Network Neutrality and the Death of the Internet as We Know it… or is it?

Got your attention with that title didn't I? Network neutrality is a hot topic lately in the Internet and there is a lot of misinformation or confusion in regards to the argument, what it is and how it affects you. I want to start this post first by stating that all comments and views in this post are those of my own and do not reflect SingleHop's views towards network neutrality or the Internet in its entirety.

The Internet, as a whole, is an extremely complex network that ties together nations, users, and corporations to provide unlimited sources of information, humor, media, and so on. This post, while long, is going to be going over the various “layers” of the Internet and how these layers end up affecting you, the consumer.

To get the pink elephant in the room out of the way, let’s first go over the recent ruling from the federal court over FCC’s rules on network neutrality. The ruling states that the FCC cannot impose regulatory rules on "last-mile" providers because these providers are not designated common carriers. Before they instated the Open Internet Order in 2010 the FCC designated ISPs as information services instead of common carriers. Information services fall under a different law than common carriers, which are not subject to Title II regulation of the Communications Act of 1934. Title II of the Communications Act states that common carriers are not allowed to provide preference to services over their medium. An example of how this worked was Bell South could not provide preference to another Bell service over MCI back in the 80’s. Bell would not be allowed to claim that their switches were full to connect a long distance call because they wanted Bell users to have more access.

So for those that want an explanation in plain English without the legalese the FCC classified ISPs at a lower level than those of our phone services. Because of this ISPs do not fall under the same regulation, which would allow the FCC to mandate an unimpeded service to all "last-mile" users. Now what if I told you the Internet as a whole isn't neutral at all? How does that make you feel?

Reading over this post by now you've seen that I keep saying last-mile. If you think of the Internet as a whole, there’s a lot more than just the last-mile. The easiest way to view the Internet is the tiered approach, which you can designate the Internet by 3 major tiers. Tier 1 is the backbone of our Internet, the providers that span across the globe tying nations together. Then moving down to Tier 2, we have large national providers that link up to Tier 1 and down to further providers.  Last being Tier 3, which are providers with a large network, but usually isolated to a given area and link into Tier 2 providers.  Among these tiers across the globe you have global Internet exchange points. These are large buildings where all these networks end up and link to one-another, which makes up our Internet.

With all these networks the Internet is setup to link together over the BGP protocol. The BGP protocol takes all the announced networks across the Internet and the Internet as a whole decides where it needs to link up to tie all our destinations together. If a route goes down then all the routers will communicate, decide the new best path and link back up. The BGP protocol also allows edge routers to announce preference to specific networks as configured by network administrators.

These preferences are often over what are known as transport links. Transport links are when two fiber networks setup a link directly between each network and instead of sending traffic out across the Internet the two networks become directly linked. This cuts back on transit costs for providers and usually offers a benefit to each provider. This practice is known as a peering agreement. In the past, these agreements were setup to benefit both providers when one notices that their network has a lot of traffic destined to the other party and wishes to cut back on their transit costs while also providing a faster link between the two networks. As the transport between the two networks grows the providers will turn on more ports at their peering exchange, which allows for more throughput across their networks.

This is where things start to fall apart and you’ll see that there are talks of “peering wars” on some popular network sites. As the Internet moved from an information gateway towards media consumption with services such as YouTube, Netflix, and CDN networks sending more traffic than receiving, companies in peering agreements noticed that they were spending a lot of money to turn up new ports for their transport links to meet the other parties’ usage while not utilizing their end to the same level.  The lower-tiered networks claimed this was unfair and they were eating the cost so that higher-tiered providers could provide services that were impossible for the lower-tiered providers to compete against. As time went on, some lower tiers would not turn up ports or threaten to de-peer, which ends up with users having horrible experience across the saturated junction points. You can actually see these in real time on some networks at sites such as www.internetpuls.net, which gives you a real-time view of various providers and the latency between them. Sometimes the colored windows go red which shows packet-loss which can be a result of many things. As these points saturate, any information going over these links will be spotty or slow.

This leads to the CDN revolution and the affect it has had on the "last-mile" along with the cartel-esque tactics both sides use. A great example of this is Netflix with their release of SuperHD last year. Many people were unable to use this service up until it went public September 2013, however, Netflix would offer it and bait customers by claiming their provider was too slow to use the service. The reality of it is up until September 2013 Netflix would not offer SuperHD unless you peered into their Open Connect CDN which allows Netflix to stream directly into a network without having to pay for transit costs.  This was very apparent last year when Verizon went public about poor Netflix performance due to peering issues between Verizon and Cogent.  While the cost of turning up ports is very low for large networks such as Verizon the lower tiered providers are complaining that they shouldn't have to pay these extra costs when the usage of these ports is disproportionate to a very high degree. The higher tiered networks claim that they have to because of the agreement set forward between the two.

Some of the larger networks like XO and Level-3 have revised their peering agreements to reflect what are known as bit-miles instead of total throughput at a point and base their peering on these metrics. This allows them to maintain a settlement-free agreement and maintain a sustainable link between one-another. The problem is that the bit-mile approach doesn't provide as much revenue in peering agreements so very few providers are adopting it.

Rather than continuing with these peering wars the "last-mile" providers want to skip these providers and demand payment directly from services such as Netflix or YouTube, which are heavily consumption-based and receive far less traffic from the “last-mile” provider.  Many news outlets claim that these tactics will create a “tiered” Internet for consumers, which already is the case. In reality what will happen is if the ISP doesn't get their money from services they will take it out on their peering agreement, which will affect other services. In the end, the Internet as a whole will never have network neutrality until peering is revised and better regulated amongst all parties and not just the “last-mile.”