Select Page

Speaking of topics one does not normally associate with cybersecurity, network neutrality is a complex beast but John Oliver does a pretty good job of breaking it down (note: his show is on HBO so standard NSFW warnings apply).

The Internet is not a very good representative of the world. For example, English is spoken by less than 6% of the world’s population but accounts for over 55% of all content on the web. Workplace diversity at influential (and, arguably, essential) tech companies is, shall we say, less than ideal. In the same way, the focus on issues like Netflix streaming quality doesn’t really represent the heart of the matter.

Broadband Internet is currently classified as an information service, in contrast to land-line telephone service which is classified as a common carrier. The long and short of it is: common carrier classification recognizes that the service that is being provided is absolutely essential and therefore, imposes strict regulatory requirements for making the service available and affordable.

Despite the fact that broadband Internet access is arguably as essential as land-line telephone service, telecommunication companies currently enjoy a remarkable lack of regulatory oversight on their broadband Internet business. Even worse, companies are trying to weasel their way out of common carrier requirements by not fixing their copper networks and instead investing in fiber optic and wireless networks. Why? So they can deliver phone service using VoIP, which basically means they’re giving you a phone that works over the Internet, thus converting their regulated and not as profitable common carrier service into a less regulated and more profitable information service.

Those suffering as a result are the folks you would except: residents of rural areas and the poor. Reform is slow in coming, again for all the reasons you would expect.

In the meantime, incumbent ISPs are more than happy to leverage what regulations do exist to file frivolous lawsuits that prevent market competititon and while they don’t want to build out networks that they don’t think will turn a profit, they also don’t want other people building those networks either. And, of course, these companies are happy to observe regulations when they happen to suit their interests.

About the only silver linings right now are that Americans have made their stance on this fairly clear and that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may not end up being as bad as his history might suggest (though he still might be a Dingo).

Oxy’s Internet connection is not terribly impacted at this moment. We do not have an ISP in the traditional sense. Instead, we are members of a regional network and we get our access to the Internet via a process called peering. So, for example, traffic to Netflix is done over their Open Connect program. Through public exchanges like CoreSite, we get direct access to services like Amazon, Facebook and Google.

Still, with more and more critical services – including those needed to support Oxy’s Academic mission – relying on Internet access, there is the bigger issue of customer-facing ISPs refusing to upgrade peering links. This is, as mentioned before, the underlying issue with Netflix and their disputes with Comcast, Verizon and AT&T but these practices do not currently fall under the scope of Network Neutrality.

The practical consequence of this is that students accessing online academic material, employees working from home, or applicants trying to apply online will find the quality of access dictated by corporate policy rather than legitimate technical limitations. Although the FCC is no longer taking comments on this issue, there are some like Sens. Franken (D-Minnesota) and Leahy (D-Vermont) who are actively engaging on the issue and, as always, there’s a role for all of us as well.