Revisiting IT Policy #1: Network Neutrality

The last time I wrote about network neutrality, higher education was deeply involved in the debate, especially through the Association of Research Libraries and EDUCAUSE, whose policy group I then headed. We supported a proposal by the then Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Julius Genachowski, to require public non-managed last-mile networks to transmit end-user Internet traffic neutrally.

We worried that otherwise those networks might favor commercial over intellectual content, and so make it difficult for off-campus students to access course, library, and other campus content, and for campus entities such as libraries to access content on other campuses or in central shared repositories. (The American Library Association had similar worries on behalf of public libraries and their patrons.) Almost as a footnote, we opposed so-called “paid prioritization”, an ill-defined concept, rarely implemented, but now reborn as “Internet fast lanes”.

Although courts overturned the FCC on neutrality, for the most part its key principle has held: traffic should flow across the Internet without regard for its source, its destination, or its content.

But the paid-prioritization footnote is pushing its way back into the main text. It’s doing so in a particularly arcane way, but one that may have serious implications for higher education. Understanding this requires some definitions. After addressing those (as Steve Worona points out, an excellent Wired article has even more on how the Internet, peering, and content delivery networks work), I’ll  turn to current issues and higher education’s interests.

What Is Network Neutrality?

To be “neutral”, in the FCC’s earlier formulation, a network must transmit public Internet traffic equivalently without regard for its source, its destination, or its content. Public Internet traffic means traffic that involves externally accessible IP addresses. A network can discriminate on the basis of type–for example, treat streaming video differently from email. But a neutral network cannot discriminate on source, destination, or content within a given type of traffic. A network can  treat special traffic such as cable TV programming or cable-based telephony–“managed services”, in the jargon–differently than regular public Internet traffic, although this is controversial since the border is murky. More controversial still, given current trends, is the exclusion of cellular wireless Internet traffic (but not WiFi) from neutrality requirements.


The word “transmit” is important, because it’s different from “send” and “receive”. Users connect computers, servers, phones, television sets, and other devices to networks. They choose and pay for the capacity of their connection (the “pipe”, in the usual but imperfect plumbing analogy) to send and receive network traffic. Not all pipes are the same, and it’s perfectly acceptable for a network to provide lower-quality pipes–slower, for example–to end users who pay less, and to charge customers differently depending on where they are located. But a neutral network must provide the same quality of service to those who pay for the same size, quality, and location of “pipe”.

A user who is mostly going to send and receive small amounts of text (such as email) can get by with very modest and inexpensive capacity. One who is going to view video needs more capacity, one who is going to use two-way videoconferencing needs even more, and a commercial entity that is going to transmit multiple video streams to many customers needs lots. Sometimes the capacity of connections is fixed–one pays for a given capacity regardless of whether one uses it all–and sometimes their capacity and cost adjust dynamically with use. But in all cases one is merely paying for a connection to the network, not for how quickly traffic will get to or arrive from elsewhere. That last depends on how much someone is paying at the other end, and on how well the intervening networks interconnect. Whether one can pay for service quality other than the quality of one’s own connection is central to the current debate.


It’s also important to consider two different (although sometimes overlapping) kinds of users: “end users” and “providers”. In general, providers deliver services to end users, sometimes content (for example, Netflix, the New York Times, or Google Search), sometimes storage (OneDrive, Dropbox), sometimes communications (Gmail, Xfinity Connect), and sometimes combinations of these and other functionality (Office Online, Google Apps).

The key distinctions between providers and end users are scale and revenue flow. The typical provider serves thousands if not millions of end users; the typical end user uses more than a few but rarely more than a few hundred providers. End users provide revenue to providers, either directly or by being counted; providers receive revenue (or sometimes other value such as fame) from end users or advertisers, and use it to fund the services they provide.


Networks (and therefore network operators) can play different roles in transmission: “first mile”, “last mile”, “backbone”, and “peering”. Providers connect to first-mile networks. End users do the same to last-mile networks. (First-mile and last-mile networks are mirror images of each other, of course, and can swap roles, but there’s always one of each for any traffic.) Sometimes first-mile networks connect directly to last-mile networks, and sometimes they interconnect indirectly using backbones, which in turn can interconnect with other backbones. Peering is how first-mile, last-mile, and backbone networks interconnect.

To use another imperfect analogy, first mile networks are on-ramps to backbone freeways, last-mile networks are off-ramps, and peering is where freeways interconnect. But here’s why the analogy is  imperfect: sometimes providers connect directly to backbones, and sometimes first-mile and last-mile networks have their own direct peering interconnections, bypassing backbones. Sometimes, as the Wired article points out, providers pay last-mile networks to host their servers, and sometimes special content-distribution systems such as Akamai do roughly the same. Those imperfections account for much of the current controversy.

Consider how I connect the Mac on my desk in Comcast‘s downtown office (where a few of us from NBCUniversal also work) to, where this blog lives. I connect to the office wireless, which gives me a private (10.x.x.x) IP address. That goes to an internal (also private) router in Philadelphia, which then connects to Comcast’s public network. Comcast, as the company’s first-mile network, takes the traffic to Pennsylvania, then to Illinois, then back east to Virginia. There Comcast has a peering connection to Cogent, which is Hostmonster’s first-mile network provider. Cogent carries my traffic from Virginia to Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, and Utah, where Hostmonster is located and connects to Cogent.

If Comcast and Cogent did not have a direct connection, then my traffic would flow through a backbone such as Level3. If Hostmonster placed its servers in Comcast data centers, my traffic would be all-Comcast. As I’ll note repeatedly, this issue–how first-mile, last-mile, and backbones peer, and how content providers deal with this–is driving much of today’s network-neutrality debate. So is the increasing consolidation of the last-mile network business.


“Public” networks are treated differently than “private” ones. Generally speaking, if a network is open to the general public, and charges them fees to use it, then it’s a public network. If access is mostly restricted to a defined, closed community and does not charge use fees, then it’s a private network. The distinction between public and private networks comes mostly from the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), which took effect in 1995. CALEA required “telecommunications carriers” to assist police and other law enforcement, notably by enabling court-approved wiretaps.

Even for traditional telephones, it was not entirely clear which “telecommunications carriers” were covered–for example, what about campus-run internal telephone exchanges?–and as CALEA extended to the Internet the distinction became murkier. Eventually “open to the general public, and charges them fees” provided a practical distinction, useful beyond CALEA.

Most campus networks are private by this definition. So are my home network, the network here in the DC Comcast office, and the one in my local Starbucks. To take the roadway analogy a step further, home driveways, the extensive network of roads within gated residential communities (even a large one such as Kiawah Island), and roadways within large industrial facilities (such as US Steel’s Gary plant) are private. City streets, state highways, and Interstates are public. (Note that the meaning of “public network” in Windows, MacOS, or other security settings is different.)


In practice, and in most of the public debate until recently, the term “network neutrality” has meant this: except in certain narrow cases (such as illegal uses), a neutral-network operator does not prioritize traffic over the last mile to or from an end user according to the source of the traffic, who the end user is, or the content of the traffic. Note the important qualification: “over the last mile”.

An end user with a smaller, cheaper connection will receive traffic more slowly than one who pays for a faster connection, and the same is true for providers sending traffic. The difference may be more pronounced for some types of traffic (such as video) than for others (email). Other than this, however, a neutral network treats all traffic the same. In particular, the network operator does not manipulate the traffic for its own purposes (such as degrading a competitor’s service), and does not treat end users or providers differently except to the extent they pay for the speed or other qualities of their own network connections.

“Public” networks often claim to be neutral, at least to some degree; “private” ones rarely do. Most legislative and regulatory efforts to promote network neutrality focus on public networks.

Enough definition. What does this all mean for higher education, and in particular how is that meaning different from what I wrote about back in 2011?

The Rebirth of Paid Prioritization

Where once the debate centered on last-mile neutrality for Internet traffic to and from end users, which is relatively straightforward and largely accepted, it has now expanded to include both Internet and “managed services” over the full path from provider to end user, which is much more complicated and ambiguous.

An early indicator was AT&T’s proposal to let providers subsidize the delivery of their traffic to AT&T cellular-network end users, specifically by allowing providers to pay the data costs associated with their services to end users. That is, providers would pay for how traffic was delivered and charged to end users. This differs fundamentally from the principle that the service end users receive depends only on what end users themselves pay for. Since cellular networks are not required to be neutral, AT&T’s proposal violated no law or regulation, but it nevertheless triggered opposition: It implied that AT&T’s customers would receive traffic (ads, downloads, or whatever) from some providers more advantageously–that is, more cheaply–than equivalent traffic from other providers. End user would have no say in this, other than to change carriers. Thus far AT&T’s proposal has attracted few providers, but this may be changing.

Then came the running battles between Netflix, a major provider, and last-mile providers such as Comcast and Verizon. Netfllix argued that end users were receiving its traffic less expeditiously than other providers’ traffic, that this violated neutrality principles, and that last-mile providers were responsible for remedying this. The last-mile providers rejected this argument: in their view the problem arose because Netfllix’s first-mile network (as it happens, Cogent, the same one Hostmonster uses) was unwilling to pay for peering connections capable of handling Netflix’s traffic (which can amount to more than a quarter of all Internet traffic some evenings). In the last-mile networks’ view, Netflix’s first-mile provider was responsible for fixing the problem at its (and therefore presumably Netflix’s) expense. The issue is, who pays to ensure sufficient peering capacity? Returning to the highway metaphor, who pays for sufficient interchange ramps between toll roads, especially when most truck traffic is in one direction?

In the event Netflix gave in, and arranged (and paid for) direct first-mile connections to Comcast, Verizon, and other last-mile providers. But Netflix continues to press its case, and its position has relevance for higher education.

Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities have traditionally taken two positions on network neutrality. Representing end users, including their campus community and distant students served over the Internet, higher education has taken a strong position in support of the FCC’s network-neutrality proposals, and even urged that they be extended to cover cellular networks. As operators of networks funded and designed to support campuses’ instructional, research, and administrative functions, however, higher education also has taken the position that campus networks, like home, company, and other private networks, should continue to be exempted from network-neutrality provisions.

These remain valid positions for higher education to take in the current debate, and indeed the principles recently posted by EDUCAUSE and various other organizations do precisely that. But the emergence of concrete paid-prioritization services may require more nuanced positions and advocacy.  This is partly because the FCC’s positions have shifted, and partly because the technology and the debate have evolved.

Why should colleges and universities care about this new network-neutrality battleground? Because in addition to representing end users and operating private networks, campuses are increasingly providing instruction to distant students over the Internet. Massively open online courses (MOOCs) and other distance-education services often involve streamed or two-way video. They therefore require high-quality end-to-end network connections.

In most cases, campus network traffic to distant student flows over the commercial Internet, rather than over Internet2 or regional research and education (R&E) networks. Whether it reaches students expeditiously depends not only on the campus’s first-mile connection (“first mile” rather than “last mile” because the campus is now a provider rather than simply representing end users), but also on how the campus’s Internet service provider connects to backbones and/or to students’ last-mile networks–and of course on whether distant students have paid for good enough connections. This is similar to Netflix’s situation.

Unlike Netflix, however, individual campuses probably cannot afford to pay for direct connections to all of their students’ last-mile networks, or to place servers in distant data centers. They thus depend on their first-mile networks’ willingness to peer effectively with backbone and last-mile networks. Yet campuses are rarely major customers of their ISPs, and therefore have little leverage to influence ISPs’ backbone and peering choices. Alternatively, campuses can in theory use their existing connections to R&E networks to deliver instruction. But this is only possible if those R&E networks peer directly and capably with key backbone and last-mile providers. R&E networks generally have not done this.

Here’s what this all means: Higher education needs to continue supporting its historical positions promoting last-mile neutrality and seeking private-network exemptions for campus networks. But colleges and universities also need to work together to make sure their instructional traffic will continue to reach distant students. One way to achieve this is by opposing paid prioritization, of course. But FCC and other regulations may permit limited paid prioritization, or technology may as usual stay one step ahead of regulation. Higher education must figure out the best ways to deal with that, and collaborate to make them so.





Comments are closed.