Internet usage expansion: Network neutrality is necessary to keep the trend going

-July 20, 2012

My last post covered Cisco's latest Visual Networking Index report, which annually forecasts trends in IP network traffic over the next several years. Overall growth is dramatic, reaching more than 1 zettabyte/year by the middle of this decade. And it's accompanied by a steady packet-percentage shift from wired to wireless connections.

These trends are critical to keeping the networking and other technology treadmills smoothly running, both in terms of encouraging new hardware and software purchases and upgrades of existing gear. And to some degree they can be made manifest by more efficiently leveraging the bandwidth potential of each broadband link... more LAN-based devices connected to the common WAN "pipe" increases the likelihood that the "pipe" will have packets flowing through it at any particular point in time.

Eventually, the "pipe" will be at full capacity, though, and an expansion of its bandwidth potential will be necessary to encourage further usage increases. Fortunately, Cisco's prognostication also suggests that this expansion will in fact occur, with both absolute- and percentage-increase rates varying somewhat on a geography-by-geography basis:

But even if this bandwidth potential increase comes to pass, fiscal factors may compel users to give it a 'pass'. I'm speaking here of the increasingly egregious monthly bandwidth caps, overage charges, dynamic bandwidth "throttles" and other factors that ISPs are instituting, supposedly as a means of optimizing network capacity. This is a topic that I've written about many times in the past, and in spite of many open-minded research revisits of it over the years, my conclusions have unfortunately remained constant.

Network neutrality neutering by an ISP is frequently positioned as a means of "punishing" a supposed small percentage of customers who consume a disproportionately high percentage of the total available network resources. But instead, it largely accomplishes the following ISP-friendly but customer-antagonistic outcomes instead:
•    Delaying if not completely foregoing costly-to-ISP network upgrades
•    Maximizing per-customer extracted revenue and profits
•    Prioritizing packets representing the ISP's own VoIP, streaming movie delivery and other services versus OTT (over-the-top) service alternatives from other companies (I'm looking at you, Comcast, for example), and
•    Restricting access to services whose information provided is deemed politically or otherwise unpalatable to the ISP's shareholders and other interested parties.

Don't get me wrong. I get the resource-squandering concept of the tragedy of the commons, and I personally experience it whenever I try to tap into the free Internet access available at airports or other public facilities (or even the paid Internet service at a hotel), or strive to get a cellular dial tone at the Consumer Electronics Show or another highly populated conference. I'm not opposed to heavy-use customers paying more... this is the same way that an electric, gas, water or other utility service operates. But public utilities receive regular regulatory scrutiny, to ensure that their actions are serving the common good, versus simply lining the owners' wallets. And although I'm sure that this post will cultivate no shortage of flaming comments from the Libertarians among you, I don't think that Internet access should treated any differently.

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