it doesn’t really have a single definition. Ben Thompson explained the situation in his Feb. 27 stratēchery blog

“For most people, particularly those of us in the tech industry, net neutrality means non-discrimination against packets from origin to destination. A packet from Netflix or YouTube or PornHub or the New York Times is treated and priced exactly the same from server to client and back again.

“The FCC’s Open Internet rules, which were [recently] ruled as overreaching by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington … [apply only ] to traffic within an ISP’s network; in other words, once data is within Comcast’s or Verizon’s network, they can’t discriminate, delivering some data faster or slower.

“Netflix has a subtly different view, best articulated by [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings … : ‘If I watch last night’s SNL episode on my Xbox through the Hulu app, it eats up about 1GB of my cap; but if I watch that same episode through the xfinity Xbox app, it doesn’t use up my cap at all. The same device, the same IP address, the same Wi-Fi, the same Internet connection, but totally different cap treatment. In what way is this neutral?'”

Those are three very different — and very valid — points of view. If you’re concerned about the net-neutrality implications of the Comcast/Netflix deal (and many people are, especially in the tech press and increasingly on Capitol Hill), you need to point to a definition of net neutrality and explain how the Comcast/Netflix deal invades on your specific vision of net neutrality.

That’s harder than you might think.

The specifics of the Comcast/Netflix deal

One of my favorite tech writers, Lance Ulanoff, explained the Comcast/Netflix agreement in his Feb. 26 Mashable post:

“Some are calling the Comcast-Netflix deal the first ‘pay-to-play deal,’ as it tiptoed in over the weekend, much to the dismay of net neutrality fans. It comes just one month after a court struck down the Federal Communication Commission’s net neutrality rules and only days since the FCC proposed a new set of regulations. The problem is that this isn’t a net neutrality issue. It’s not pay-to-play, either. In reality, it’s just business as usual.”

Again, think of it as Netflix cutting out the middlemen in the delivery of its bits to an ISP. (There’s no question that similar deals will be coming down the pike with other ISPs. And it’s highly likely there will be similar deals with other video providers.) What’s changing behind the scenes is the role of the Content Delivery Network — especially for bandwidth-hogging video delivery.

Rayburn describes the internal workings in his Feb. 27 blog:

“When Netflix was using third-party CDN providers Akamai, Level 3, and Limelight for 100 percent of their video delivery, there were no quality issues. … Those CDNs already have their servers connected to ISPs like Comcast and have put in place all the necessary links, both free and paid, to guarantee, via a Service Level Agreement, that they can deliver Netflix’s video. … Anyone who is on Comcast and using Apple TV to stream Netflix wasn’t having quality problems [because] Netflix is using Level 3 and Limelight to stream their content specifically to the Apple TV device.

“Comcast has a total of 18 national locations (public info), and Netflix and Comcast will initially connect in about 10 of those locations to start. … Netflix gets a guaranteed level of service from Comcast, but as the two companies have announced, Netflix does not get any prioritization in the last mile. … That would be paid prioritization, which Comcast cannot do and does not offer.

According to tests conducted by Netflix and reported by Ars Technica, Netflix speeds on Comcast got “a little better” as the new direct connections between Netflix and Comcast servers started to come online.

Not surprisingly, that same report shows that Netflix over Google Fiber runs very quickly indeed. Netflix connects directly to the Google servers.

The true net-neutrality implications for us all

There are legitimate threats to net neutrality and we need to take them seriously. But the Comcast/Netflix agreement falls outside most definitions of “net neutrality.”

As mentioned in my March 20 Top Story, “Comcast and Time Warner Cable: The upshot for us,” Comcast’s reprehensible (!) bandwidth caps might carry over to Time Warner Cable, should the deal be upheld by a well-greased Congress. With download limits in place, Comcast could win either way — you either pay for an xfinity TV subscription (ka-ching!) or you pay overage charges for watching “too much” Netflix. Sweet!

There’s a proposal on the table that Congress really should consider. I know it’s an impossible dream, but cloud guru Paul Venezia suggests that the U.S. take steps to make Web access fast, reliable, and cheap for everybody. “Here in the U.S., we’re doing the exact opposite, as fast as we possibly can.” Paul’s proposal, published in an InfoWorld story, is to classify ISPs as common carriers — just as are phone companies. We then commoditize broadband, with “true, free-market competition.” He — and many, many others — suggests we treat Internet access like electricity, water, and sewer. The devil’s in the details, but it sure sounds like a great first step to me.

For those of us who just want a fast, reliable, cheap, content-independent Internet connection (as is already available in many areas outside the U.S.), the Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal raises all sorts of red flags. But once you have the facts, the Comcast/Netflix deal doesn’t.

If you’re concerned about true net neutrality, here’s a simple place to start. Find out how your congresscritter stands on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal. It’ll be worth your while to find out. Then let him or her know where you stand.

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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2014-03-27:

Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.