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ISPs should make sure their customers have a good experience--even when they're not using the online services that the ISP might prefer.
Since people rely on the Internet for such a wide range of services today, it's important that their Internet connections work well. This means that people should be able to access the broadband services of their choice using the connections they pay for--and those services should be fast, reliable, and low-latency. To some extent, this means that consumer ISPs need to do what it takes to make sure the popular services their customers demand--the reason they subscribe to broadband to begin with--work well.
Let me be more specific. Due to this well-reported story from GigaOM, people have been talking about potential issues with regard to Netflix working well on Verizon's network. People are claiming that Verizon is under-investing in its interconnections with the company that carries Netflix's traffic, which causes Netflix's performance to degrade for some users.
Netflix is an enormously popular video service that requires a lot of bandwidth--and no one is saying that bandwidth (or Internet infrastructure) is free. A customer pays Netflix to acquire content and to deliver video traffic to the customer's ISP. Netflix pays for the bandwidth and Internet infrastructure (by which I mean broadly: servers, fiber connections, rack space, and so forth) to do this. It's the ISP's job to accept that traffic from Netflix and deliver it to the customer--providing whatever faculties are necessary to do so. The customer pays the ISP to do that, just as she pays Netflix to do its job. Netflix shouldn't have to take the money it gets from its customers and turn around and pay the ISP to do the job the ISP already being paid to do. If it's the job of Internet services to pay an ISP's bills, I'd question why customers have to pay, as well.
Of course, the arrangements between last-mile, customer-facing ISPs and other networks on the Internet are complex. Sometimes it may be appropriate for an Internet service to pay a customer ISP, depending on the nature of the service it provides. But we should start from the premise that ISPs are supposed to do what they can to make sure the broadband access service they provide works as customers expect it to. To go back to the current story about Verizon: Netflix offers a free "peering" service for customer ISPs--essentially, it operates its own "content delivery network." By doing this, it moves its traffic off of the kind of congested lines that link it to Verizon right now and into something more direct. To take advantage of this, Verizon has to do some work--it has to contact Netflix, set up the peering agreement, and maybe host some equipment in its space at an Internet Exchange. It hasn't done so, and as a result, the Netflix experience for Verizon customers is falling behind that of other ISPs. But these technical details don't particularly matter--what matters is that it's not unreasonable to expect ISPs to do what it takes to improve their customer's experience.
There are competitive concerns, here, as well. Verizon like many ISPs has its own online video interest (Verizon and Redbox have teamed up to offer a new service), and it would undoubtedly prefer if customers used that instead of Netflix. It is possible for Verizon or any other ISP to take advantage of its control over the customer experience to advantage one Internet service over another. I have not seen any evidence that they are actively doing this in this instance--but I worry that the same effect could happen passively, through a failure to upgrade interconnection points or set up new peering arrangements.
This issue is very similar to net neutrality, because both interconnection issues and net neutrality can involve a customer ISP leveraging its position to pick and choose among different Internet services. But I think it does make sense to distinguish the two issues--at least at the level of issue analysis, even if the ultimate policy conclusions are the same. Net neutrality is about an ISP creating artificial scarcity on the last mile--creating fast and slow lanes, blocking the traffic of particular applications, or exempting certain services from data caps and not others. The interconnection issues, by contrast, are more about networks talking to each other--it just so happens that some services are so popular that they control their own networks, or effectively do so. This is not about an ISP looking into the traffic a customer has requested (or is sending upstream) and giving it differential treatment. It's one level higher, and it's about whether an ISP will connect with other networks on the Internet in a way that's designed to enhance its customers' experiences, or in a way that is motivated by business interests that do not align with those of the customer.
In some sense, to a customer, these are distinctions without a difference. All that matters to a customer is whether she can access the Internet and use the services she wants to use without having to know the details of what makes it all work. But ISPs should always remember that they are paid by their customers to provide Internet access and that they have a positive responsibility to make the experience a good one.
Original image by Flickr user 24oranges.