Last week, activists proclaimed a “NetNeutrality Day”, trying to convince the FCC to regulate NetNeutrality. As a libertarian, I tweeted many reasons why NetNeutrality is stupid. NetNeutrality is exactly the sort of government regulation Libertarians hate most. Somebody tweeted the following challenge, which I thought I’d address here.
— Tanner Bennett (@NSExceptional) July 21, 2017
The links point to two separate cases.
- the Comcast BitTorrent throttling case
- a lawsuit against Time Warning for poor service
The tone of the tweet suggests that my anti-NetNeutrality stance cannot be defended in light of these cases. But of course this is wrong. The short answers are:
- the Comcast BitTorrent throttling benefits customers
- poor service has nothing to do with NetNeutrality
The long answers are below.
The Comcast BitTorrent Throttling
The presumption is that any sort of packet-filtering is automatically evil, and against the customer’s interests. That’s not true.
Take GoGoInflight’s internet service for airplanes. They block access to video sites like NetFlix. That’s because they often have as little as 1-mbps for the entire plane, which is enough to support many people checking email and browsing Facebook, but a single person trying to watch video will overload the internet connection for everyone. Therefore, their Internet service won’t work unless they filter video sites.
GoGoInflight breaks a lot of other NetNeutrality rules, such as providing free access to Amazon.com or promotion deals where users of a particular phone get free Internet access that everyone else pays for. And all this is allowed by FCC, allowing GoGoInflight to break NetNeutrality rules because it’s clearly in the customer interest.
Comcast’s throttling of BitTorrent is likewise clearly in the customer interest. Until the FCC stopped them, BitTorrent users were allowed unlimited downloads. Afterwards, Comcast imposed a 300-gigabyte/month bandwidth cap.
Internet access is a series of tradeoffs. BitTorrent causes congestion during prime time (6pm to 10pm). Comcast has to solve it somehow — not solving it wasn’t an option. Their options were:
- Charge all customers more, so that the 99% not using BitTorrent subsidizes the 1% who do.
- Impose a bandwidth cap, preventing heavy BitTorrent usage.
- Throttle BitTorrent packets during prime-time hours when the network is congested.
Option 3 is clearly the best. BitTorrent downloads take hours, days, and sometimes weeks. BitTorrent users don’t mind throttling during prime-time congested hours. That’s preferable to the other option, bandwidth caps.
I’m a BitTorrent user, and a heavy downloader (I scan the Internet on a regular basis from cloud machines, then download the results to home, which can often be 100-gigabytes in size for a single scan). I want prime-time BitTorrent throttling rather than bandwidth caps. The EFF/FCC’s action that prevented BitTorrent throttling forced me to move to Comcast Business Class which doesn’t have bandwidth caps, charging me $100 more a month. It’s why I don’t contribute the EFF — if they had not agitated for this, taking such choices away from customers, I’d have $1200 more per year to donate to worthy causes.
Ask any user of BitTorrent which they prefer: 300gig monthly bandwidth cap or BitTorrent throttling during prime-time congested hours (6pm to 10pm). The FCC’s action did not help Comcast’s customers, it hurt them. Packet-filtering would’ve been a good thing, not a bad thing.
The Time-Warner Case
First of all, no matter how you define the case, it has nothing to do with NetNeutrality. NetNeutrality is about filtering packets, giving some priority over others. This case is about providing slow service for everyone.
Secondly, it’s not true. Time Warner provided the same access speeds as everyone else. Just because they promise 10mbps download speeds doesn’t mean you get 10mbps to NetFlix. That’s not how the Internet works — that’s not how any of this works.
To prove this, look at NetFlix’s connection speed graphis. It shows Time Warner Cable is average for the industry. It had the same congestion problems most ISPs had in 2014, and it has the same inability to provide more than 3mbps during prime-time (6pm-10pm) that all ISPs have today.
The YouTube video quality diagnostic pages
show Time Warner Cable to similar to other providers around the country. It also shows the prime-time bump between 6pm and 10pm.
Congestion is an essential part of the Internet design. When an ISP like Time Warner promises you 10mbps bandwidth, that’s only “best effort”. There’s no way they can promise 10mbps stream to everybody on the Internet, especially not to a site like NetFlix that gets overloaded during prime-time.
Indeed, it’s the defining feature of the Internet compared to the old “telecommunications” network. The old phone system guaranteed you a steady 64-kbps stream between any time points in the phone network, but it cost a lot of money. Today’s Internet provide a free multi-megabit stream for free video calls (Skype, Facetime) around the world — but with the occasional dropped packets because of congestion.
Whatever lawsuit money-hungry lawyers come up with isn’t about how an ISP like Time Warner works. It’s only about how they describe the technology. They work no different than every ISP — no different than how anything is possible.
The short answer to the above questions is this: Comcast’s BitTorrent throttling benefits customers, and the Time Warner issue has nothing to do with NetNeutrality at all.
The tweet demonstrates that NetNeutrality really means. It has nothing to do with the facts of any case, especially the frequency that people point to ISP ills that have nothing actually to do with NetNeutrality. Instead, what NetNeutrality really about is socialism. People are convinced corporations are evil and want the government to run the Internet. The Comcast/BitTorrent case is a prime example of why this is a bad idea: government definitions of what customers want is actually far different than what customers actually want.
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