The internet has enrolled in junior high. In contrast to those halcyon days when carefree if somewhat unruly young start-ups jostled equally for attention, today’s internet businesses are joining cliques, angling for favors, and shunning lower-class losers.
After all, in junior high, the combat zone is the playground, where the stakes are social standing and prestige. Similarly, today’s web folks wrangle in back rooms and meeting rooms, and the key quarrel is the contentious concept of network neutrality: that is, should all traffic coursing through the intertubes be treated equally, as it has been since the dawn of the web?
In both arenas, it seems the big kids always win. Case in point: in early August, Google and Verizon unveiled a “suggested legislative framework” for ending the network-neutrality debate. Their proposal bans big-kid content providers from paying ISPs to speed their wares to you more quickly than bits and bytes from other--presumably less deep-pocketed--providers.
Google, for example, couldn’t pay Verizon to ensure that searches on its system went lickety-split, while Yahoo searches--let alone those from a no-name, no-money start-up--chugged along in the slow lane.
But the framework left open a loophole through which the USS Enterprise could comfortably sail: none of those neutrality strictures would apply to the wireless internet.
Huh? Hasn’t anyone noticed that the wired web is going the way of the dodo bird? As we speak, Verizon and AT&T are spending billions of dollars to upgrade their wireless services from 3G to the fourth-generation wireless service, LTE.
4G LTE maxes out at theoretical top speeds of around 50 to 100 megabits per second, but in reality it’ll be more in the 8Mbps to 12Mbps range. Still, that’s far from shabby--what’s the real-world speed of your current wired connection?
In the framework floated by Google and Verizon, paid prioritization would be A-OK on 4G LTE--and on 5G, 6G, whatever--because of “the unique technical and operational characteristics of wireless networks.”
Gaping loophole number two: “additional or differentiated services” that are “distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband internet access service” but which “make use of or access internet content, applications, or services” could employ “traffic prioritization.”
If that seems opaque to you, you’re not alone--but think interactive internet TV, medical monitoring, peer-to-peer multipoint educational offerings, and other stuff we’ve yet to imagine. If Verizon and Google get their way, all of those could run on the wired internet at different speeds if their providers pay for the privilege--and, of course, pass the cost on to you.
Verizon and Google’s “suggested legislative framework” is, however, just that: a suggestion. It hasn’t been adopted by the FCC or passed into law by Congress. But even if it’s ignored and a more neutral net-neutrality policy is someday put into law, it may already be too late.
The reason: edge caching. In a nutshell, that’s a big-bucks provider such as Google installing a caching server inside a regional ISP’s data center. By doing so, Googly content (think YouTube) doesn’t have to compete for bandwidth on the internet’s public backbone--instead, it hops speedily right to you.
You can argue either that edge caching is simply good business or that it violates the spirit of network neutrality--a prosperous company such as Google, after all, is buying advantage over the less well-to-do. But it’s happening right now, and it’s making the level playing field upon which the internet was built less level.
As I said, the internet has entered junior high, where the distinctions between the big kids and the little kids--and between rich kids and the poor kids--become more clear.
Since the late 1980s, Rik Myslewski has paid his rent by keeping an eye on Apple. He was editor-in-chief of MacAddict from 2001 until its transformation into Mac|Life in early 2007, and is now a member of the snarkily sophisticated team at London’s The Register, which is “biting the hand that feeds IT” daily at www.theregister.co.uk.