Open highways and traffic jams

I read two compelling, yet contrary, takes on the question of “net neutrality” this week, one by Douglas Holtzeakin, the other by Doc Searls.

Holtzeakin, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office, argues in a Financial Times op-ed against using legislation or regulation to protect the “one-size-fits-all” neutrality of the internet. He contends that “one cannot find a real-world network that operates neutrally”:

Try freight transport. If I want to buy a case of French wine, I can have it shipped ocean freight. If I want it quickly, I can pay more and have it flown to the US. [Or] think of traditional poles-and-wires telephony. Even in those networks, many consumers have the option – and parents of teenagers typically pursue it – of paying more for greater capacity, or “call waiting”. These arrangements have flowed naturally from market forces and reflect the nearly limitless capacity of tailored contracts to meet the dual goals of cost recovery and optimising customer satisfaction.

The internet, he says, should be allowed to evolve in the same way, guided by market forces rather than regulatory fiat.

In an article in Linux Journal, Searls argues that the internet’s neutrality needs to be safeguarded if it is to continue to be a platform for innovation. To Searls, the past offers plenty of examples of neutral networks, the openness of which provided large public benefits:

How about framing the Net as rivers and oceans, which nobody owns and which float everybody’s boat? Or how about framing the Net as public land? [Or] how about framing the Net as the “Information Highway” that became a cliche (without ever quite happening) a decade ago? To get what I mean by that, consider what the US would be like today if we hadn’t created the Interstate Highway System fifty years ago. What would the lack of Interstate Highway infrastructure have cost us by now?

The analogy to roads is particularly interesting because it seems to cut both ways. Searls is right that having an open road system, with free and equal access to all, has provided a wealth of economic benefits. On the other hand, as anyone who has driven into or out of a big city recently knows, those roads are often horribly jammed, resulting in the waste of huge amounts of people’s time. Holtzeakin picks up on this theme:

The profound desire to pretend that highways are free has produced massive urban congestion – and a revolution in the form of toll roads and even congestion pricing. When London decided to charge for its valuable automobile capacity at peak times, the city did not disappear. Instead, it raised the social value of the overall traffic network by creating explicit priorities and the open opportunity for all to choose – or not – to pursue them.

Holtzeakin seems a little too sanguine about the power of large network operators to control or distort market forces. But I think Searls goes too far in saying that the choice is between “net neutrality” or “net neutering.” I’m not sure it’s so black and white. A lot of different people use the internet for a lot of different purposes. The goal should be to accommodate as many uses as possible rather than to limit them based on narrow commercial or ideological interests. Just because public highways are good doesn’t mean toll roads are bad.

9 thoughts on “Open highways and traffic jams

  1. Anthony Cowley

    This issue is heavily over-burdened with analogies. The argument that POTS telephony capacity scaling is a counter-example of network neutrality isn’t going to convince anyone on either side of anything. We’re already paying varying amounts for varying capacity at some point in the system.

    One problem with the conversation as a whole is that many of those against a tiered network don’t even believe that it’s an issue. The common claim is that this is just a money-grab masquerading as an attempt to benefit society. I think rather than worrying about the abstract issue (frought as it is with slippery slopes), we should be looking at specific proposals and case studies to see: A) What problems there really are. B) What problems the proposal will solve. C) What immediate negative side-effects the proposal would have.

    If we can’t get that far, then worrying about secondary effects shouldn’t even be necessary. I’m very wary about the tiered network thoughts expressed by some parties, but I’d rather hear what they have to say and judge their proposals on real merits, rather than get caught up worrying about potential pitfalls.

  2. ordaj

    The telcos are disingenuous. The networks have already been paid for. Why don’t they provide the network first before whining about costs? And their astroturfers are everywhere. Beware voices calling for a fair and balanced conversation. The only thing balanced are their own bank accounts.

  3. Doc McClenny


    The networks are not paid for – the copper in the ground and some buildings are paid for. Think old school telco, not the next generation network that everyone seems to want, but doesn’t want to pay for.

    If you still want dial-up speeds, then the “paid-for” networks are fine.

    Cable modems and DSL required a lot of new network infrastructure. Boosting edge and core network speeds will require yet another round of investment.

    If the telcos can’t justify that investment, then they will stick with low-end DSL bandwidth and compete on price, leaving the small group of people willing to pay for higher bandwidth to the cable MSOs.

    The market has a problem in that broadband is priced by the edge connection speed and not by usage. We light user’s of bandwidth subsidize the heavy users under this pricing model and do not provide an incentive for the ISPs to push higher bandwidth usage. We currently have a model more like a health club, where the goal is to get people to commit to a service and then never use it :).

    I worked for a failed FTTH startup during the bubble. The two big limitations to new participants in the market are the right-of-ways that have to be negotiated with local governments and the fact that the business isn’t profitable enough to be split between three participants with different infrastructures.

    I do object to MSO/telcos trying to stop metro broadband, but at the same time think that cities have more important ways to invest tax dollars.

    This isn’t a very black and white issue.

    Doc McClenny

  4. Doc McClenny


    that’s nice.

    Cna you explain to me how limited bandwidth on broadband hurts the US economy?

    Can you explain how “telcos hoard bandwdith”? What, do they keep it locked up in a closet?

    Do you have any idea how small the backbones for major ISPs are? How tiny the internet bandwidth is?

    You do know that the speeds quoted for Far Eastern broadband is the physical speed of the link and not the sustained bandwdith? I.E. that 100 Mbit/s link is shared between a lot of people before it get’s piped to the 1 Gbit link to an upstream switch that only has the capability for handling a few Gbit of switching?

    There is no free lunch….


  5. Dana Blankenhorn

    1. The Internet is a platform. Bad platform, less innovation. To argue otherwise is to say that Brazil should dominate the PC software space because they had great 8086 machines in 1999…uh, no.

    2. Cable TV takes up bandwidth that could easily be used for Internet service. POTS does, too. Refusing to re-sell, at any price, is also a hoarding, and that’s what the Bells are doing.

    3. You may have never learned of Moore’s Law of Fiber, or DWDM, but basically 1 fiber can actually carry many, many colors, increasing its capacity exponentially. That’s why most fiber capacity in this country remains unlit after nearly a decade in the ground.

    4. Japanese and Korean customers, individuals, are being sold 100 Mbps services RIGHT NOW. You can’t get it here. It’s not available.

    Treat central bandwidth as a common pool, re-sell it via anyone who wants it. Foreign? Crazy? That’s how the Brits do it.

    Doc, our economy is being strangled because we believe the Bells’ lies. Stop buying their spin.

  6. Doc McClenny

    There is no free lunch.

    I have been through a startup trying to build a metro FTTH network to deliver triple play. 100 mb/s ethernet to the home. I know the technology and I know the business plans. I know how sketchy this business is.

    1. internet is good platform. If we want a more powerful platform we need to pay for it. We can either pay for it by more taxes, paying more for our monthly internet connection, or letting the MSOs/Telcos get additional revenue by adding services. We basically do this on cable now because the two services are carried over the same physical plant, if not the same network. The telcos want to do the same over one network. The sucess of the low bandwidth/low cost DSL plans of the telcos show that many people are not willing to pay for higher bandwidth.

    2. The cable tv network could all be used for internet. How much more a month are you willing to pay? The resulting network still isn’t large enough to replace cable TV with internet TV, so where do you get TV service from? How do the cable MSOs justify yet another round of investment to convert to all IP?

    3. Almost all of the dark fiber is long-haul, which can provide more bandwidth for the internet “core” network if you need to rout between cities. It doesn’t help at all for the metro area networks that are part of the limitation in getting more bandwidth to your home. The next limitation is getting from the neighborhood to the home. ATT is trying to use DSL to reduce costs while still providing a useful increase in BW, while Verizon is biting the bullet and hoping that they can get the econimic payoff from a much larger investment. The cable MSOs are financially tapped out and are not going to be doing much new..

    4. Never confuse the speed of the last mile physical link with the speed of the network or service you see. Many of these 100 mb/s services use a 100 mb/s uplink, so you end up sharing this same pipe with the large number of neighbors in your building to get tot he internet. If you are the only person on, it is fast – at prime times, welcome to dialup speeds…

    5. There is no Internet, just the internet. No central pool of bandwidth exists, just a bunch of fairly random interconnects of various sizes between ISPs. The total capacity of this network is pretty limited, but is appears bigger because they cache like crazy near the edges.

    6. I still am not clear on how the economy is being “strangled”. Imagine that you had, say, 100 mb/s to your home. What new businesses would appear?


  7. Marcelo Lopez

    “If we want a more powerful platform we need to pay for it.”

    Are you kidding ? You have to be kidding, because otherwise that statement SMACKS of smack.

    “The total capacity of this network is pretty limited, but is appears bigger because they cache like crazy near the edges.”

    Yet again. More smack. The sad part is, you actually believe this. But it isn’t just sad, IT’S FALSE !!

    Both of these statements are rife with “consumption limits”. Usage of the internet bandwidth isn’t like equating driving mileage to quantity of gasoline usage. That’s preposterous. Bandwidth is bandwidth. Usage is Bandwidth. Usage has not only always equated bandwidth, it’s only because the Bells have wanted their cake and eat it too, that there’s even been made to be a DISTINCTION in the consumer’s mind. Hopefully most consumers are smarter than to accept this ridiculous notion.

    “I have a 3Mbps connection, but I’m limited to 10MBytes traffic per month.” Think about how utterly ridiculous and asinine that statement sounds. What possible need would a consumer have for a connection that’s that fast, when their usage of it, is curtailed in ANY way ?

    Oh, I’m sorry, that’s your point exactly, isn’t it. That the consumer doesn’t really NEED that sort of bandwidth, much less usage.

    Get with the program, Doc. That argument hasn’t flown before, and will NOT fly. Or as they say in the south, “that dog won’t hunt”.

  8. Doc McClenny

    Usage is NOT bandwidth. Usage matters because networks are not sized for simultaneous use of anywhere near peak bandwidth by all users.

    A network designed for higher average use will be more expensive to build than the networks we have now. Someone has to pay for these upgrades.

    Current network sizing depends on most of us either reading email or viewing a fairly static web page for two minutes before loading the next web page. The average load is around 22 kbits/sec for a cable modem plant I am familiar with.

    The networks are not sized for delivering max bandwidth to all the people all the time. If we move applications toward continuous delivery of content, such as a TV replacement or a massive P2P load, the networks can’t deliver that load.

    It appears to work now because, at any one time, most of us aren’t actively moving bytes.

    Upgrading networks ain’t cheap. Check out the annual reports for the Cable MSOs and the telcos. If we want them to make an investment, they need some path to a return on investment.

    When I was in the FTTH business in 2002, our cost to run fiber to a home was around $2200. At $100/month for a triple play package, the breakeven time for that investment was about 3.5 years. We couldn’t raise money at ROI and died.


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