Will the FCC’s vote ensure an open Internet? An interview with Vishal Misra
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Thursday to reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service, and not as an information service as had been done previously. The move will allow the FCC to use Title II provisions of the Telecommunications Act to regulate Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T in the same way phone companies and other utilities are currently regulated.
Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, is promising to take a light hand to regulations, using the model of wireless voice to show a service can be regulated but still thrive. The decision nevertheless is strongly opposed by the cable companies.
The vote is intended to protect net neutrality after a federal appeals court last year struck down a 2010 FCC order requiring ISPs to abide by net neutrality rules and treat all web traffic equally. Without strong power to regulate ISPs, the FCC feared a two-tiered Internet, where companies with the means to pay get fast lanes while those that can’t pay have to make do with a lower quality of service. This concept of paid prioritization goes against the long-standing principle that everyone and every website have equal access to the Internet, while also posing a threat to innovation by making it harder and more expensive for startups to compete with established and richer companies.
A second, less publicized vote on Thursday overruled two state laws limiting deployment of broadband networks funded by municipalities. Though this vote, which was in response to petitions from cities in North Carolina and Tennessee, received less press coverage than the net neutrality vote, its impact could arguably be greater by forcing cable companies to compete on price and service. According to Vishal Misra, competition may do more to guarantee an open, accessible Internet than any regulatory actions.
Question: What is your opinion of the vote ruling?
Vishal Misra: The vote went along expected lines, 3-2 Democrat-Republican split. There was some concern in the last couple of days with one Democrat commissioner expressing reservations about some aspects of the proposal but I guess it got taken care of.
Do you think regulation will be successful in maintaining a free and open Internet?
VM: I am skeptical about it. I have long held the view that “network neutrality” is a symptom and the real problem is lack of competition at the last mile. These new rules are designed with the lack of competition as a given and then ways to maintain a “neutral” Internet under that scenario. A much better approach would be to attack the actual problem and create more competition. The bright line rules that the FCC has outlined, namely “no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioritization” aren’t the actual real problems, I am afraid. We have to address market failure, not put band-aids around it.
Misra appeared on the BBC World News program Global with Matthew Amroliwala on February 5, 2015, to speak about the FCC proposals for net neutrality. Clip courtesy of the BBC.
Currently, US consumers pay higher prices for Internet service than do consumers in many other countries. How will Thursday’s ruling affect Internet pricing and performance here?
VM: Not only do the US consumers pay more, they get slower speeds than in a lot of other developed countries. I am afraid this ruling does very little to address that issue as there is very little pro-competition in the ruling that I have seen so far. Competition, or rather the lack of it, is the real issue as I said.
When it comes to accessing the Internet at 25 Mbps—not particularly fast, but adequate—three out of four Americans do not have a choice between providers.
In fact I think the ruling might even hurt. The network shouldn’t discriminate but it should be allowed to differentiate and that is a subtle difference. Providing specialized services is a way for ISPs to generate more revenue that should offset some costs to the consumers. For instance gamers might want a low latency service and they would be willing to pay for it, but that would require the ISPs to treat those packets differently. Does the current ruling prevent that? What about a hospital that has a broadband connection and wants to prioritize streaming video conferences with offsite doctors over all other traffic? Can interesting new services be built on top of a “neutral” Internet?
Last year Netflix made special deals with Comcast and three other ISPs, agreeing to pay more to guarantee fast download speeds. What happens to these deals under the new FCC rules? Will Netflix be able to stop making these extra payments?
VM: This is the issue of paid peering. What Netflix paid for in its deal with Comcast was not a fast lane in the Internet, but a special arrangement whereby Comcast connects directly to Netflix’s servers to speed up content delivery. Conventional net neutrality bans fast lanes in the last mile. In the Netflix-Comcast deal, Netflix’s content Netflix traffic arrives faster at the last mile because it gets moved onto an uncongested (paid-for) on ramp, whereas all the other traffic goes over the public Internet.
I don’t think paid peering is being banned by the new rules so it is not clear what becomes of the deals Netflix has made both with Comcast and other ISPs. The FCC has said that it will take a close look at peering arrangements so it is possible, but in my mind that is beside the point. In a competitive environment ISPs should be bending over backwards to have the best possible service of Netflix (or any other site) for their customers, not use their captive customers as leverage to extract revenue from content providers.
Until there is real competition among ISPs and until US consumers have a real choice when it comes to choosing where they buy Internet service, Internet service is going to suffer and quality will continue to decline relative to the service available in countries where ISPs do compete. The FCC vote on allowing municipalities to expand their service will do more to improve Internet service than any regulation the FCC can impose.
About Vishal Misra
Vishal Misra is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University. He is credited with inventing live-microblogging at Cricinfo, a company he co-founded while a graduate student at UMass Amherst, thus predating Twitter by 10 years. Cricinfo was later acquired by ESPN and is still the world’s most popular sports portal.
Dr. Misra has received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a Department of Energy CAREER Award, and Google and IBM Faculty Awards. His research emphasis is on mathematical modeling of networking systems, bridging the gap between practice and analysis.ISPs, Lobbyists, and Everybody Else React to FCC Net Neutrality Decision
He served as the Vice-Chair of the Computer Science Department at Columbia University from 2009 to 2011, and in 2011 he spun out Infinio, a company in the area of datacenter storage. After raising $24 million from top-tier venture capital firms and recruiting a professional executive team, he has transitioned to the role of Chief Scientist of the company. Infinio is based in Boston and employs over 50 people.
Misra received his B. Tech. from IIT Bombay (1992) and an MS (1996) and PhD (2000) from UMass Amherst, which just awarded him a Junior Alumni Award for extraordinary effort and notable early-career success.
Dean Boyce's statement on amicus brief filed by President Bollinger
President Bollinger announced that Columbia University along with many other academic institutions (sixteen, including all Ivy League universities) filed an amicus brief in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York challenging the Executive Order regarding immigrants from seven designated countries and refugees. Among other things, the brief asserts that “safety and security concerns can be addressed in a manner that is consistent with the values America has always stood for, including the free flow of ideas and people across borders and the welcoming of immigrants to our universities.”
This recent action provides a moment for us to collectively reflect on our community within Columbia Engineering and the importance of our commitment to maintaining an open and welcoming community for all students, faculty, researchers and administrative staff. As a School of Engineering and Applied Science, we are fortunate to attract students and faculty from diverse backgrounds, from across the country, and from around the world. It is a great benefit to be able to gather engineers and scientists of so many different perspectives and talents – all with a commitment to learning, a focus on pushing the frontiers of knowledge and discovery, and with a passion for translating our work to impact humanity.
I am proud of our community, and wish to take this opportunity to reinforce our collective commitment to maintaining an open and collegial environment. We are fortunate to have the privilege to learn from one another, and to study, work, and live together in such a dynamic and vibrant place as Columbia.
Mary C. Boyce
Dean of Engineering
Morris A. and Alma Schapiro Professor