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How Neutral will Congress Make the Net?

by Michael Cain

This past week the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology met to discuss a draft bill on network neutrality.  A Senate panel will meet next week to discuss the same bill.  Congress is very early in its process; the bill is a “discussion draft” and nothing has been formally introduced yet.  What I’m going to argue in this post is that the bill is actually a pretty reasonable compromise, once all things are considered.

Some technical background (I’ll be brief)…  The internet works by sending packets of data between different computers (some dedicated to the job of passing packets).  Think of a packet as an envelope — it has a destination address, the sender’s return address, and contains a chunk of data.  The internet doesn’t care about the data, it just moves the packet based on the addresses.  Technically, the promise that each computer on the internet makes to the sender is “I’ll try to make an attempt to send your packet to another computer that I think is closer to the final destination than I am.”  (That enormously reliable service can be built on such a weak promise should amaze everyone.)  Traffic shaping is when the internet service provider (ISP) modifies that promise based on the source and/or destination addresses, perhaps because someone paid more for their service.  At one time, for example, some ISPs simply discarded packets whose addresses indicated they were being used for peer-to-peer networking, where the content was overwhelmingly involved in copyright violations.  Network neutrality (or net neutrality) is a public policy that says ISPs shouldn’t engage in traffic shaping.

Some recent political background…  Major ISPs (we’re looking at you, Comcast and Verizon) engaged in traffic shaping.  In particular, they limited how quickly packets from Netflix would get delivered, which had an impact on Netflix streaming quality.  Then they told Netflix, we’ll take the limit off if you pay us.  The FCC issued rules saying such behavior was not allowed.  Comcast and Verizon challenged the rules in court, on the principal that the FCC had classified internet access as an information service 20-some years ago, and information services are exempt from that sort of regulation.  The SCOTUS (rightly) agreed with Comcast and Verizon.  President Obama said that the FCC should reclassify internet access as a communication service that can be regulated that way (he can’t simply order it done, the FCC is an independent agency, and there’s a process for changing the rules).  The FCC had previously agreed to look at other options and will issue its decision in February.  Most people anticipate that the FCC will reclassify internet access to be a communications service and then re-issue the rules that forbid traffic shaping.

What the Republican discussion draft bill would do…  (1) It makes it illegal for ISPs to implement traffic shaping for reasons other than reasonable network management.  Those network management practices must be revealed in advance and be non-discriminatory.  (2) It requires the FCC to create a formal procedure for handling traffic shaping complaints.  That’s necessary, since the FCC is getting a new power.  (3) It allows the ISP to create specialized services, but states that specialized services may not be used to evade the purposes of the bill.  (4) It makes internet access an information service permanently, thereby blocking FCC actions on reclassification (or reversing them, if it had already happened).

Most of the published commentary — heck, all of the commentary I’ve read — is critical of the draft.  On the one side are those who back the traditional Republican position on the subject, and assert that competitive markets will deal with the problem — that if consumers don’t like traffic shaping, they’ll take their business to ISPs that don’t do traffic shaping — so there should be no regulation at all.  On the other side are those who claim the bill doesn’t go far enough, and that the “special services” provision will turn out to be a loophole that allows ISPs to do traffic shaping anyway.  On the third side (and I’ll avoid the appropriate but obscure “gripping hand” reference) is me: I claim that the bill is actually a reasonable compromise, and that both the other sides of the commentariate are missing a really major point.

Traffic shaping is remarkably unpopular.  The FCC had to extend the public comment portion of the process leading to next month’s decision because the volume of comments broke their comment system.  The public comments are overwhelmingly in favor of banning traffic shaping.  Tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are overwhelmingly in favor of banning traffic shaping.  The “special services” language is intended to grandfather in services like Comcast’s voice telephony, which gives priority treatment to voice packets on the local distribution system only.  There are valid technical reasons why those exceptions need to be made.  The Republicans had no real political option except to get on the “ban traffic shaping” bandwagon, and the bill effectively bans traffic shaping.

However, what the other side misses is that reclassification as a communications service opens up all kinds of regulatory headaches besides traffic shaping.  They don’t get that because most of them didn’t live through the break-up of the Bell System and the experience of dealing with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in actual practice.  If internet access were reclassified, then eventually the existing cable, telephone, cellular and fiber companies are going to be on the hook for a lot of very expensive network changes.  Based on their historical relationships with the big phone and cable companies, the Republicans had no real political option except to keep internet access on the information-service side of the fence.

But I claim that’s a good thing, not just for Comcast and Verizon, but also for Google with its new fiber networks and for municipal networks.  If internet access were a communications service, and all of the existing rules for communications services were eventually applied, things get ugly.  There are real reasons why the FCC didn’t do the reclassification the first time around.  I would pay to watch how Google reacts when a dozen other ISP companies show up with requests to colocate equipment in Google’s head end and be allowed to purchase raw bandwidth on Google’s fiber at the price Google charges itself.  What’s that you say, Google?  You don’t charge yourself for the bandwidth?  Sorry, the rules for communications services require that you do your accounting that way, and in excruciating detail.  At that point, if Google had any sense, they’d get out of the business entirely.  And the potential ISPs will show up.  I was peripherally involved in an experiment at a modest-sized cable company in the late 1990s that explored colocation and bandwidth sharing with other ISPs on the cable network.  The kind of resource sharing they demanded would have effectively rendered the system unusable for any ISP, and the experiment was canceled.

All-in-all, I’m satisfied with the bill as a compromise.  It does away with traffic shaping; and it doesn’t open up the enormous can of worms that FCC reclassification would.  In the long run, we ought to change how internet access is regulated.  I said that 20 years ago when the current rules were adopted, and still say it.  But that’s a really big job, and will take years while the FCC and the courts redesign various distribution networks.  In the short term, fix the traffic shaping problem.  That’s good enough for me, for now.

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61 thoughts on “How Neutral will Congress Make the Net?

  1. Wow, a republican bill that I actually agree with?

    getting voip telephone service is certainly a compromise. You lose a lot of rights of complaint that you get if your phone service is down for a period of time.

    Given that communications are unlikely to get their regs completely rewritten, this seems like a decent chopshop fix.

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  2. Would reclassfying the net as a communications service do anything to ISPs that made it impossible for them to offer tiered services?

    My internet has gotten kind of wonky lately when it comes to Netflix and Youtube and sometimes it takes a lot of buffering to get a video to play correctly and sometimes buffering just doesn’t happen. I was doing some google searches and found that Comcast offers tiers of internet service so I can pay more to get more speed (theoretically). Would this be illegal under net neutrality and treating ISPs like a Communication Service?

    Do you think there are good policy reasons (not economic) to allow Comcast to offer tiered internet?

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    • Personally, I’m in favor of having tiered services available, and believe them to be completely legal under the 1996 Act and the FCC rules. Not everyone needs 15 Mbps peak downstream bandwidth (or 30, or 45), just like not everyone needs 1200 minutes of cellular air time each month. Honestly, most people who aren’t doing video streaming would probably be surprised at how low their peak bit rate is. Not so much now as it used to be: I just downloaded the NYTimes front page; it has 226 distinct items each of which has to be downloaded separately; some of those are scripts that I have blocked which might have downloaded additional items if I let them run.

      <Technical lecture mode>
      There are many things besides congestion on your local link that can affect the behavior of video streams. Some of them are in your computer. Some of them are in the Netflix and YouTube servers. Some of them are in the equipment that Netflx and YouTube put in front of their servers. Some of them are in the backbone IP networks, and how your local service provider is connected to those backbone networks. In practice, the odds favor the problem being somewhere other than your local access service, unless the traffic you’re pulling is very close to the limit for your service tier.
      </Technical lecture mode>

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    • Net neutrality says that you can use your bandwidth to access any data you want, and the ISP can’t discriminate between different kids of data, not that you get an infinite amount of it.

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      • I’m okay with prioritizing packet by type, but not origin or destination.

        There’s no reason you can’t prioritize video packets over HTTP requests, or medical data above all. You just can’t prioritize your own video over, say, netflix.

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      • Me too, actually. Time-criticality is an obvious sort order: audio and video up front with Usenet and torrents way at the end. (Usenet, as I understand things, is hardly used for text conversations anymore, but has become a huge avenue for binary downloads.)

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      • , the problem is that you can’t tell that it’s video without prying it open and parsing the data, and even that may not be enough. Oh, there’s a type-of-service field in the IP header that could be used in theory, but it’s ignored in practice by almost all routers (and applications). Some routers “ignore” it to the point of zeroing it out as they process the packet.

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      • …the problem is that you can’t tell that it’s video without prying it open and parsing the data…

        Of course, that you can’t tell what’s in the packets without prying them open is the strength of IP from the perspective of people inventing new applications. It also makes payment scheme negotiations between the backbone providers easy [1]. From a network (not necessarily end-user service) design perspective, it means that the answer is always “add more bandwidth.” And it keeps you out of the standards-setting mess. There was a Dilbert cartoon back at the time when Scott Adams was dating a woman who worked on telecommunications standards where a vendor tells Dilbert, “This device conforms to all relevant telecommunications standards.” To which Dilbert responds, “You mean it doesn’t work and it’s not your fault.”

        [1] The inability to work out payment schemes has kept some really powerful IP capabilities out of common service for >20 years. IP multicast is the right way to implement a large number of end-user services. A very sizable chunk of the IPv4 address space is reserved for multicast. But the backbone network providers have never figured out an acceptable way to handle payments for multicast traffic that spans networks.

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  3. That is an interesting point about Google not particular wanting to share its backend. (I assume we are talking about Google as an ISP (i.e. Google Fiber) and not Google as a internet content source). But this just brings up the issue that it isn’t the entire ISP infrastructure that needs to be regulated.

    The part that *does* need to be regulated, is the ‘last mile’: the connection to the customer. It is here that all the temptation exists for ISPs to leverage their effective monopoly to shake down internet companies for the ‘privilege’ to access to the ISP’s customers.

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    • Isn’t more the penultimate mile that’s the concern of the regulators (and the argument of ‘natural monopoly’ from the legacy telecoms)?

      Once upon a time, the dominant way people got on the internet was either at their university (when it was in session) or through AOL discs connected via modem to the (mostly) copper wire legacy telephone network. Plus a host of little local and regional ISPs with dial up connections.

      Then, high speed internet became a thing, cable companies got involved, and there was either e..g cable Road Runner or phone company DSL.

      Nowadays, sure, cable modem connections in individual residences dominates (for big pipe wired connections) but there is also for examplem Fios – though which is not being built out anymore. But that’s only because Verizon is scared to death of building (another) legacy hard wired infrastructure that people then abandon for straight up wireless cellular service.

      So, if this ever pans out there will always be at least 2, and often enough 3 or 4, independent ‘utility’ connections that can carry the internet for every residence in America.

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    • Your first paragraph is spot on. Here’s one of the hypothetical situations that the communications-service classification covers. Google owns YouTube (clearly an information service). Google knows that if they put some big caching servers in their major head ends, so that the most popular YouTube videos get served up locally, the performance will be much better (all the possible congestion on the backbone networks is avoided). Then Vimeo says, “Wait! We want to put caching servers in those head ends also, so that our service is not disadvantaged.” If Google Fiber is classed as a communication service — which it’s not, presently — then they would have to honor that request. And take on all of the physical security problems that comes with collocation, and maintenance problems that come with Vimeo wanting to have their own fiber connections to their choice of backbone provider, etc. Any service arrangement that a reclassified Google Fiber makes available to one information service provider, they would have to make available to all information service providers, and all at the same price. Just the accounting turns into a significant undertaking.

      As you say, we probably don’t want to regulate everything under those terms. But right now it’s an either-or.

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      • As far as Google’s reaction to limitations on how they could optimize their content services on Fiber, I suspect they don’t care: their Fiber business is minuscule compared to their content services: both in revenue and number of customers served. I would have to assume they would be glad to put up a few Chinese walls for YouTube in order to be protected from possibility of entrenched ISPs running protection rackets on their content.

        And I’m not convinced that allowing other content providers in is a big technical problem. Internet Exchange Points exist precisely to solve this problem at the large grain. And, up to recently, simple peering cost issues have lead to ISPs and Content Deliver Networks to negotiate co-location arraignments to both sides’ mutual benefit.

        My hope is some carefully crafted requirements from the FCC on the quality of service that ISPs must maintain at peering points would protect that process from ISP over reach.

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  4. I worry that internet service will start being sold the way, say, cable service is being sold.

    “Here’s our basic plan for $99. It covers the websites that most everybody uses. If you’d like our Reddit/Netflix bundle, it’ll be $119. If you’d like our Hulu/Facebook package, it’ll be a comparable price. Youtube/Tumblr is $129. You can get the whole kit and caboodle, though, for $149!”

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  5. While I am generally a market-advocate, I start to get all squishy when appeals to the market are made when discussing entrenched businesses who gained their foothold through decidedly un-free market mechanisms. Which is my sense of how the major ISPs came to be.

    So, sure, let’s let the market sort it out, but let’s have a truly free market and start from scratch.

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    • So you live in a modest-sized town where the two ISPs are the local cable company and the local phone company, and neither one wants to do net neutrality. Everyone else looks at it and says, “Not enough business to justify building the local distribution network.” What do you do?

      Then, the local city government and school district say, “Since no one will sell us a net-neutral service, we’re going into the business for ourselves. We’ll start in all the city offices and school buildings; we’ll throw all our internal local phone service over there too; we’ll put cameras in classrooms so sick kids can ‘attend’ class; teachers will do remote A/V/shared paper parent-teacher conferences on demand; since we can’t get guarantees that the cable and phone companies won’t sabotage those A/V services, we’ll extend the network to everyone inside the city who wants in, and charge them at cost.” What about that?

      I’m not being sarcastic here. This type of thing is what led the federal government to make local phone service a regulated monopoly in the 1930s, and cities to make cable service a regulated monopoly in the 1970s. They couldn’t figure out a market-based alternative.

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      • I must not have been clear (that is, I’m understanding you)…

        I am GENERALLY in favor of market-based solutions. This is not a time where I am. I support the regulation as you’ve outlined it.

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      • My bad. I read “…but let’s have a truly free market and start from scratch” as meaning that you had some idea about how to do that. The courts and FCC made an attempt at that after the break-up of the Bell System by requiring the local phone companies to rent out pieces of the network (sometimes actual physical pieces, sometimes virtual) at “cost” to anyone who wanted to be a local phone service provider. It was… less than fully successful, for voice. DSL providers made another run at it for data services, with somewhat greater success, under a somewhat different set of rules.

        I have my own proposal, but no one likes it.

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      • In Canada at least, the big carriers either built the network infrastructure with considerable public subsidy, or took over at fire-sale privatization prices the infrastructure built by a crown corporation.

        In recognition of that public subsidy, the big telcos have, I believe relatively recently, been forced, to allow access to their infrastructure to competing ISPs – right now I have my home Internet service from Teksavvy, over Shaw’s cable infrastructure, and competing with Shaw’s cable Internet service. Teksavvy also offers DSL service over Telus’s phone lines, competing with Telus’s DSL service (I got cable rather than DSL purely because of where the power, phone, and cable outlets in the living room are located).

        Similarly, there are considerably more companies from whom I could buy cellular phone service, than there are cellular phone networks in my area, because the cellular telcos have been forced to rent out access to their networks to competitors.

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      • I certainly did not have a specific plan in place. That is just more my stock response when someone wants to go balls-out free market while ignoring the legacies of decidedly unfree market. Like when someone wants to argue that Harvard should be able to exclude Black folks because Black folks can just open their own Harvard. That’s when I say, “Cool. I’m on board. But we have to start both schools from scratch with zero endowment and all that because, ya know, Harvard only got to be Harvard because of how unfree the market was.”

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      • requiring the local phone companies to rent out pieces of the network (sometimes actual physical pieces, sometimes virtual) at “cost” to anyone who wanted to be a local phone service provider.

        As I recall, the Baby Bells dragged their feet on that as hard as they could, insisting that they would never invest another dime in upgrading infrastructure so long as they had to share it, and eventually got the requirement overturned.

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      • …and eventually got the requirement overturned.

        There were time limits built in from the beginning, for voice service. A new entrant in local phone service could only rent chunks from the phone company for (IIRC) five years while they were building out their own network. While some firms built out networks for business customers in high-density areas, no one other than the cable companies did so for residential service. The cable companies, of course, were just adding equipment in the head end and at the customer’s location; they already had the fibers/wires in the ground. I believe that the main argument for dropping the requirement for voice was “no one is building new distribution networks or installing their own switches.”

        Alternate DSL service still runs on the phone companies’ loops today.

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      • I hate to say this, but I recently switched from DSL to C*****t cable internet, and I have no complaints at all. Well, other than their trying to overcharge me for installation, but a mere three phone calls fixed that.

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      • It is symmetrical 1 gbps up/down, but sadly it’s not static IP. My daughter’s had it for a couple of years now. They came and dug up my neighborhood a year ago and buried the fiber, and I was supposed to get hooked up last July, but it didn’t happen. Last I heard they’re saying maybe April. They’re still burying cable all over town but nobody’s getting hooked up. Correction — I’m seeing a lot of orange sleeving going in the ground, but it’s been months since I’ve seen a spool of fiberoptic cable in the area.

        I’m wondering if they may be waiting for the FCC classification question to be settled before they move forward connecting more “fiberhoods”. I sure hope it doesn’t take much longer. I’m still stuck with TWC and 1 mb upstream for the moment.

        BTW Michael, you mentioned upthread that you had a proposal that nobody likes. Got me curious. Wanna share?

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      • Aside from occasional downtime, and some serious slowdowns in the evenings before I upgraded, I don’t have a lot of complaints about Time Warner’s service (their pricing, and their changing their pricing without telling me? That pisses me off, as does their customer service, which must be threatened with cancellation before they will help you with pretty much anything).

        Google Fiber is building its Austin network, and there are apparently people in neighborhoods adjacent to mine who have it, but I’m not sure when it’s coming to my neighborhood specifically.

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  6. The “special services” language is intended to grandfather in services like Comcast’s voice telephony, which gives priority treatment to voice packets on the local distribution system only.

    I am unsure why we need ‘special service’ for this.

    What should actually happen is a rule allowing *the customer* the right to set QoS priorities. So that on their connection, their telephony overrides their Netflix. Their router can easily handle that. Granted, they need the ability to set it from both ends, but that’s not *incredibly* complicated.

    …oh, wait, the problem isn’t the connection between them and Comcast. It’s *within* Comcast. The problem is that Comcast’s network doesn’t actually provide enough capacity to satisfy *all* demands on it. So Comcast says that *their* telephony service should have priority.

    And logically, Skype’s shouldn’t? Or Vonage’s?

    Yeah, see, that, I have a problem with.

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    • Vonage versus Comcast is a terrific example of two services, sold under two radically different sets of regulations, that appear superficially similar.

      Vonage sells a service that looks superficially like local telephone service, but is actually something quite different and is classed as an information service. It requires at a minimum that the consumer buy broadband internet-access service on their own. Vonage’s voice service then runs on top of that IP-based service. Vonage’s service falls under precisely zero local regulations. There are a few federal regulations about number portability and connections to the voice telephone network.

      Comcast sells local wireline telephone service as a communications service. Under federal regulation, local telephone service can’t be dependent on the consumer buying any other service (eg, no “you must buy internet access for this to work”). Under state regulations, the service has to meet a variety of availability standards (the traditional “four 9s”), 911 and reverse-911 standards, and quality standards. In order to meet the state-level requirements in particular, Comcast (with much of the work done by cable companies Comcast then acquired) spent some billions of dollars deploying network power, customer-premise battery backup power, and 911 connectivity. They went through a painful engineering process to ensure all the voice quality specs were met. Before cellular competition pushed them into an unlimited domestic long distance pricing model, Comcast had to perform ongoing audits of their billing system to ensure it met state specs for accuracy. For years, Comcast had to use non-IP technology to implement their virtual loops. Eventually, it became possible to meet the specs using the DOCSIS standards for priority service, so long as the telephony packets are stripped out at the head end and routed through special gear.

      TTBOMK, Vonage has never indicated an interest in providing “local wireline telephony service.” They provide a voice-over-IP service for people who don’t need/care about 911, availability when the power fails, etc.

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      • Eventually, it became possible to meet the specs using the DOCSIS standards for priority service, so long as the telephony packets are stripped out at the head end and routed through special gear.

        If that’s what’s actually going on, then it should be possible to Comcast to argue ‘In order to meet the regulations required to provide local land-line service, we must do this thing normally disallowed’.

        I’d be much happily with that than some sort of weird floating general exception.

        Actually, I’m a little baffled here. What you’re describing sounds like this is some sort of link-level situation, and thus it seems like it should *actually be a different service* than the internet. Like, there’s the PPPoE connection, and then there’s telephony (Using a different PPPoE connection, or something else?), over the same wire, but different connections.

        I have no problem with Comcast treating those two things differently. There’s a difference between a service that is general internet and a service that is specific connection to a local box, even *if* both those services operate over the same network for a distance. I care about *internet access*, not whatever else Comcast is using their wires for.

        Likewise, by the same token, I don’t actually care if the cable TV is encoded onto the same network and sent to houses that way to cable settop boxes. That *isn’t* internet service, even if it sends IP packets over a network that can reach the internet, and Comcast can do that however it wants, and prioritize it however it wants.

        Then again, I don’t know exactly how cable modems work. Here, we’re stuck on damn DSL.

        But I don’t quite see why we can’t make a rule saying ‘Companies can give different priorities, on their own network, between non-internet traffic and internet traffic’ while also saying ‘But they can’t make a distinction between different sources of internet traffic, either internally or externally’. (And perhaps make some rules about what sort of traffic always counts as internet traffic, so they can’t pretend running everything through a proxy or something makes it non-internet traffic.)

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      • What you’re describing sounds like this is some sort of link-level situation, and thus it seems like it should *actually be a different service* than the internet.

        Exactly, or close enough for our purposes here. Consider Ethernet. It is possible to run multiple IP subnets over the same Ethernet — for example, one subnet with 192.168.1.0/24 and one with 24.18.137.0/24 [1]. As long as all the IP devices attached to the Ethernet are playing by the rules, the devices won’t even know that they’re sharing the Ethernet with another subnet (I used to professionally build devices that broke the rules, for various testing purposes — it is possible to really screw things up that way). A DOCSIS cable modem system is more complicated than an Ethernet because it operates over longer distances and on high-frequency carriers, but for this purpose it can be treated the same. The cable companies’ IP-based telephone service uses one private subnet for its purposes, separate from the subnet used by the internet service. The head end router will not pass packets from the phone service to the internet, nor vice versa.

        [1] I never know how much technical detail to go into. I’m also concerned about decisions that are made without adequate engineering consideration. The FCC decisions are made by politicians, but at least they have competent engineers on staff. Congress terrifies me (although not in this case, since they’re doing something simple).

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      • Exactly, or close enough for our purposes here.

        Well, okay then, so why does Comcast not ask for an exception based on *that*? Or, heck, as the rules are supposedly *about* internet access, it looks like their telephony and cable wouldn’t be covered already. Are the rules poorly written?

        Or is Comcast asking for a general exception that they can later cheat into using for other things, instead of the obvious ‘only publicly-routed internet traffic is subject to this’ exception? (Or are regulators worried *that* exception is too easy to cheat? Forget needing proxies, technically cable companies could try to claim NATed traffic doesn’t count, with how I worded it.)

        Maybe what we need is *both* rules for the exception. They must request permission for an exception, and that exception can only cover non-internet traffic. ;)

        Incidentally, do cable modems actually still switch traffic to individuals over their public network? Now that you’ve mentioned that, I remember the fact that occasional people could see neighbor’s computers when that first started, but that’s still how it works? (With, presumably, some sort of filtering to stop that.) They’re not using PPPoE, or some other sort of point-to-point connection *over* the network? Why on earth not? How would they stop people from stealing service?

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      • They’re not using PPPoE, or some other sort of point-to-point connection *over* the network?

        Doh, you just said they were using DOCSIS, not Ethernet, so obviously can’t be using actual PPPoE. Me not read good.

        Reading Wikipedia about this DOCSIS, it appears they’re transmitting IP, but somehow *encrypting* it via some sort of newly-invented standard. (Instead of, you know, an actual standard.)

        Would it really have been *too hard* to make DOCSIS use the same sized frames as Ethernet packets, made a bridge, and just use PPPoE over that, like *normal people* would have done? You know, PPPoE, the thing that already has encryption and most routers can already do? Or used PPPoA?

        Or, hell, used IPsec? (Someday, people will use IPsec. Someday.)

        Why on earth does everyone keep reinventing the wheel with network protocols?

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      • All good questions.

        Some speculation on Comcast and exceptions… The FCC hates exceptions with a passion. At least, that’s what my friend who works near the top of the non-appointee ranks there tells me. As things stand, at least IMO, the rules for communication services are poorly written; they simply don’t make sense in a hybrid fiber-coax network. My belief is that if internet access were reclassified, the entire cable industry would have to ask for a whopping great exception to a bunch of the rules. In the bill, Congress is adding a rule to one information service, and granting a small exception — the FCC tried the same thing but the courts said it wasn’t within the FCC’s power to do so.

        DOCSIS was developed from a variety of proprietary standards to allow two-way high-speed data transmission over a hybrid fiber-coax plant that conforms to FCC rules for which frequencies must be used, conforms to international standards for MPEG digital stream structure, tolerates stations that may be several-to-many kilometers apart, and a relatively high-noise environment. DOCSIS gear — the CMTS in the head end and the cable modems at customer locations — is designed to allow transport of Ethernet frames over a medium that looks nothing like Ethernet.

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  7. I remember that my home land-line bill used to be an order of magnitude larger than it was when I disconnected my land-line last year and provided much fewer features. I remember that the breakup of MaBell precipitated those changes. Yes, there was disruption, and pain, and expensive annoying and non-friendly carriers. But the market sorted those. Eventually. Why do we think that if we allow similar last-mile leasing with cable that similar outcomes won’t occur?

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    • Got details? No, seriously. I’m not aware of any instances where a competitive wireline provider beat the local phone company by much on local residential service, and would love to have an example. Long distance, where there was lots of competition, got dramatically cheaper for everyone.

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      • To be fair, I don’t think anybody tried. There was no money in local calling, whereas long distance was where the money was charged.

        Which, of course, was almost all an illusion in the first place. Ma Bell owned the network. Access to the network was really a single service. Rate changes for distance was their way of profit transfer.

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      • Yes, history — and politics — made for profit transfers. Long distance was initially very expensive to provide, given the electronics of the day. Heck, there was still a literal “luxury tax” on it until fairly recently. Legislatures and PUCs were strongly in favor of keeping residential phone service rates low. Universal service fees collected on all lines but spent only to subsidize rural service. The REA (now RUS) made cheap loans and even grants to rural areas to subsidize service. At one point when I was doing a systems analysis project at Bell Labs, I learned that the operating telephone companies within the Bell System had to keep at least three different sets of books — one that met SEC standards for the investors, one for the FCC, one for the state PUC,…

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  8. The thing that makes me really wary about the shaping exceptions is the following:

    In short, there are many innovative arrangements that would still be permissible, provided that they were commercially reasonable. Broadband Internet access providers accordingly would not be categorically prohibited from entering into individual relationships with specific edge providers or compelled to carry edge providers’ traffic on identical terms. Indeed, the Commission would not be banning all prioritization arrangements as an undifferentiated whole, but instead would be imposing restrictions on when such arrangements may be used (i.e., at the direction of the end user)

    This comes from AT&T’s own arguments to the FCC regarding the ability to create “user-directed” prioritization, which, given the language here appears to be some form of user chosen tiered service plan akin to paying for additional cable channels.

    Also, given how thoroughly the bill seeks to gut the FCC’s ability to use any sort of Section 704 powers, this feels like basically a way to give up paid prioritization (which is about as popular as Congress) to continue serving as regional oligopolies, particularly in states where they’ve managed to pass bans on municipal broadband, while simultaneously taking advantage of the vagaries of the language to do some form of backdoor prioritization either through interconnection services or “user directed” tiering and datacaps.

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  9. I have a question, based on an actual experience: Sometime ago, we got a notice in the mail from our ISP provider; one of our kids had streamed Game of Thrones from an illegal site, and the owners of the show had sent them a notice about our theft of their property.

    The notice said that if we were to participate in two more documented thefts like this, our service would be slowed, presumably so that we’d be unable to stream video, making these kind of thefts not worth the bother. Since speed matters greatly to my sweetie, who’s work teaching audio signal processing requires it (and we pay for premium service, too), I wonder how these sorts of legal actions might be impacted?

    There’s a burden of dealing with IP theft forced in ISPs that seems slightly irrational to me. My auto dealer is not responsible if I speed in the car I purchased, after all. My pharmacist isn’t responsible if I sell my prescriptions to my addicted neighbor, either.

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    • There’s a burden of dealing with IP theft forced in ISPs that seems slightly irrational to me. My auto dealer is not responsible if I speed in the car I purchased, after all. My pharmacist isn’t responsible if I sell my prescriptions to my addicted neighbor, either.

      Is your ISP also a (potential) cable provider? If so, then they collaborate with the content owner to police IP out of self-interest, since given the current pricing structures, they’d rather sell you cable packages, than let you stream whatever you want to watch a la carte from sources that don’t cut them into the pie.

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      • No, it is not. It’s my local phone company, and I’m delighted to have a choice of cable provider/phone company to choose from.

        /love my local phone company. It was birthed back in the day when it became acceptable to make a coffin before somebody had died, and the local coffin maker purchased line to string between their factory and the train station, so that they could be called when a train came in to bring a load of caskets to the railroad for shipment to southern cities. They’ve recently grown into spaces abandoned by the military at Brunswick Naval Air Force base via BRAC closings, to provide speciality secure services for businesses.

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      • – I’m not totally sure of the law, but from a conceptual sense it can *theoretically* make a little bit of sense.

        Since your ISP is “carrying” the “stolen” bits to your house, if the content owner determines the ISP is not doing whatever their due diligence should be (and *that* part is the rub, since here two principles come into conflict, since I don’t really want them examining my bits) (heh), they are arguably a little bit complicit, and possibly the content owner can go after them (which gives them incentive to go after you instead).

        What if your pharmacist did home delivery, and you phoned in your orders using a stolen credit card that he didn’t check, and he brought the pills to you?

        What if you/he did this repeatedly, even after the credit card company had notified him?

        Mightn’t he be a little bit complicit in the crime?

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      • ISPs, and individual web sites, have a weird slot in intellectual property law, wherein everything is very grey and they avoid getting put in the black box by these sorts of efforts.

        Basically, they want to be as deregulated as possible, and the MPAA lobbies hard to get Congress to make them police their networks, and the EFF lobbies hard to keep them from policing their networks, and they dance on a tight wire….

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    • The provisions of the DMCA in this area are… complicated. But yes, the ISP can be held responsible for “aiding” your kids’ theft of copyrighted material. And if the ISP is notified by the copyright holder of a violation, the ISP is required to notify you.

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  10. This is a followup stimulated by things and said/asked (and probably others), related to communications service providers and unbundling.

    Historically, distribution network unbundling has meant that a third party leased either actual physical facilities or a specific set of frequencies to be carried on a physical facility. In the case of traditional landline telephone service, they might lease the copper pair, or the 300-3000 Hz voice frequencies, or the much higher frequencies used for DSL. There are many more cellular phone companies than there are companies that own the rights to bandwidth in a particular area, but that’s not done by unbundling. The other companies resell the complete cellular service provided by one of the big players, which is a quite different thing. As MetroPCS advertises heavily here, “…ridin’ on that nationwide T-Mobile network.”

    Cable systems present problems for the traditional model. There’s only the one coax, so clearly that can’t be leased out in its entirety. The killer for the raw frequency spectrum model is that upstream spectrum is a very scarce resource (long technology history there). Physics dictates that splitting it up is very inefficient, and misbehavior in one set of frequencies can screw things up in another set. Something new and different is required. I claim that working out the details of that will take time, and should be done without the pressure of bunch of companies clamoring for a slice of raw spectrum. I think it needs to be done, but only after everyone is on board should the FCC go to Congress and say, “We’re ready to deal with internet access as a communications service, here’s what we need in the way of statutory changes.”

    Fundamentally, data service from the head end to the customer needs to be based on some sort of frame service, and that frame service should be provided by the owner of the wires/fibers. Classic regulated utilities. Sell that service to ISP companies, not to the end customers. As many ISPs as you want can run independent IP subnets on top of the frame service, without affecting the overall spectrum efficiency. Doesn’t matter if the frames are DOCSIS on coax, whatever Google uses on their fiber, or the current version of DSL. Granted, my preference would be that both the head end and customer gear use some form of Ethernet as the outward facing interface, but that’s a detail.

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