The Right Way To Fix The Internet


Protesters rallied at the Federal Communications Commission as the agency considered new Internet rules.

If you’re like most people, your monthly smartphone bill is steep enough to make you shudder. As consumers’ appetite for connectivity keeps growing, the price of wireless service in the United States tops $130 a month in many households.

Two years ago Mung Chiang, a professor of electrical engineering at Princeton, believed he could give customers more control. One simple adjustment would clear the way for lots of mobile-phone users to get as much data as they already did, and in some cases even more, on cheaper terms. Carriers could win, too, by nudging customers to reduce peak-period traffic, making some costly network upgrades unnecessary. “We thought we could increase the benefits for everyone,” Chiang recalls.

Chiang’s plan called for the wireless industry to offer its customers the same types of variable pricing that have brought new efficiencies to transportation and utilities. Rates increase during peak periods, when congestion is at its worst; they decrease during slack periods. In the pre-smartphone era, it would have been impossible to advise users ahead of time about a zig or zag in their connectivity charges. Now, it would be straightforward to vary the price of online access depending on congestion and build an app that let bargain hunters shift their activities to cheaper periods, even on a minute-by-minute basis. When prices were high, consumers could put off non-urgent tasks like downloading Facebook posts to read later. Careful users could save a lot of money.

Excited about the prospects, Chiang patented his key concepts. He dubbed his new service GreenByte and formed a company, now known as DataMi, to build the necessary software. Venture capitalists and angel investors put more than $6 million into the company. A seasoned wireless executive, Harjot Saluja, signed on to be the chief executive, while prominent people such as Reed Hundt, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, joined DataMi’s advisory board. Everything seemed aligned for Chiang and Saluja as they set out to make “smart data pricing” a reality.

Today, GreenByte has vanished from sight. Nobody on DataMi’s team is working on the project anymore. The startup has regrouped in favor of two other services, including one that helps businesses calculate how much of their employees’ cell-phone bills should be reimbursed because of work-related usage. The reasons for the switch have nothing to do with GreenByte’s technical ability to make good on its promise. In early user tests, smart data pricing delivered everything that DataMi’s patents predicted.

But politics got in the way.

A huge debate has erupted about the degree to which Internet carriers should be subject to a concept known as net neutrality. In its simplest form, the idea is that Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon shouldn’t offer preferential treatment to certain types of content. Instead, they should send everything to their customers with their “best efforts”—as fast as they can manage. Nobody can pay your ISP for a “fast lane” to your house. Carriers can’t show favoritism toward any of their own services or applications. And nobody providing lawful content can be slowed or blocked.

At this point, net neutrality is only a principle and not a law. Though the FCC put an ambiguously worded version on the books in 2010, it was struck down this year by a federal district court. But now, as the FCC is deliberating how to redo the policy, it’s facing passionate demands to restore and possibly even tighten the rules, giving ISPs even less leeway to engage in what regulators have typically called “reasonable network management.”

Until about a year ago, Chiang and his colleagues thought their data-pricing idea had so much common-sense appeal that no one would regard it as an assault on net neutrality—even though it would let carriers charge people more for constant access. But then, as the debate heated up, everything got trickier. Ardent defenders of net neutrality began painting ever darker pictures of how the Internet could suffer if anyone treated anyone’s traffic differently. Even though Chiang and Saluja saw variable pricing as pro-consumer, they had no lobbyists or legal team and decided they couldn’t afford a drawn-out battle to establish that they weren’t on the wrong side.

For network engineers, DataMi’s about-face isn’t an isolated example. They fear that overly strict net neutrality rules could limit their ability to reconfigure the Internet so it can handle rapidly growing traffic loads.

Dipankar Raychaudhuri, who studies telecom issues as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rutgers University, points out that the Internet never has been entirely neutral. Wireless networks, for example, have been built for many years with features that help identify users whose weak connections are impairing the network with slow traffic and incessant requests for dropped packets to be resent. Carriers’ technology assures that such users’ access is rapidly constrained, so that one person’s bad connection doesn’t create a traffic jam for everyone. In such situations, strict adherence to net neutrality goes by the wayside: one user’s experience is degraded so that hundreds of others don’t suffer. As Raychaudhuri sees it, the Internet has been able to progress because net neutrality has been treated as one of many objectives that can be balanced against one another. If net neutrality becomes completely inviolable, it’s a different story. Inventors’ hands are tied. Other types of progress become harder.

Rather than debate such subtleties, net neutrality’s loudest boosters have been staging a series of simplistic—but highly entertaining—skits in an effort to rally the public to their side. In September, popular websites such as Reddit and Kickstarter simulated page-loading debacles as a way of getting visitors to believe that if net neutrality isn’t enacted, the Internet could slow to a crawl. That argument has been picked up by TV comedians such as Jimmy Kimmel, who showed a track meet in which the best sprinters represented cable companies with their own fast lanes. A stumbling buffoon in his underwear portrayed the shabby delivery standards that everyone else would endure.

Even President Barack Obama has been publicly reminding regulators of his commitment to net neutrality. In August he declared, “You don’t want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to different users. You want to leave it open so the next Google and the next Facebook can succeed.”

Clearly, most Americans aren’t happy with their Internet service. It costs more to get online in the United States than just about anywhere else in the developed world, according to a 2013 survey by the New America Foundation. In fact, U.S. service is sometimes twice as expensive as what’s available in Europe—and slower, too. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan found in a recent public survey that U.S. Internet service providers rank dead last in customer satisfaction scores against 42 other industries. Specific failings range from unreliable service to dismal call-center performance.

With lots of U.S. consumers wanting the government to do something about Internet service, strengthening net neutrality feels like a way to do it. Given that most Internet providers are urging the FCC to let this principle disappear from the books, it’s natural to call for the opposite approach. Yet that would probably be the wrong move. It’s possible to overdose on something even as benign-sounding as neutrality.


The two sides in the net neutrality debate sometimes seem to speak two different languages, rooted in two different ways of seeing the Internet. Their contrasting perspectives reflect the fact that the Internet arose in an ad hoc fashion; there is no Internet constitution to cite.

Nonetheless, many legal scholars like to point to their equivalent of the Federalist Papers: a 1981 article by computer scientists Jerome Saltzer, David Reed, and David Clark. The authors’ ambitions for that paper (“End-to-End Arguments in System Design”) had been modest: to lay out technical reasons why tasks such as error correction should be performed at the edges, or end points, of the network—where the users are—rather than at the core. In other words, ISPs should operate “dumb pipes” that merely pass traffic along. This paper took on a remarkable second life as the Internet grew. In his 2000 book Code, a discussion of how to regulate the Internet, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig said the lack of centralized control embodied in the 1981 end-to-end principle was “one of the most important reasons that the Internet produced the innovation and growth that it has enjoyed.”

The Internet has progressed because net neutrality has been one of many objectives that can be balanced against one another. If neutrality becomes completely inviolable, it’s a different story.

Tim Wu built on that idea in a 2002 article published when he was a law professor at the University of Virginia. In that and subsequent papers, he wrote that the end-to-end principle stimulated innovation because it made possible “a Darwinian competition among every conceivable use of the Internet so that only the best survive.” To promote that competition, he said, “network neutrality” would be necessary to eliminate bias for or against any particular application.

Wu acknowledged that this was a new concept, with “unavoidable vagueness” about the dividing line between allowable network-management decisions and impermissible bias. But he expressed hope that others would refine his idea and make it more precise.

That never happened. The line remains as blurry as ever, which is one reason the debate over net neutrality is so intense.

Barbara van Schewick, a leading Internet scholar at Stanford and a former member of Lessig’s research team, expresses concern that if profit-hungry companies are left unfettered to choose how to handle various types of traffic, they “will continue to change the internal structure of the Internet in ways that are good for them, but not necessarily for the rest of us.” She warns of the perils of letting Internet providers promote their own versions of popular services (such as Internet messaging or Internet telephony) while degrading or blocking customers’ ability to use independent services (such as WhatsApp in messaging or Skype in telephony). Such practices have occasionally popped up in Germany and other European markets, but they have rarely been seen in the United States, a disparity that van Schewick credits to the FCC’s explicit or implicit commitments to net neutrality.


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