A dumb-pipe and Net Neutrality


The pipe that brings water into your home is a pretty un-sexy thing, just like the electrical cables that deliver electricity. Your internet connection though, has gotten sexier and sexier–from being used to deliver paid content like hyppTV and Astro to other more interesting services, resulting in a triple play (internet, tv and phone) of services, all piped into your home on a fibre optic cable no thicker than a strand of your hair.

But should you internet connection be sexy or should it be a dumb-pipe? The telcos of course want to deliver more services and hence fatten the bottom-line, but the problem I have is that in their zeal to do this, they’ve violated the principles of net neutrality, and I fear that we’re going down a rabbit-hole of ‘favored’ content, that sooner or later we’re not going to be able to reverse this trend.

A quick example is Maxis, it’s the only player out that can stream Astro content over the Fibre cable. That gives Maxis an un-fair advantage over TM.

What is Net Neutrality?

The internet is just a connection of networks that talk to each other, similar to the way the postal services in different countries share their postage. That’s why you can post something from Malaysia, and it can reach any other country in the world (provided you paid enough for stamps). In this process, each envelope and letter in the system is treated equally, and if you want to be treated ‘better’ you’d have to pay more for PosLaju or FedEx or DHL..etc. But if you’re on the regular postal service you don’t get preferential treatment.

The same thing goes for the internet, this blog is physically hosted in Singapore, and what you’re reading now was delivered to you via data connections from a data center in Singapore to wherever in the world you are right now. (technically it’s delivered from Cloudflare, but we’ll leave that out for now)

The principle of net neutrality is that every data packet (just like an envelope in the postal service) is treated fairly on the internet, with no packet getting priority over the other. This helps keep the engineering and technical aspects of the internet chugging along but also helps promote innovation, and it’s the reason the internet is so successful.

The corollary is that whenever net neutrality is violated, the engineering of the internet begins to fall apart, and the innovation is stifled.

Whenever you introduce priority on the network, you first have to figure out who gets the priority, and then you have to treat those packets differently. From an engineering perspective this is completely inefficient. Consider a super-market checkout lane, and imagine if you had express lanes for people with a specific credit cards. While it seems perfectly logically to have these lanes from a marketing perspective, this actually slows down the overall experience of the check-out for everyone else, now imagine if most customers can only visit ONE supermarket (which is the perfect analogy for todays broadband subscribers), it seems to give an unfair advantage to the credit card company wouldn’t it. Now think about the tie-up between Astro and Maxis, and how that is unfair to TM, since TM doesn’t have access to the exclusive Astro deals.

Similarly when packets aren’t treated equally they stifle innovation. For example take Digi’s ‘free’ bandwidth for content from Facebook, Whatsapp, Spotify etc. Digi isn’t charging it’s subscribers for traffic to these already popular sites–but imagine if you created the next Facebook or Whatsapp, even if you deliver a superior product you’re essentially going to compete with free, and no startup in the world has that ability. Hence when Telcos and ISPs start charging less for certain websites, they stifle innovation in that space.

The solution is unfortunately government regulation–from a corporate perspective it makes perfect sense to entice customers with cheaper facebook or youtube, but from a general consumer perspective, the price is paid in the long run. In the US, the government has already moved in to classify ISP and Telco’s as Tier 2 common carriers, meaning that they can’t start prioritizing certain traffic, essentially reducing ISPs to a dumb-pipe, and there’s a very good reason to do so…the consumer wins when the ISPs are dumb-pipes, because a separation  between data delivery and content creation is what keeps the internet chugging along. As an international example, take Mark Zuckerbergs (in)famous internet.org initiative.

The initiative was meant to provide the internet to the poor and rural folks living in already poor countries. However, the internet that would be provided would be limited number of online services instead of ‘the internet’. No blogs or news sites, just Facebook and Wikipedia, and people worried that this could threaten the growth of the internet in these regions.

Is ‘some’ internet better than ‘no’ internet? Of course.

But if you expose people to a limited internet for a pro-longed period of time, than you’re limiting their ability to fully utilize the ‘full’ internet. I’m not making sense because I haven’t fully articulated my thoughts on the matter.

The reality is that, I’m having a difficult time figuring out whether internet.org is good or bad. In the long run, I think it’s really bad, that Facebook is literally buying off the internet in these poorer regions of the world, and when people get used to free internet, they’ll never want to purchase the full internet even when their economic conditions improve to the point that they can afford it. On the other hand, if some billionaire wants to provide at least access to ‘some’ internet to these folks, who am I to deny them that in favor of absolutely ‘no’ internet.

I’m really torn. But at least now you know the controversy.


What is Internet.org?

Internet.org allows subscribers of partner mobile networks to use a limited number of online services without having to pay to make use of the data involved.

They include Wikipedia, the Facts for Life health site run by the United Nations Children’s Fund, BBC News, Facebook, Accuweather and a selection of local news and sports results providers.

To access the facility, people must use special Android apps, Internet.org’s website, Facebook’s own Android app or the Opera Mini browser.

The web pages provided must be basic to minimise data use – high resolution photos, videos and voice chat facilities are not permitted.

Network operators participate because they believe users will pay for wider internet access once they have had a chance to try out the free content on offer.

Since 2014, the project has launched in Zambia, India, Colombia, Guatemala, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malawi.

Facebook says more than nine million people have used the scheme to date.

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