Many a night, usually during what would be considered “Prime Time” for TV, my wife complains that the Internet is slow. She isn’t trying to watch video, and most of the time when she makes this complaint no one is watching video in our house. When I investigate these complaints what I find is that our 10 Mb/s rated primary Internet connection is only delivering 2-3 Mb/s. During off hours that connection delivers close to its 10Mb/s rating, and sometimes speedtest.net even shows it exceeding that. So why do we drop by 5x during the evening? Our neighbors are all watching Netflix or other video services.
The situation isn’t specific to our primary Internet connection. We have a secondary connection, mostly for backup but also so that if someone is streaming video it doesn’t bring other Internet usage to a grinding halt. It displays the same pattern of achieving close to its rated speed at off-peak hours but shows a 5x degradation during prime video watching times.
In our condo up on Seattle’s Eastside, where we have outstanding Internet connectivity, things are only marginally better. Although rated to have plenty of bandwidth for showing even HDX movies you can’t actually get through an HDX movie during prime video watching hours without major buffering pauses. Or the connection even being dropped. I’ve tried both FIOS and Xfinity with the same results.
And this isn’t just us, this is the state of the Internet. Just about no one sees the rated speed of their connection for more than brief periods of time usually during off-peak hours. The infrastructure of Comcast, Verizon, and their cohorts just wasn’t designed to deliver peak performance to every user over long periods of time. And if you take video off the table, it doesn’t really need to be.
But video is growing and the networks underlying the Internet need major upgrades to keep up. How do you pay for the upgrades?
Now let me get out-of-the-way that I’m a major free market kind of guy, so I don’t think the government should be interfering in this. How and who should be paying for communications services should be between customers and the companies they buy services from. When the government gets involved then it picks winners and losers. And it won’t be the communications companies, they will end up OK no matter what the answer. The government is picking which customers win and lose.
Net Neutrality turns the question of do senders or receivers pay telecommunications providers for the traffic on the Internet into a simple answer, the receivers pay the telecom companies. It really is that simple. In a strict Net Neutrality world home (and business) Internet prices have to rise a lot, or cell phone plan-style pay by the GB plans have to replace unlimited service, to support building out the infrastructure to handle all the new traffic. Without Net Neutrality the telecommunications providers have more freedom to get the sender to pay, so that the costs of streaming video is directly tied to those services and not forced on infrequent users of those services.
As I said, if government is involved then they’ll pick winners and losers. And the reality of the second decade of the 21st century is that Net Neutrality means people who make heavy use of video streaming services, as well as the companies that operate those services, win. Those who make little, light, or even moderate use of video streaming lose. They’ll either continue to suffer degraded performance, or pay substantially higher prices, to subsidize their neighbors’ video watching habits.
Now it might turn out that a proposal AT&T made a while ago, if I understood it correctly, is the right balance in all of this. AT&T, coming at this from the standpoint of a company that does charge (wireless) customers by GB consumed, proposed to optionally allow the sender to pay for data that would not count against the receiving customer’s data limit. Net Neutrality fans went nuts of course, but AT&T’s proposal makes tremendous sense. Particularly if we are all forced into capacity-based pricing at home because of Net Neutrality. Imagine Netflix continuing to offer their $7.99 plan unchanged from today. That would work great for light users of the service. But heavy users who found that their base Internet service at home was now limited to 25GB per month, and then having to pay overage charges, might be more interested in paying for a $11.99 plan from Netflix that didn’t use up any of that 25GB. The AT&T proposal is the kind of innovative solution that I’d expect if the government doesn’t get in the way. Sadly they seem intent on getting in the way.
The reason Net Neutrality gives me a headache is because it isn’t neutral at all. Any way you slice it we need more money put into the infrastructure of the Internet. And having the government pick who is going to pay is going to end badly for me, and I believe for the vast majority of users of the Internet.