Sep 15, 2014

    The BitTorrent route to saving net neutrality

    ERIC Klinker, the chief executive of file-sharing software company BitTorrent, has proposed - only half-seriously - an interesting solution to the net neutrality versus bandwidth-hogging problem.

    Instead of having heavy-traffic generators such as Netflix pay Internet service providers (ISPs) for "fast lanes" to their customers, Mr Klinker suggested that providers pay other companies to get into a "slow lane", shifting traffic to off-peak hours.

    Mr Klinker's idea is typical of net-neutrality advocates' arguments: It is largely based on the essentially Communist argument that Internet providers should shut up about any extra charges because they have plenty of money anyway.

    Net neutrality is the principle that no Internet content or service should be discriminated, such as being blocked or slowed.

    There is, however, a curious and potentially useful technical side to the proposal.

    BitTorrent knows all about slow lanes. In 2011, it accounted for 13 per cent of peak-hour Internet traffic in North America. Now, according to the broadband-equipment firm Sandvine, its share is just 5.96 per cent (which still makes it the third-biggest traffic generator after Netflix and YouTube).

    At one point, it moved to the so-called Micro Transport Protocol, which shifts traffic to less congested times.

    A BitTorrent download will slow down when the network is relatively crowded and speed up when there's less demand for bandwidth.

    So now, Mr Klinker says Internet providers should pay people who, like him, voluntarily renounce bandwidth hogging, just like electricity companies encourage people to use more power in off-peak hours.

    "This would relieve pressure on the network, yield a better experience for users and would be worth real money to the ISPs," he argues.

    "Additionally, there would be no unnatural pressure for the ISP to deliberately degrade the base service in order to manufacture demand for the priority service, as some have suggested might happen."

    In fact, in the old days, Internet providers did charge less for off-peak use. One can still find such plans in places like Nepal.

    Introducing "night tariffs" is a variation on the idea of broadband providers going back to the old practice of charging only for traffic used, which would be fair but inconvenient to users who want their bill to be predictable.

    Mr Klinker's proposal is only a rhetorical device: There's no need for Netflix to pay the providers or for providers to reward "slow lane" customers.

    Mr Klinker refers to Internet providers' fat gross margins to prove his point.

    It's true that bandwidth is not really scarce. According to the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) 2014 report on United States broadband performance, providers now routinely exceed their advertised speeds, which wasn't the case a year earlier.

    That kind of generosity would be impossible if there were a capacity shortage. But the profits argument remains ignorant or disingenuous.

    To make speed increases possible, providers have to maintain and upgrade their networks. The investment needed does not affect gross margins.

    It's wrong to expect Internet providers to keep paying for equipment that allows us to watch more video, play "heavy" games over the Internet or increase our use of the cloud.

    Now, they want heavy-traffic generators to chip in, and the FCC appears to support them. Perhaps, however, Mr Klinker is right about revisiting old traffic-based payment plans.

    I think it would be misleading to most consumers, but having a discussion about how we want to be charged would help figure out how much people really care about net neutrality.

    If we truly want a neutral Internet in which all traffic is created equal, we should be happy to pay for our actual usage.

    That would be fair, and providers would not need to create fast or slow lanes. If, on the other hand, we want the convenience of a fixed payment, net neutrality is no more than a meaningless fetish.