Podcast: Internet service providers charging for premium access hold us all to ransom

Here's a reading (MP3) of a my latest Guardian column, Internet service providers charging for premium access hold us all to ransom, which tries to make sense of the disastrous news that the Federal Communications Commission is contemplating rules to allow ISPs to demand bribes from publishers in exchange for letting you see the webpages you ask for.

There's a useful analogy to the phone company that I've written about here before: you pay for your phone service every month. The pizza place on the corner also pays for its phone service every month. When you want to order a pizza from Joe's Corner Pizzeria, you call their number. If their phone isn't engaged, it rings and you get to place your order. If they get more orders than they can handle on one line, they buy a second line, a third, even 10 lines to take their orders. Provided one of those lines is free, your call goes through to someone when you ring.

But what if your phone company decided that the way to bring in higher profits was to go around to all the pizza places and shake them down for "premium" access to "their" customers? If Joe's Corner Pizzeria turned them down, your call to Joe's might get a busy signal, even if there were plenty of free lines at Joe's place. Meanwhile, an order to the monied, tasteless sultan of global cardboard pizza-ite, that is, the company who has plenty of money for "premium" access – is easy to reach, because your phone company has promised them that every call will be put through.

The thing is, Joe's is paying for its lines. You're paying for your line. The phone company exists solely to connect people to the numbers they dial. But because there are "natural monopolies" in phone service (because there are only so many mobile frequencies and underground cable space), they can abuse their position to extort additional payments from the services you want to talk to. And the more popular a service is, the better it is, the more the ISP stands to profit from this racket.

Mastering by John Taylor Williams: wryneckstudio@gmail.com

John Taylor Williams is a audiovisual and multimedia producer based in Washington, DC and the co-host of the Living Proof Brew Cast. Hear him wax poetic over a pint or two of beer by visiting livingproofbrewcast.com. In his free time he makes "Beer Jewelry" and "Odd Musical Furniture." He often "meditates while reading cookbooks."


Notable Replies

  1. It would take very deep pockets. The current oligopoly has its infrastructure in place; had a great deal of it in place even before becoming ISPs, such as cable and trunk lines. In a large market, setting up the infrastructure would be a, um.... non-negligible cost.

  2. Has anywhere else in the world tried the British experiment of forcing the monopoly phone supplier to offer LLU access to the lines and wholesale internet access? And secondly why isn't this applied to Virgin cable as well as BT?

    This is an example of an infrastructure market with a natural monopoly in that there's no point in laying more than one cable to the home. Just like electricity, water, sewage, gas. That monopoly is highly regulated by the government and in many cases was financially supported with public money both during build out and normal running. What we have with the US net neutrality debate is both a failure to regulate and a failure to create a viable competitive market by the government that was responsible for funding and controlling the market. It's not a free market and it cannot be one. But it could be a viable competitive market.

    It seems reasonable to suggest that the US should at least look at the British model of LLU and wholesale. But of course it will suffer from "not invented here", "It's different in the USA", assorted (non-existent) ideological problems, but most of all, lobbying and corruption. It will end up as an oligopoly because that's what the US system tends towards in every infrastructure market.

  3. I'm wondering whether it isn't possible for customers to file a class action suit- After all, we signed on with our ISPs under the understanding that we would be able to access what we wanted at the advertized speeds.

  4. I really like the analogy. I sometimes wonder if the issue is caused by simply not conveying a better option for the ISP's for dealing with Netflix, which should probably just upgrade their infrastructure. How do you deal with all of those charges of the information moving between distant servers? The IANA governs IP addresses that the ISP's then assign to block regions. With that information, it's extremely simple to calculate an abstract "distance", which could then be used to calculate a standard overage charge if X amount of data passes through a long distance. I think what Comcast is openly doing with Netflix breaks the core concepts of non-bias that govern the operation of the Internet, and their IP blocks should be suspended. Hypothetically speaking.

Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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