Net Neutrality

I’ve got a wacky idea. Let’s ask tech experts and economists about net neutrality.

— Me

And I happen to be a tech expert, with a college degree and years of network management. I am no economist, but I’m fairly well-versed in the subject, and, in the interest of laying it all out there, you should know that I advocate the Austrian School of free markets and liberty. My self-education in the field was sufficient for me to pass economics classes in college with As, too. So, with all that out of the way…

What is Net Neutrality?

A buzzword with decreasing value with every passing day. It stands alongside “fascist” and “patriotism” in the category of “words carefully selected and abused to advocate random things and make them sound like something else.” It’s a common tactic used to make a bad thing seem positive, like we saw with “The Patriot Act.”

This isn’t to say that everyone who supports Net Neutrality is trying to pull a fast one. However, it does mean that the term is almost impossible to peg down. To some, it means the government shouldn’t legislate anything about the internet. To others, it means the government should force ISPs to not do certain things. To yet others, it means the government should regulate the crap out of the internet until “everything is fair.”

The largest section of this group, however, wants the government to prevent Internet Service Providers from charging high-bandwidth websites money for “fastlanes,” and that’s what much of this article is going to be centered around. I have to agree that I don’t think it would be a good idea, but I’m not the one who owns the network infrastructure, so I’ve no place to determine what happens to it.

Net Neutrality is Already Dead

At least one mobile carrier is already not counting data usage from certain music apps against their costumers’ data caps, and this means that Net Neutrality, in the sense that these well-meaning but misguided people use it, is already dead. How can SoundCloud compete for your attention with Rhapsody if using SoundCloud consumes your limited data and Rhapsody doesn’t?

By offering better service that outweighs that advantage, and, let’s face it, music is small data-wise anyway. An average 4 minute song as an mp3 will require 4 MB to download; this is 60 MB an hour, and more than one gigabyte in 24 hours. That certainly sounds like a lot, and it is, but it’s also a problem with streaming, not the music or apps.

I don’t stream music or video, because doing so creates an instantaneous copy that cannot be viewed again without being downloaded again. That’s stupid. Even if you just listened to “Master of Puppets,” you’ll have to download the entire 8.6 MB song if you want to hear it again. Due to increased memory sizes and caches, you can probably get around this by rewinding the song to the beginning before it ends, but it still does you no good if you want to hear it again an hour later.

Again: this is stupid.

It’s convenient, sure, but it should never be anyone’s primary means of entertainment delivery. Figure out some way to download the music, shows, and movies you want permanently, and then they need be downloaded only once, after which you can watch and listen as many times as you want at no additional bandwidth cost.

We’re beginning to zero in on the actual problem, aren’t we? Yes, because the problem is that consumers act like bandwidth is an unlimited resource. Rather than buying an episode of a show on iTunes, or getting it free elsewhere, consumers instead stream content repeatedly. This works for shows, movies, and songs that will only be heard once, but anything streamed twice constitutes a net loss of bandwidth.

To be sure, the hard drive space on your computer is substantially less valuable than your bandwidth. Contrary to popular belief, having a bunch of stuff on your hard drive isn’t going to slow your computer down, and most out-of-the-box desktops come with terabyte hard drives (1,000 days’ worth of continuously streamed music). Additionally, most modern televisions have RGB inputs (The blue thing that you connect from your monitor to your desktop), and most modern computers have an HDMI output. There are also Season DVDs, which can’t be discounted.

The problem here is that consumers have treated bandwidth like an infinite resource, and it’s scarce.

Let Me Tell You a Story

I used to fall asleep watching AVGN’s season collections. I’ve fallen asleep with a television on for decades, and that habit isn’t about to change. When I had Sprint and unlimited data, I simply streamed the show from YouTube every night. When I had to switch to Verizon, I realized that I couldn’t keep doing that, because–gasp!–I no longer had unlimited data. I immediately reinstalled a YouTube Downloader and downloaded the seasons I watched regularly (2, 3, and 4). This is precisely the mindset that infects the average American consumer: “I’ll just stream forever, why not, it doesn’t cost me more.”

How To Work Toward a Real Solution

Remember when cell phone carriers offered plans that had 250 Anytime Minutes, free nights and weekends, and free mobile to mobile? No one was screaming for Phone Neutrality then. In fact, no one disputed that T-Mobile had the right to not deduct from customers’ minutes if the customer called another T-Mobile line and, during part of this growth, “Free mobile to mobile” was often limited by carrier. Sprint did it, too, where you could call any Sprint costumer without using up your precious and limited minutes.

“But that isn’t fair to rural customers!” people might say. “They don’t have access to different carriers in the first place!”

Yes and no. Everyone has access to dial-up. I’m sorry, but it’s true, and we can’t pretend like that’s not the case. Anyone unhappy with Comcast or Verizon or any other ISP can use dial-up; it’s simply false to say they have no other options. Prior to the availability of 3G coverage in rural areas, I used dial-up primarily–as recently as 2011 I had dial-up internet. I played World of Warcraft on dial-up. Similarly, those people who had coverage by only one carrier still always had their landline they could fall back on. We don’t have the right to cell phone service, and neither do we have the right to DSL. You have the right to not have a government-forced monopoly thrown on you, but that’s where your rights end.

The same things that saw mobile phones through their difficult periods of growth will see ISPs through: We already have data caps on many services. It would be easy for ISPs to waive the data usage after 9:00 pm, or from 6:00 am to 3:00 pm, to encourage people to use heavier traffic during those hours. This would also motivate them to download rather than stream, since they can download something at 7:00 am and then watch it at 7:00 pm. Even if they’re only watching it once, the bandwidth cost will be the same.

Netflix could get in on it, as well, which they already are doing, by allowing users to pre-download shows to watch later. This further frees consumers to use bandwidth outside of peak hours.

And there are still more solutions that companies could come up with, but one thing is sure: this isn’t anyone’s fault but consumers. Consumers are the ones treating bandwidth as though it is infinite while they chase after offered services. That is what has to be fixed, and it’s going to cost consumers one way or another. If it doesn’t, we only harm the internet by making it less profitable to the people who provide the stuff we like.

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