Monday, February 23, 2015

Temperance, Net Neutrality, and the FCC

Later this week, on Feb. 26, the U. S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is going to vote on a proposal to enforce net neutrality.  Net neutrality, according to some, is the idea that all bits are created equal, and that communications firms using or operating parts of the Internet should not discriminate against or for certain types of services, providers, or customers.  If I could do one thing to help the FCC decide wisely on this proposal, I'd bring back Aristotle and ask him to explain to the commissioners what he means by egkrateia, which is usually translated as "temperance" or "moderation."  The Internet has to be one of the most influential and beneficial engineering developments of all time, and it would be a shame for the FCC to cripple it.  But if they don't exercise temperance, that's just what they might do.

Writing in the electrical engineering professional journal IEEE Spectrum, Jeff Hecht points out that wireless technologies, where a lot of the most exciting new Internet developments are happening, need careful technical management to work.  It has to do with the fact that all data on the Internet travels in little chunks called packets.  When the Internet was founded, most data was not that time-sensitive.  If data for email or a webpage shows up in pieces spaced even several seconds apart, it's no big deal.  But as highly time-sensitive services such as telecommunications (phones) and video began to switch to the Internet, and as new time-sensitive services such as multiplayer games developed, timing became a big deal.  Hecht points out that a delay of only twenty milliseconds can disrupt a phone conversation, and if a sound that short goes missing it can turn "can't" into "can" and lead to all kinds of problems.  The same goes for video, which gets jerky with such delays, or game apps, which slow down and aren't that fun anymore.

Delays like this and speed-slowing bottlenecks are especially hard to avoid in two places: (1) where internet service providers (ISPs) connect to the Internet's "backbone," or (2) where wireless is used, such as when you access the Internet from your phone or mobile device.  In the latest generation of mobile phone service, called 4G LTE, providers have developed a way to label packets with what amounts to a digital ship-by date.  Packets that spoil fast—phone conversations, video, game-player data, and time-sensitive system control data—get shipped the fastest, while packets that represent email or webpages have to wait longer in line. 

This technical packet-labeling is called "priority coding" and it's a critical ingredient in the new high-fidelity phone service called VoLTE (LTE, by the way, stands for "long-term evolution"). 

Here's where the moderation comes in.  Reportedly, the FCC is planning to reclassify the Internet as a "common carrier."  Currently the FCC views it through a different legal lens, as an "information provider," which allows the government fewer regulatory options.   But the common-carrier class includes the highly regulated telecommunications industry, and so the FCC's proposed rule changes could allow it to regulate the Internet much more closely than it does now.  Depending on what the FCC means by net neutrality, the commission (or a sneaky lawyer wielding the Commission's new rules) could use its new legal chops to break the new 4G LTE by making priority coding illegal.  After all, if every bit is created equal, shoving some to the front of the line in front of others could be viewed as discrimination.

Any time a government agency decides to extend its regulatory authority, you have to hope that it won't go overboard and stifle the industry it's allegedly trying to help.  This is where Aristotle's virtue of temperance can help.  As has happened in many other fields, the Internet's technology has in many ways outstripped the legal frameworks that were set up to regulate communications systems in the past.  I think it's good for the FCC to acknowledge that the communications world has changed, and that pretending the Internet is just an information provider is outdated.  But an attempt at heavy-handed populist-style regulation in the name of absolute net neutrality could do more harm than good.

Moderation on all sides is called for.  Free-market enthusiasts may worry that the FCC is going to tax or regulate the Internet to death with its new proposed powers.  This is unlikely.  But at the same time, a more subtle danger to watch out for is the co-opting of government authority by big corporate players in a way that favors their interests over those of small firms who want to innovate, but whose innovations pose a threat to the big guys.  This can't happen in a lightly-regulated industry, which so far the Internet has been, for the most part.  I think the FCC is smart enough not to issue rules that would flat-out break the 4G LTE technology.  But any extension of regulatory authority can lead to manipulation of that authority by vested interests.  And I think that is what Aristotle would caution us about the most.  But first, we'd have to explain to him what the Internet is.

Sources:  Jeff Hecht's article "Net Neutrality's Technical Troubles" was posted on the IEEE Spectrum website on Feb. 12, 2015 at  On Feb. 4, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler declared his intentions with regard to net neutrality in the online edition of Wired at  I also referred to an article on The Daily Dot about the FCC's Title II authority (which allows it to regulate common carriers such as telecomm companies) at  I most recently blogged on net neutrality on Nov. 24, 2014 in "How Neutral Is the Net?"

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