Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality is showing up as one of the top stories shortly after the 2014 elections. It is not an easy topic to understand, especially with all of the claims and counter-claims flying around the Internet. Many of the statements are made by people who have no idea what is involved but are taking their position purely for political or personal financial reasosns. This post is an attempt to explain in relatively simple terms what is involved in Net Neutrality by using familiar analogies.

Net Neutrality is really about what happens at the detailed level to the packets of information that go from a service (e.g.m NetFlix) to your computer. First I would like to describe what it is not. It is not about how much data you can download, nor how fast you can download it. Looking only at the download of information from one or more services (e.g., YouTube, Comedy Central, ESPN, etc.) This is analogous to a bucket with a hole in it. The bucket represents the total amount of data you can download with your plan per month. 

This is a special bucket. You can add data to the bucket, but it keeps track of how much total you have added. If you reach the limit of the bucket, you will need to "purchase" a new bucket. You can download more, but you will need to pay an incremental charge for that.

How fast you can download something is the hole in the bucket. The bigger the hole, the faster you can download. The plans are generally set up so the bigger the hole, the bigger the bucket. Your provider limits the download speed. If the network gets crowded, you may see less data flow through the hole. If the network is very uncrowded, you may see more data flow through the hole. The maximum size of the whole is limited by the equipment used. 4G LTE has a limit of 12 million bits per second (Mbps). A 12 mega-pixel phone camera has 12 mega-pixels at 3 bytes per pixel and 8 bits per byte. The image gets compressed to (typically) about 20% of the original size or about 58 mega-bits. That would take a minimum of 5 seconds to download.

The analogy was describing your download speed and quantity. A similar analogy works for the servers on the Internet. NetFlix, YouTube and everyone else has a rate at which they can put data into the Internet and a monthly total amount of data. When their monthly limit is reached, they need to make arrangements for more data to be placed (similar to getting a new bucket). Net Neutrality does not affect any of this.

Net Neutrality affects the information once it is on the Internet. Data sent over the Internet is broken into small pieces that travel from the origination to the destination. Since the analogy has been frequently used, I will use it too. This is like a freeway (or tollway/FastTrak). Information is split into smaller pieces (vehicles) and sent on its way. In this analogy, the location of the on- and off-ramps are important, but the ramp traffic is not part of Net Neutrality. In a freeway, any car can travel in any lane. It is the same price (namely free) to travel on the left, right, or center. You can access the freeway from any on-ramp, and leave it at any off-ramp.

Now suppose that the freeway owners (typically the State), determine that one lane is only for yellow cars, another lane is only for Lexus-branded vehicles, and all cars older than two years shall only travel in a third lane. If you drive a typical car, you are in a lane with a lot of other vehicles. It doesn't matter if you are just out for a drive, or have an important event to attend - you are stuck in that lane. To make things worse, if you drive a GM, you would need to pull over every ten miles and wait a minute - just because.

If you drive a yellow car, you are in great shape because there aren't many yellow cars. At which point Home Depot, Lowes, car paint shops will start doing a huge business on yellow paint. That evens out the traffic, but you need to do something to change your car. You could also buy a Lexus, but not everyone can afford that or would even want to do it.

After a while, a lot of people have yellow cars and there are more Lexus on the freeways. The owners decide to get more money from the freeway and introduce toll-lanes. Different lanes pay different amounts. The prices are adjusted to keep the more expensive lanes running much faster than the cheaper lanes. There are also ramps that are reserved for the exclusive access of users of those lanes. That means not only do those people get on and off the freeway faster, they travel faster than everyone else. It comes down to the rich pay to have the priveledge to be faster than everyone else. That may be fine as an individual payment; but when you are a business, you need to recoup that expense. Your prices will be higher. If you controll the market, you will be able to prevent anyone else from getting started because they won't have the money to pay for the faster speed when starting up. Would you subscribe to NetFlix if you had to start downloading the show a day before you wanted to watch it?

Net Neutrality prevents the descrimination of speed of Interent throughput based on the type of data, its origination, or its destination. It simply makes the Internet a level playing field for everyone.