Blog Post

A sideways glance at net neutrality: data hostages and a peek behind the curtain at monopoly ISPs

I recently read this (month-old) post by Colin Nederkoorn (better late than never) at On the surface, it's a gripe about his monopoly ISP not holding up its end of the bargain on a high-speed connection. It also serves as a bit of a guide for those who wish to root out similar problems and perhaps take some small, practical action against the games potentially being played by their ISPs, as Nederkoorn did.

But, what I see revealed is a story about Net Neutrality. More clearly than ever, it is apparent that there is a game of chicken being played by the ISPs, with themselves on one side and many content providers (and all consumers) on the other. It’s a who’ll-blink-first scenario, where “blinking” equates to certain content providers paying for special access, fast lanes, what have you. The referee in this game should be the FCC. The problem is that (a) this game should not even be allowed to take place, and (b) the FCC are squarely on the side of the monopoly ISPs, especially now, with a former telecom lobbyist at the helm. This is impacting (and will continue to impact) the future of important data and connectivity issues like access, cost, speed, throughput, and the aforementioned pay-to-play “fast-lane” arrangements for the delivery of certain data (e.g. streaming content).

Nederkoorn directly touches several of these concerns by offering us a very accessible anecdote about his personal experience: He has surprising difficulty with the simple act of playing Netflix movies over a (very expensive, very fast) Verizon Fios connection. On its surface, by the numbers, it’s a network connection with (what seems to be) amazing throughput, including premium data speeds. (In this case speeds were claimed at 75mbps down and 35mbps up.)

Astonished that he is paying for this incredible access and still experiences movies that stall and stutter mid-playback, Nederkoorn runs an experiment. He subsequently finds the problem and a solution, even offering us a description of his end-run around the issue. The “problem” that he discovers, though, isn't a real problem. Rather, it seems to be a purpose-built roadblock, in place behind the scenes, and implemented by his ISP. The roadblock is aimed directly at Netflix and their carrier network, Level3. Nederkoorn is even able to offer proof by virtue of a fairly simple test and, of course, he shares the results, complete with some nice charts.

So who cares and why?

Taken in light of where we're at with Net Neutrality, the post is an illustrative, you might even say insightful, still-life of the moment. It serves as a perfect snapshot of the overt hostage holding and ransoming of certain data that is taking place at monopoly ISPs right now. It also elucidates the fact that even when a content provider (such as Netflix) pays the ransom (in this case to Verizon), the data may be “freed” in name only. Only the most astute consumers have an awareness of this happening, and even fewer have the technical know-how to devise a means of tracking down, correcting, and/or proving the deception.

For me, the fact that this is happening rings all kinds of consumer advocacy and anti-monopoly alarm bells. I’m not surprised, of course, but I am alarmed and aggravated – but what else? There’s a deeper set of issues at play here, though. Nederkoorn’s post also serves as a document that potentially presages things to come on the data-delivery front. And this is particularly disturbing because it describes a scenario where these sleights-of-hand with data delivery can still take place, practically speaking, regardless of the outcome of the whole “fast-lanes and the gutting of Net Neutrality” issue. Right now, with Net Neutrality still on the books, so to speak, even when providers like Netflix pay a ransom for special treatment of their data (i.e. fast lanes) they (and in effect you) may not be getting any benefit from that payment. And, even when you pay for a top tier connection such as Fios on your end – maybe even especially when you pay for that top tier connection – a purpose-built roadblock to that "priority data" still exists.

So, with the potential gutting and redefinition of Net Neutrality on deck at the FCC, this kind of funny business being used by a monopoly ISP against its customers and a massive content provider is very telling. This is what they already seem to be doing when they don’t even have a mandate from the FCC to do it… yet. Net Neutrality is not quite dead, but we’re close enough that this stuff is happening practically out in the open. You just have to know how to spot it. And it’s a harbinger – an example of a battle-for-access that will likely be waged mostly behind the scenes, and with much of the public completely unaware that a fight is even happening.


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