The word is out now that residential ISPs like BellSouth want to provide a kind of two-tier Internet service, where ordinary Internet services get one level of performance, and preferred sites or services, presumably including the ISPs’ own services, get better performance. It’s clear why ISPs want to do this: they want to charge big web sites for the privilege of getting preferred service.
I should say up front that although the two-tier network is sometimes explained as if there were two tiers of network infrastructure, the obvious and efficient implementation in practice would be to have a single fast network, and to impose deliberate delay or bandwidth throttling on non-preferred traffic.
Whether ISPs should be allowed to do this is an important policy question, often called the network neutrality issue. It’s a harder issue than advocates on either side admit. Regular readers know that I’ve been circling around this issue for a while, without diving into its core. My reason for shying away from the main issue is simply that I haven’t figured it out yet. Today I’ll continue circling.
Let’s think about the practical aspects of how an ISP would present the two-tier Internet to customers. There are basically two options, I think. Either the ISP can create a special area for preferred sites, or it can let sites keep their ordinary URLs. As we’ll see, either option leads to problems.
The first option is to give the preferred sites special URLs. For example, if this site had preferred status on AcmeISP, its URL for AcmeISP customers would be something like freedom-to-tinker.preferred.acmeisp.com. This has the advantage of telling customers clearly which sites are expected to have preferred-level performance. But it has the big disadvantage that URLs are no longer portable from one ISP to another. Portability of URLs – the fact that a URL means the same thing no matter where you use it – is one of the critical features that makes the web work, and makes sites valuable. It’s hard to believe that sites and users will be willing to give it up.
The second option is for users to name sites using ordinary names and URLs. For example, this site would be called freedom-to-tinker.com, regardless of whether it had preferred status on your ISP. In this scenario, the only difference between preferred and ordinary sites is that users would see much better performance for perferred sites.
To an ordinary user, this would look like a network that advertises high peak performance but often has lousy performance in practice. If you’ve ever used a network whose performance varies widely over time, you know how aggravating it can be. And it’s not much consolation to learn that the poor performance only happens when you’re trying to use that great video site your friend (on another ISP) told you about. You assume something is wrong, and you blame the ISP.
In this situation, it’s hard to believe that a complaining user will be impressed by an explanation that the ISP could have provided higher performance, but chose not to because the site didn’t pay some fee. Users generally expect that producers will provide the best product they can at a given cost. Business plans that rely on making products deliberately worse, without reducing the cost of providing them, are widely seen as unfair. Given that explanation, users will still blame the ISP for the performance problems they see.
The basic dilemma for ISPs is pretty simple. They want to segregate preferred sites in users’ minds, so that users will blame the site rather than the ISP for the poor performance of non-preferred sites; but segregating the preferred sites makes the sites much less valuable because they can no longer be named in the same way on different ISPs.
How can ISPs escape this dilemma? I’m not sure. It seems to me that ISPs will be driven to a strategy of providing Internet service alongside exclusive, only-on-this-ISP content. That’s a strategy with a poor track record.
Clarification (3:00 PM EST): In writing this post, I didn’t mean to imply that web sites were the only services among which providers wanted to discriminate. I chose to use Web sites because they’re useful in illustrating the issues. I think many of the same issues would arise with other types of services, such as VoIP. In particular, there will be real tension between the ISPs desire to label preferred VoIP services as strongly associated with, and supported by, that particular ISP; but VoIP services will have strong reasons to portray themselves as being the same service everywhere.