A short history of Net Neutrality

By Mika Skarp

As with any evolving concept, to understand the situation today, you need to look back and try to understand the history that precipitated it. A quick Wikipedia lookup will tell you that the term goes back more than a dozen years to media and technology scholar and lawyer Tim Wu's seminal 2003 paper entitled Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination.

But why did Wu write the paper then? To get the answer, and try and add some yarn to this fascinating thread we're going to reach back more than thirty years.

When the world had gone to POTS

By the 1980s most homes and offices in the western world were wired into the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) network. And it was at about this time that data traffic started to sneak in to telephone lines. First with the venerable fax machine (still much loved by doctor's offices the world around) very early dial up modems. By the 1990s, dial-up modems had exploded, AOL was on the scene and bang! the Internet was suddenly available for everyone. First it was just narrow band surfing but that changed quickly. The first wave of enterprise digital services were, no surprise email and communications and these changed business dynamics forever.  A key driver of the then as much as today was the fact that it employed a single open network model; Anybody was able to start ISP.

With the turn of the millennium we were all talking about mobile Internet after the disaster that was WAP, with great hopes for 3G. Despite the big wins and crushing defeats of dotcom boom, it was already quite evident that the Internet would continuously devour all of the capacity the network would make available. The only problem was that additional capacity did not generate any new revenue. At the same time as Internet usage increased, security concerns saw the birth of new products like firewalls and deep packet inspection (DPI).

Operators quickly realized that DPI can be used not only to filter viruses, but also eliminate unwanted traffic. Don't forget that at this time the general consensus among network operators that only a fraction of the content on the internet would be available (never mind produced) by consumers. This was the precisely the flash point that turned the discussion and what began to cause worry for people like people Tim Wu. And he was and is right to be worried. No operator should drop packets because of their content or destination, assuming the content is legal. This basic principle was quickly accepted and new network technology solved the fixed line side of business by introducing Ethernet which enabled different speed classes for consumers and companies.

The only problem? How was the same principle to be upheld and maintained on the mobile side where different speeds can't be delivered and capacity is more limited? None the less, the business case, and the principle is the same as it was on the fixed line side.

It's quite easy to understand then why operators got excited when content providers asked if their content could be prioritized. The idea was that operators wouldn't actually drop any packets but could ensure that some packets would travel faster over the network than others, based on their source and destination. But it took another ten years for the FCC and EU to step in and uphold the principle that Professor Wu raised, banning the practice of packet prioritization over the a sequence of much publicized readings this past year.

In the early days of Internet, the network was simply there and new services could be easily introduced on top of existing infrastructure. This made it possible to offer the Internet en masse. Moving forward we need to maintain the low barrier of entry made possible by a single network concept. There should be only one network, not several networks for different services. This is mandatory to keep cost low and to quickly scale up services. But different services have different requirement to the network, how to solve this neutral way?

As such, we need to create different profiles for different services. For example 8K, 4K and HD video represent a major hurdle for the bandwidth they require. At the same time we have a lot of traffic that is not time critical.  It is arguable that it really does not matter if my email arrives one second earlier or later. It is important that different services are treated in accordance with the way that service works, but that inside one profile all packets are treated equally and independently of traffic source and destination. It is also important to understand the network capacity and not to drive the network into congestion. With proper profile management congestion can be avoided completely. From a business perspective, all profiles should be available for every end user on equal terms if networks can deliver the required profile.

We have learned the hard way that Net Neutrality is mandatory to scale technology and that there should be only one multipurpose network to serve the spectrum of services and to keep connectivity affordable. To meet these requirements mean developing and refining technology that allowsprofiling connections while leaving the decision of what kind of profile to use to the send user, be they a business or a consumer.