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December 16, 2009 12:50 PM

Net Neutrality: The Internet's Achilles' Heel

With the FCC formulating new net neutrality rules, the debate around network management is coming to a head. At this time I think it's important to acknowledge the significance of these issues as in many ways net neutrality is the Internet's Achilles' heel.

I mean this in at least two senses.

The first is that if network operators were allowed to slow down or speed up traffic anticompetitively, it could destroy the very fabric of the Internet. Without clear rules of the road, net neutrality advocates fear that this Achilles' heel of the Internet won't be sufficiently protected.

But there's an important second way that net neutrality is an Achilles' heel, namely that the open, unregulated nature of the Internet is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The fact that the Internet is totally neutral is a large part of what creates security vulnerabilities and leads to performance degradation as data goes skipping uncontrolled between networks.

That's what so many net neutrality supporters either miss or refuse to acknowledge: the Internet as we know it today isn't all that great. Sure there's been a ton of innovation in this open marketplace, but there's also still a lot of issues with the Internet's performance. While many if not most of these issues stem from the inadequacies of last mile broadband infrastructure, even if we had infinite bandwidth in access networks that won't necessarily fix all of these problems.

What sparked this line of thinking was the argument that net neutrality supporters keep making that the key to the Internet's success has been open innovation on the edge. But what that fails to consider is the possibility for innovation in the network being a key driver for the next generation of the internet.

I know I may be thinking about this too simplistically, but why wouldn't we want innovation in the network if it means protecting the Internet's Achilles' heel of performance?

Let's step back from the ledge for a second and realize that we can't be too single-minded about this. Does innovation at the edge need to be protected? Yes! Is the key to this innovation access to open bandwidth? Yes!

But will there also be opportunities to support continued open innovation within the network itself? Yes! To suggest otherwise ignores the basic idea that we should be supporting innovation everywhere.

To put this in more specific terms, many advocates of net neutrality have argued that network operators should not be able to discriminate between traffic. This means prohibiting them from selectively slowing down or speeding up data. So instead of allowing some data to go faster, the position is that no data should have access to a fast lane but rather that networks should only deliver open bandwidth that everyone can access equally.

While I don't disagree with the notion that we need to be encouraging the deployment of more open bandwidth, I don't understand why we'd want to prevent innovation from happening within the network, why we'd rule out the possible benefits of smart networks over stupid networks. Why can't there be a fast lane created for performance-sensitive applications that was open to everyone equally?

Don't get me wrong, the advent of smart networks raises a host of questions about fairness, privacy, competition, and beyond. But I've come to think that this militant attitude towards opposing smart networks is actually the Achilles' heel of the net neutrality movement.

I just don't think its credible to suggest that we should be preventing innovation from happening anywhere on the Internet. I'm not even sure we can say that innovation at the edge is more important than innovation in the network. The point is that we shouldn't be limiting ourselves.

Now that all being said, do we need rules to guide and potentially control the evolution of this innovation to protect consumers and promote open innovation? Quite possibly yes. We may even need to strengthen these protections today.

But let's not gloss over the fact that the Internet itself has an Achilles' heel that smart networks may be able to protect. Let's not allow that area to remain unprotected by leaving any options on the table. Let's not let the specter of big brother corporate interests getting too much power prevent our progress forward as a nation.

Instead let's look at the Internet's shortcomings with open eyes and find solutions to protect its Achilles' heels, wherever they may lie.

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Comments (1)

Net Neutrality? Isn't that real a nice way of saying they don't have sufficient bandwidth to let all data travel equally. AT&T; and the iPhone problem comes to mind.
I think we should call this spade a spade! Lack of network bandwidth

Posted by Jerry Baxley on December 21, 2009 2:38 PM

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