No regulation is easy of course, so to start, here’s an apology for the misleading title. Sorry. But it need not be as difficult as it might seem to make the few small adjustments needed to ensure that the next decade does not see the effective end of the open and public internet which promises to deliver so much to humanity.
Consumer ISPs love to shout about how much bandwidth they are offering their customers. Just look at the words they use! “Unlimited BT Infinity 2 Superfast broadband” screams BT, the UK’s former nationalised network owner. In this case the consumer offering is 76Mb/s download speed, and 19Mb/s upload. But those are qualified – ‘up to’, which of course starts with zero Mb/s.
As alternatives to the commoditised ADSL 2Mb/s heavily contended offerings appeared in the market, the UK’s Ofcom felt the need to help ISPs avoid misleading the public with false promises. Here’s their key message:
There has been a noticeable trend for some ISPs to advertise their products based on faster and faster headline speeds . However, the evidence from Ofcom’s research indicates that these headline speeds are rarely achievable in practice by the majority of consumers that buy them.
from the 2010 Code of Practice that you can read in full here:
Observant regulators will of course have noticed that the speed being advertised applies only to the connection from the consumer to the ISP’s own network, and that thereafter it is anyone’s guess how much bandwidth will be available to a given content provider or service. And, that while to an extent the consumer ISP has no control over how much bandwidth a third party will have provided to get their message to the public, they do have some control over the way and with how much capacity their networks connect to the world.
The movement of large and popular services off the public internet and into private connections is well understood and well documented by now. It would be an ignorant regulator who somehow conflated Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest with an open internet agenda; surely such a regulator would be laughed out of town. For these large network owners, ‘open’ is simply an unfortunate stage you have to go through before cajoling consumer ISPs into closing again, and shutting public traffic out of the connections that carry their traffic.
Faced with the prospect of competing on price per Mb/s, while making large investments in their core networks almost solely for the benefit of third parties who themselves are turning their backs on the open internet, it is not entirely surprising that the ISPs with the means to do so are trying to develop their own content services. In the UK, BT has bought sports video rights to try to tempt people into its TV service. Other ISPs around the world are buying film rights and other bundles of content, in the hope that their own bandwidth intensive services will enable them to compete internally for their customers’ attention and money in a zero sum game of their own making,
So there, in a nutshell, is the intersection of several strong commercial incentives, which between them are conspiring to deprive the open and public internet of the investment it needs if it is to continue to enable the innovation that created the private peering behemoths in the first place. If trends continue, what’s left of the internet will become the ‘third service’ alongside ISPs’ own services and the major private networks (Google et al.). It would not be surprising, given that everything politicians hate – from illegal content to freedom of speech and protest – will be flowing down it, this third service will not be high on the list for care and protection.
Neglecting the open and public internet would be a mistake however, even for Governments which are naturally concerned with preserving their currently pre-eminent internet business sectors. Here’s Neelie Kroes summarising for us at the IGF meeting in Kenya in 2011:
The Internet is changing the world, and it’s not just trillion dollar marketplace. It is a forum where people connect, a platform for astounding innovation, and a powerful vehicle for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Kroes will surely recognise better than almost anyone else on the planet that if you have to define those terms, innovation, human rights, freedoms, and even the more narrowly focused network neutrality, you have failed before you start. As an aside, a proxy measure for the scale of this failure might be found in corporate spending on non-corporate activities – higher is worse – as companies spend to defend their franchises, not to open them to competition.
The opportunity here, the ‘easy way’ in the mischievous title, harnesses the competitive nature of consumer ISPs to investment in the open and public internet. It pushes the proper questions of who should be allowed to run a computer network, and who should be allowed to connect their network to the internet, to where those questions are best answered, in national regulations and internet governance. It recognises the central role of IXs, internet exchange points, in enabling the internet to be what it is. Topically, it borrows the idea of capital adequacy from international banking reform efforts.
It is simply this; ISPs should be obliged to provide a reasonable percentage of their total sold bandwidth through public peering at an internet exchange. Then as consumers we could be sure that we really are buying reasonable access to the open and public internet, and as participants in business and culture we could have confidence that our access to the world will not be starved away by neglect or by gatekeeping on the last few hops. And as an important side effect it would remove the incentives Governments have to help corporate interests grow unfairly at the expense of the conditions on which future innovation and freedom rest.