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Taking network neutrality personally



                by brian dipert, senior technical editor

                                                                                        has a direct connection to the local
                                                                                        exchange switch, which then connects
                                                                                        to a regional switch through a fiber-optic
                                                                                        tether. Network upgrades are therefore
                                                                                        relatively straightforward and inexpen-
                                                                                        sive for a carrier such as AT&T to imple-
                                                                                        ment, yet the company’s financial state-
                                                                                        ments indicate that it is forgoing them
Taking network neutrality                                                               because land-line revenues are decreas-
                                                                                        ing as an increasing number of former

personally                                                                              subscribers drop their POTS (plain-old-

                                                                                        telephone-system) connections for cellu-
                                                                                        lar-only usage profiles. AT&T was slow to
   hope by now that my consistent stance on network neutral-                            offer “naked” DSL service, which remains
   ity is clear. As I wrote in June 2008, circumventing network                         financially unattractive versus bundled
   neutrality might involve the performance degradation or a                            plans, and uptake of its U-verse fiber-
                                                                                        based services has been muted at best.
   complete blockage of services, protocols, or ports. Although
   I understand the technical reasons that these heavy-handed                           It’s important for
   measures might be attractive to network administrators, I
remain concerned about the societal impacts of access limits on                         companies to be
diverse information that these moves imply, as well as their nega-                      honest about the
tive impact on the free-market development of new and improved                          true reasons for
Internet services.                                                                      policy changes.
   However, a subtler form of network          The network-neutrality debate will
neutrality could come into play if band-   soon affect my broadband pipe, which             AT&T reserves a percentage of the
width tiers become pervasive. I won-       AT&T’s DSL (digital subscriber line)         fiber bandwidth it delivers to its U-verse
der, for example, how closely the ISPs     provides. AT&T will begin on May             Internet-service customers for option-
(Internet-service providers) will moni-    2 instituting bandwidth caps of 150          al AT&T-branded VOIP and IPTV
tor how much data customers down-          Gbytes/month for copper-delivered            (Internet Protocol-television) services,
load and serve to others, the origin and   DSL customers and 250 Gbytes/month           whose use doesn’t count against band-
destination of that data, and what the     for fiber-supplied U-verse users. Beyond     width caps. Conversely, if you were to use
ISPs will do with that information. For    that threshold, AT&T will charge $10         Ooma or Vonage as your VOIP provider
example, will an ISP slap a surcharge      for incremental 50-Gbyte upstream            or obtain your TV content from Hulu
on customers using excessive bandwidth     and downstream bandwidth usage per           Plus or Netflix Watch Instantly, these
for using the ISP’s VOIP (voice-over-      month. Note that AT&T chose to insti-        bandwidth demands would accrue toward
Internet Protocol) service? Perhaps this   tute bandwidth caps rather than throttle     the cap thresholds. In either case, AT&T
example is not the best because VOIP       down temporary customer-specific band-       wins: It charges its customers overage
communications is a small-payload          width during heavy network-usage peri-       fees, or it redirects them toward lucrative
service, so consider instead videocon-     ods, which some other wired and wireless     branded service tiers and options.
ferencing. Will AT&T look the other        ISPs employ. AT&T claims that it insti-          AT&T is free to institute whatever
way if its bandwidth-hungry customers      tuted the caps because it has experienced    policy changes it chooses, subject to
are heavy Yahoo! Messenger video-chat      a dramatic increase in the amount of         legal constraints; the market will judge
users because AT&T has a business rela-    sent and received data over its wire-line    whether those decisions are wise. It’s
tionship with Yahoo?                       broadband networks. A small fraction         important, however, for companies to
   Speaking of payloads, consider the      of customers drove this increase; the        be honest about the true reasons for
biggest bandwidth user of all: video       top 2% of customers use about 20% of         policy changes. EDN
downloads. Will ISPs disregard band-       the network’s total capacity. If network
width caps for customers of their own or   congestion were the true reason for the      Contact me at
their partners’ movie and TV services?     company’s actions, however, wouldn’t
Conversely, what impact will band-         it instead choose to throttle back the          + Read an expanded version of this
width caps have on new, compelling         bandwidth for heavy users?                     column in the Brian’s Brain blog at
offerings, such as Hulu and Netflix’s          Unlike with a shared local-loop cable-
Watch Instantly?                           Internet topology, each DSL subscriber

                                                                                                     APRIL 21, 2011 | EDN 9

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