The incredible shrinking Internet

Broadband throttling, caps, and content filtering aren't about sweeping pirates off the Internet

Time was, back in the bad old days of regulatory oversight, the feds told telephone companies that they had to extend service to residents outside prime socioeconomic territories. The FCC laid down the law that the local telcos with a regional monopoly on wire and fiber had to share access to that infrastructure with competing ISPs, and to make that happen, telcos were ordered to split their Internet and telephone service branches into separate business units.

Telcos complained loudly about cable TV providers offering VoIP phone service not subject to telco regulations, while at the same time flouting the very regulations they seek to impose on cable companies in the interest of fairness. Cable is hardly squeaky clean, with infamously poor customer service, wavering quality of coverage, prerequisites for cable TV plans, and leased equipment that adds $50 or more to the low monthly prices quoted in their ads.

Just as the FCC has cleared the way for use of narrow bands of analog TV spectrum for Internet traffic, DSL and cable are exacting payback in a manner that should be setting off bells (no pun) in Washington. We know about the tiered Internet, where commercial customers without top-end bundled services have their traffic shoved aside for use by elite subscribers, and for services sold by the carriers themselves. We read less about other threats that attract minimal attention from IT because they seem to affect only residential broadband users, and more specifically, that fraction of residential users that spoils the Internet for everybody with their peer-to-peer file sharing. Nobody can feel sorry for pirates who are getting their pegs clipped.

[ InfoWorld's Ephraim Schwartz tracks bandwidth killers. | Troubling signs of bandwidth shortage are looming, and Tom Kaneshige and Galen Gruman consider the implications in "Is our Internet future in danger?" ]

Changes being made under the rubric of fighting excessive use of bandwidth by that mythical 5 percent of broadband subscribers that use 90 percent of available bandwidth have nothing to do with freeing those ill-used bits for legitimate use. It's hard to get telcos and cable operators to explain why transfer caps, speed throttling, content filtering, and port blocking, necessary measures to avoid being bankrupted by 5 percent of 'net ne'er-do-wells, apply to all Internet subscribers. Unless, that is, you're paid in full for your provider's most expensive data offerings, or you happen to be a telecommunications provider.

The true motivations behind each of the new poisons being unleashed on U.S. broadband customers are easier to understand than the rhetoric held up to justify their application. Limits on the amount of data you're allowed to transfer each month prevent you from using VoIP, other than that provided by your local telco or cable operator, to escape usurious telephone tariffs. Bandwidth throttling, which may kick in when you've exceeded a (likely unstated) threshold for bytes per quarter-hour, turns your third-party VoIP calls into unintelligible mush. Telcos and cable operators not only make it tough to do business as a third-party VoIP provider, but they use bandwidth-imposed quality issues in their marketing to smear VoIP competitors.

Bandwidth capping and throttling also discourage companies that have in mind to offer business-related broadband services, including offsite storage, remote access to desktops, and rich Internet applications. Even if these companies are willing to pay for more bandwidth than they need, a large portion of their potential customer base is subject to restrictions that make using the service too risky. Broadband users will have to budget their Internet use without knowing in advance how much of their capacity a particular application uses. When customers exceed their caps or thresholds, they incur overage charges or involuntarily get kicked up to higher rate plans.

In the capped and throttled Internet, a fledgling distributor of independent films doesn't stand a chance, and neither does a provider of streaming content services. To make these businesses even less attractive, telcos and cable are toying with content filtering that identifies suspect data. This is, we're told, to put down a scourge that affects telecommunications and the entertainment industry equally: the transfer of movies, TV shows, and music.

It seems difficult to imagine why telcos and cable care about content -- these are the same people who insist that the technology doesn't exist to, say, keep businesses from having URL typos send workers and customers to porn sites -- until you understand that the next frontier for telecommunications is streaming and downloadable news and entertainment content. That explains why telcos and cable want to restrict the flow of digital content, but surely identifying commercial content is technologically impractical.

No user of an iPhone or T-Mobile G1 can believe this. Hosted services such as Shazam can take a random 15- to 30-second clip from a song, match it against a massive database and identify the artist, tune, and CD with a link to iTunes or Amazon. Skimming a download stream, including the soundtracks of streaming and downloaded videos, will just as easily identify a film or TV show. That does make life tough for pirates. It also makes it difficult for legitimate content distributors in lines of business such as online movie rentals or Internet radio. It would certainly cut YouTube off at the knees, which would make a lot of big studio and record labels happy.

What method, I wonder, would be established for identifying yourself as either duly licensed to distribute the content or covered by Fair Use? Even if you could negotiate an indulgence with a major telco (you'd have to parlay each of them separately), the customers you're trying to reach run the risk of getting one of those MPAA or RIAA ransom notes. When the content filters kick in, that whole process could be streamlined. The letter could just be stuffed into the envelope along with your phone bill.

I put in that last bit for fun, because I realize that this approaches conspiracy theory. My gut tells me that the customer and business worst case that I've described approximates the future that telcos and cable operators have in mind. I only hope that the new administration and reshaped legislature will realize that pulling the economy out of a nosedive requires the protection of competition and openness of the Internet to ventures of all types and sizes.

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