One of the frustrations I have with discussions of network neutrality is the overly-broad application of the concept of “treating all bits alike” with the obvious reality that all bits are demonstrably not treated alike on today’s internet.
Ignore for the moment that governments often simply outlaw some apps and content. Forget “treating all bits alike,” some bits are simply blocked.
Even if one assumes network neutrality is about “treating all bits the same,” that does not happen. Most large app providers–and eventually virtually all–use content delivery networks to improve user experience, precisely by treating their own bits differently from others that do not use CDNs.
Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Netflix, for example, operate their own content delivery networks. Such private CDNs represent 61 percent of all CDN traffic, rising to 68 percent by 2021.
By 2021, 71 percent of Internet traffic will be delivered from a content delivery network (CDN), up from 52 percent today, Cisco predicts.
In other words, the way consumers experience the internet already includes the clear recognition by app providers that delivery of bits benefits from not treating those bits in a “best effort” manner when flowing across wide area networks.
As one Cisco blogger notes, “the content is concentrated in the hands of a few companies, and the delivery of this content may bypass much of the Internet’s infrastructure if it is delivered from within a user’s metro area and traverses only a single service provider’s network, so it isn’t “Internet traffic” in any meaningful sense.”
That is the point: the internet is deemed too unreliable to provide consistent end user experience, so the major app providers simply build their own networks to bypass the internet. In principle, then, allowing consumers to have the equivalent of CDN features all the way to where they are is really what network neutrality is about.
In fact, most consumer apps–and all major apps–use CDNs to deliver their own bits faster, and in a more-predictable way. For business reasons, at least some app providers see business advantage to prohibiting access providers from using CDNs.
Though net neutrality includes several key elements–some of which, such as “no blocking or degradation of lawful apps”–are universally supported, a key “strong” net neutrality concept is that consumers cannot be allowed the use of CDN features through their local access networks (mobile or fixed).
There are other “extreme” understandings of net neutrality that go even further, limiting even the use of promotional or other sponsored forms of internet access that clearly benefit consumers, since those “no incremental cost” access programs eliminate the need for consumers to buy internet access to use apps.
Japanese mobile provider Line, for example, offers both free data (at low rates) as well as for-fee faster internet access, allowing its users to switch between modes as they choose. Some might call that sponsored access a violation of net neutrality.
Also, Line allows its users unlimited use of some apps, such as Line Messenger, Line Calls, and Line Video Chat without any data usage chargers. In favoring its own apps, Line most assuredly does not treat all bits and all apps the same.
Other mobile operators have different policies that operate in similar ways, exempting consumption of music or video from data plan charges, for example.
In principle, those policies are simply business practices, similar to free shipping, toll-free calling or any other promotional activity any business uses. Ironically, net neutrality supporters try to stretch the concept of “treat all bits the same” in ways that stifle the effort companies take to innovate and provide distinctive value–that often saves money–for their customers and users.
Some might say it is simply irrational for app providers that do not treat their own bits equally with other “internet” bits to deny that same practice–which does improve user experience–to other actors in the internet ecosystem.