American Culture

Internet freedom means net neutrality, not "pay-as-you-go" broadband

By Martin Bosworth

Last week the news broke (via a leaked memo found by Broadband Reports) that Time Warner Cable was instituting a “tiered pricing” structure for broadband, where heavy bandwith users would have to pay more, rather than the customary “all you can eat” model of supposedly unlimited usage for a flat price. My article covers the issue in more detail, but the gist is that while tiered pricing structures are better than being kicked off your service for violating invisible bandwith caps, it’s still no substitute for building out new networks with more capacity.

This leads me to the excellent paper authored by Sascha Meinrath on how the concept of net neutrality needs to be incorporated and expanded into a larger vision of Internet freedom.

Meinrath’s paper (available as a free download, and which I found via the indispensable Natasha Chart) studies the landscape of America’s decrepit and costly broadband offerings in exhaustive detail. He hits all the right marks–the $750 million buildout of “dark fiber” connections that go largely unused, the billions in subsidies given to major telecom companies with no discernible return for the taxpayer, and the current efforts of both telecoms, government, and media companies to restrict, choke, and narrow access to information in order to preserve both their business models and their primacy of content providing.

As Meinrath notes:

From the reemergence of telecommunications giant AT&T to current efforts by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to re-open media ownership proceedings, fewer players are gaining massive market share, creating increasingly vertically and horizontally integrated corporations with the potential to dominate entire market sectors (Kushnick, 1999; McChesney, 1999). The current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulatory environment fails to spur technological innovation and has retarded expansion of digital inclusion efforts (Cooper, 2004). Instead, the FCC has fostered a decades-long market environment fraught with pricing and geographical discrimination as well as overpriced, substandard telecommunications services (Slotten, 2000)…

Meinrath’s solution is a ten-point plan that recasts the Internet as a global public utility rather than a private enterprise commodity. I’ll translate his points for the tech-phobic among you:

1. Requires Common Carriage. (Every market player has access to the Internet, from public networks to private companies)

2. Is Open Architecture and Supports Open Source Driver Development. (You can use any hardware you want…)

3. Is Open Protocol and Open Standard. (…and any software you want.)

4. Supports an End-to-End Architecture (i.e., is based upon a “dumb network”). (Prevents governmental and corporate attempts to block or prioritize traffic.)

5. Is Private (e.g., no back doors, deep packet inspection, etc.). (No spying allowed!)

6. Is Application-Neutral. (See #2 and #3.)

7. Is Low-Latency and First-In/First-Out (i.e., requires adequate capacity). (Requires carriers to eschew “artificial scarcity” by using all the cables and connections they buy for at least basic access.)

8. Is Interoperable. (Works effectively across the nation and the world.)

9. Is Business Model Neutral. (Enables both public-sector and private-sector innovation.)

10. Is Run by its Users (i.e., is internationally representative and non-Amerocentric). (Self-explanatory.)

Meinrath’s plan doesn’t have all the answers, but he does a marvelous job of providing context and a larger vision for how we can not only rebuild America’s position as a true technological and social innovator in the realm of the Internet, but how this can be expanded into a truly globe-spanning connective system that’s “neutral, democratic, and efficient.” Highly recommended.

And if you’re so inclined, you can go back and read my principles for America’s Internet future, which addresses a lot of similar points, and a few Meinrath doesn’t. Just sayin’.

4 replies »

  1. I like the broad principles that you outline, Martin, but you (and Meinrath) don’t appear to address means to squelching the massively disruptive and expensive spam problem.

    When spam accounts for something 97% of all emails, freeing up all that bandwidth and the associated hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars spent globally to keep you and I and 1.2 billion of our closest friends from reading spam would free up money that could easily be used to fix buildout problems, fund international interoperability standards organizations, etc.

  2. The spam problem is a simple one to solve. The majority of my spam mail messages originate, or are tunneled through, machines that hide behind the Great Wall of China.

    The Chinese censors see great harm in words like “Democracy”, “Tiamen Square”, and “Sex”, and such words are vaporized as they cross Chinese routers, but email spam with brashly emboldened fake URLs proclaiming origination from “” go blasting across their censor system routers faster than the fly on the rod with triple leads.

    Obviously, the Chinese government is facilitating the massive spam assault upon us. They could stop it easily if they wanted to, and they have all of the tools in place to do so (not that I advocate such tools for draconian government intrusion into communications). I am not indicating that I endorse censorship. In this country (U.S.), due process is “officially” the only condoned method to stop spammers (thank God), and I would hope that such were the case in China too, except that (of course) it isn’t.

    But, they could use the equivalent of their due process (that isn’t), to stop the spam.

    In other words, the solution to spam lies with the embassy workers and the embassy officials representing each of the world’s countries inside of China. Perhaps the U.N. could be involved, but in any case it’s a diplomatic problem, not a technical one.