Peering Fight Not About Neutrality

12/06/2010 12:01 AM Eastern

It is with great interest that
I read the current blow-up between
Comcast and Level 3 is being cast as an
excuse for Free Press and Public
Knowledge to push their
network-neutrality agenda. This argument has nothing
to do with net neutrality and
is a perfect example of how
regulators would be tempted
to move beyond the six principles
laid out last year by the
Federal Communications

A little background: the
Comcast and Level 3 networks are
linked under the auspices of what is
called a peering agreement. As long as
the traffic that crosses from Level3 to
Comcast is similar to the load of traffic
that crosses from Comcast to Level 3,
both companies basically shrug off the
cost. But if suddenly Level 3’s traffic to
Comcast increases exponentially, then
Comcast is being unduly burdened
with the added cost of connecting Level
3 customers to its own customers without
the reciprocal benefits.

This is basically what happened
once Netflix switched from Akamai
to Level 3 to handle a big load of its
streaming services — the wave of the
future, as Netflix customers switch to
streaming instead of good old DVDs.

Comcast then decided to charge
Level 3 fees for slamming its network.
Essentially, once Comcast’s
peering agreement with Level 3
started costing it more than Comcast
was getting in return, the MSO
decided to recoup its costs by charging
a usage fee. Level 3 agreed to go
along with paying fees, but has asked
the FCC to look into this situation.

How is this related to net neutrality?
The bottom line is it is not.
Net neutrality is about an open network,
but it is not about a free ride.
Perversely, net neutrality would potentially
ban the Level 3-Comcast
voluntary agreement anyway.

As TV and movies begin heading
away from traditional
DVD sales and towards
outlets like streaming
video, there will be people
who call for net neutrality
because they are afraid
that there is a potential
for the cost of Internet to
increase. They are correct,
but that shouldn’t
necessarily be a bad thing
if, one, there are a range
of choices dependent upon what kind
of Internet service you want — fast,
medium, or slow, with corresponding
prices — and two, with that range
of choices comes more content .

Net neutrality, as misguided as it is,
was written to deal with packets of information
and the unwarranted fear
of corporate censorship. But a massive
rewrite of the regulatory code, through
reclassification, would expand the
FCC regulatory bubble to take up paid
peering arrangements and even lay
the groundwork for what ISPs could
not only charge other businesses, but
Internet consumers as well, a la a regulated
utility like Ma Bell. This would
be a huge move backwards.

Carl Gipson is director, technology
and telecom project, at the Seattlebased
Washington Policy Center.

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