I thought I’d weigh in on an item of popular news recently, the Verizon, Inc. court victory over the FCC’s attempt to implement net neutrality via regulatory fiat. I’ve been hearing that it could end up meaning something to content providers who have, as it seems, gained something from a prohibition on network traffic filtering and prioritization.
I do not think the court victory means much outside of the medium term. And to illustrate my logic, here’s a bit of a thought experiment. Imagine the web of interconnected networks we call the internet as like a federated parcel delivery system, similar to the post office. It makes sense to do so because in order to send information across a network, a computer breaks the information down into manageable chunks and addresses the information so that it can reach its intended destination. Your ISP is like the post office in that your computer delivers the information to your ISP, and your ISP then sends the information to the web of interconnected networks so that it can reach its destination based on the address. And this relationship is bi-directional. You can send and receive information across the internet, just like you can send and receive mail through the post office.
Now, concerning the technology involved, when your computer breaks down the information it sends into chunks and addresses it, it is like the generally accepted format of a business letter where the address is printed in the top header. When the information is sent, generally speaking, it is sent without putting it in an envelope.
And basically what the internet companies, like Verizon, are saying when they say they want to “prioritize,” is that they will look at each packet of information and decide how to deliver it or whether they will deliver it based on the content or sender. It is like the post office reading your mail and deciding whether to deliver it or how fast depending on what it says or to whom it is addressed.
In civilized society, we have determined that it is inappropriate to read someone else’s mail, and the mailman does not have the right to decide whether something you put in the mail will be delivered. And we have an age old process for keeping the honest people honest by putting letters in envelopes and addressing the front so that information can reach its destination without having been viewed by those who have no business knowing what’s inside. It is technologically possible to do this in terms of networking via secure sockets layer (SSL) or Internet Protocol Secure (IPSec).
There are costs both in monetary and processing terms involved in doing this, which is why it has not yet been done on a rule of thumb basis. At least for video traffic, the use of SSL or IPSec would require beefier processing equipment on both sides of the conversation because the process of putting in and taking each packet of information out of the envelope adds processing overhead. Boxes like the Apple TV or Roku would become a little more expensive, but probably not prohibitively so; say, $150-$175 instead of $100 for the latest versions. Home computers that are not more than perhaps two to three years old can probably handle the load without a noticeable hit to video quality. I think we would have to see the next evolution of the smartphone and tablet to 64-bit processors – which are on the horizon – for it to be successful.
Consequently, the internet companies who are attempting to further capitalize on their investments by using the free availability of information in packets as they pass through their networks as a pricing structure would be, in essence, shooting themselves in the foot because SSL and IPSec not only add processing overhead on both ends of the conversation, but they also increase the amount of packets required to send the same amount of information. It would be like corporate suicide to open oneself up to the consequences of the market response to such a move.
So, just because the court says that the FCC overstepped – which it did – doesn’t necessarily mean doom. It is just all a matter of how the rest of the internet industry responds. We have the technology to adapt and I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t.