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Fat cat telcos are killing the net
I feel as though we are standing on the edge of a very dangerous precipice...
Written at and despatched from a Beijing hotel via a low-cost wi-fi service.

So far the internet has provided us all with new degrees of freedom and greater diversity of communication and information than anything we have experienced before. It has changed just about everything and totally eclipsed broadcasting and the telephone in terms of casual, home, business, fixed and mobile use.

It's been so successful it seems the 'dark side of the force' sees an opportunity to make a land-grab and change everything in its dubious favour.

In a surprising move the US telcos and network providers have involved government in a debate to change legal/regulatory status for their operations that has the potential to limit the future capability of the net.

Why are they doing this? Money of course! These old world companies have seen their supremacy and profit margins dwindle in favour of the newcomers, so they want a slice of the new and growing pie.

Of course the situation is far more complex than might be assumed on first inspection. The network operators are supported by their equipment makers and other suppliers who also see the potential for knock-on rich pickings. On the other hand the newcomers in the service provision space see any form of net control as a threat and infringement of their future activities. A full brief of the US Congressional involvement in this 'net neutrality' debate can be found in this Cheat Sheet.

Needless to say, the amounts of money at stake are huge, with the network providers enjoying a total market value in excess of $300bn; in the newcomers camp the number is even higher at more than $500bn.

So beyond the problem of sheer greed, what's the issue? The net as it stands is a wonderfully chaotic place, fundamentally incapable of providing any form of real-time service - voice, video, any form of instant messaging or human interaction - with any guaranteed quality of service (QoS).

Yes, it all works to some degree some of the time but continually increasing the number of VoIP and videoconference calls, radio and TV broadcasts just creates congestion, increased latencies and ultimately one meltdown after another.

The reality is that the internet protocol (IP) was never designed or intended for real-time anything! In order to achieve any reasonable QoS level it is necessary to nail down routings on a call-by-call, session-by-session basis. Ironically the internet then starts to look like a circuit-switched system la the old telephone network.

The net neutrality debate gives the old school the opportunity to resume control, to create a two-tier net, to grab more of the money and to restore their fortunes. And in phase one they would like to groom the traffic carried to increase the efficiency and the earnings per packet. But it gets worse fast!

The telcos et al see an opportunity to regulate the whole net and control the packet flow so they can extract more revenues by creating tiers of usage for individuals and websites by volume and speed. This would create, at least, two classes - one faster internet for those with lots of money and one slower one for those without. And I have to say, this also means goodbye to the freedom and uniform utility we currently enjoy.

The reality is that all the necessary control can be realised from the periphery of the net. It really does not require a huge centralised control system with billing added on top for good measure. Is there an existence theorem for this alternative approach? Yes! Just take a look at Japan and Korea. They are streets ahead with populations already watching TV and listening to the radio over fibre to the home using IP.

In my view this is a pure money play by the dark side, who, if they succeed politically, will catapult us back to a time when they controlled connectivity and information flow. And if it happens in the US, which would be wonderfully ironic as that is the country that created the internet, we might see the EU network operators queuing up with their wallets open ready to skim off more money than they are actually due by exactly the same mechanisms.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. We have two basic choices. To go for a world of increasing complexity, as we try to squeeze more and more out of a given amount of transmission bandwidth and routing capacity, or to throw more and more bandwidth at the problem to achieve a greater simplicity at the expense of efficiency.

As bandwidth now (effectively) costs nothing, I vote for increasing simplicity (relatively speaking) as have Japan and Korea.

Unfortunately, the dark side has never been able to grasp this opportunity for change as they are locked into 100-year-old mindsets, where time, distance and bandwidth are chargeable items. The reality is that technology and the net have made them all inconsequential!

I feel as though we are standing on the edge of a very dangerous precipice...