This is an essay I wrote approximately 18 months ago that seeks to explain in plain English the esoteric issue of net neutrality.
I first tried watching the video in 1080p, reasoning that Google has officially certified "The Future of Awesome" as "HD Verified" in my geographic location.
See for yourself:
- The text left of the graph, which reads: "Users on YouTube HD Verified networks should expect smooth playback most of the time when watching high-definition YouTube videos (720p and above)" (emphasis added); and
- Below the graph, "The Future of Awesome" is listed as YouTube HD Verified.
Even at 240p, the lowest possible resolution, the resolution that's been obsolete since DVDs became available in the United States in March 1996—over eighteen-and-a-half years ago—the video continued to buffer for several minutes.
Thankfully—despite Comcast's and its peer corporations' efforts on the contrary—there is an easy and free way to find out just exactly what you're getting in exchange for forking over $600 to Comcast.
Recall "The Future of Awesome" contractually promises me 10 mbps. What was I actually getting?
- Extremely effective rent-seeking behavior; and
- A concerted, highly successful campaign of intentionally obfuscating how consumers access the internet.
But a single Tier 1 network cannot reach every aspect of the internet alone. Instead, inside those data centers, network ABC physically connects to network XYZ (and vice versa). This physical connection—known as "peering"—enables internet traffic on ABC's network to seamlessly cross onto XYZ's network.
But calling them ISPs isn't terribly precise and can be confusing. In legal-slash-telecommunications jargon, the companies you pay for internet access are known as "last-mile ISPs." This is admittedly a misnomer, but the nomenclature is rooted in the idea that last-mile ISPs carry internet traffic over "the last mile"—from their data center(s) into your home.
But in the interest of keeping things straightforward, here's a simplified hypothetical.
Assume there are four total actors. First, there is a pair of parties who want/need access to the internet:
- Bob, a regular dude, resides in Washington, D.C. and he's a Netflix subscriber;
- Netflix, an edge provider, needs access to the internet to provide its internet content.
- Comcast, Bob's last-mile ISP;
- Cogent, Netflix's ISP, which Netflix pays in exchange for Cogent to take Netflix's internet traffic. Cogent, however, must buy transit in order to enable Netflix's traffic to reach individual consumers.
In short, Netflix (through its ISP, Cogent) pays Comcast X dollars to take Netflix's traffic, but Netflix (through Cogent) pays Verizon 10X dollars to take the exact same Netflix traffic.
First, last-mile ISPs' complaints about the volume of data they receive from content/edge providers rests on a flawed premise.
Last-mile ISPs proclaim: "We send Cogent a handful of bits and in return Cogent/Netflix sends us gigabytes upon gigabytes of data!"
So who really causes last-mile ISPs to accept large volumes of data? The last-mile ISPs would have you believe that the content providers, like Netflix, cause them to take troves of data—and thus the content providers should pony up.
But there's an equally persuasive argument that last-mile ISPs—not the content/edge providers—cause the traffic. Lest we forget what, exactly, we consumers are paying last-mile ISPs for: access to the internet, the whole internet—including streaming video.
So last-mile ISPs spend millions upon millions of dollars on advertising themselves as God's gift to the universe for providing consumers access to every corner of the internet. ("The Future of Awesome.") But behind closed doors, last-mile ISPs are perfectly content providing their subscribers only those corners of the internet that fork over enough cash.
Second, large disparities in the volume of traffic accepted versus the volume sent is an asinine reason to demand more expensive traffic exchange agreements. Internet traffic is simply data. The direction it flows has no bearing on cost/expense.
The only factors that determine the cost of internet traffic transmission are (a) the volume of data; and (b) the distance the data physically travels.
So last-mile ISPs' complaint that Netflix sends them a huge volume of data is certainty legitimate. But the disparity of traffic exchanged between Comcast and Cogent doesn't cost Comcast anything; rather, the volume of traffic Comcast accepts from Netflix is the primary driver of cost; the direction the data flows is completely irrelevant.
The other internet-traffic-cost-driver is physical distance. The greater the distance data travels, the more expensive traffic transmission becomes.
(As I briefly alluded to earlier, content providers are hard at work finding ways to circumvent last-mile ISPs' consumer gatekeeping power. Presumably concerned that last-mile ISPs will soon try using transmission distance to further inflate prices, content/edge providers have started building their own data centers as close as possible to last-mile ISPs' data centers.)
So if we're going get serious about pricing internet traffic transmission rationally, then it's time to stop complaining about traffic exchange disparities, and instead focus on pricing transmission as a function of volume and distance.
This is all pretty abhorrent. But I've saved the worst for last.
First, the ongoing "Net Neutrality" proceedings at the FCC do not address any of this. Instead, the FCC's latest proposed rules only address the ability/legality of last-mile ISPs choking/slowing/degrading content over the "last mile."4
Meaning that IXP congestion—which, from a consumer's standpoint, is functionally indistinguishable from degrading content in the last-mile—isn't going anywhere.
- First, you pay your ISP directly each month;
- Second, your ISP charges Cogent (Netflix's ISP) to accept any of Netflix's traffic—a cost passed onto Netflix and then passed from Netflix onto you; and
- Third, the real kicker, if you want to actually watch Netflix content with minimal buffering, then every time an IXP becomes congested, Cogent and Netflix has no choice but to hand over even more cash to your ISP to alleviate the congestion—yet another cost ultimately passed down to the consumer.