Award Winning Blog

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

A False All Clear Conclusion from the Chicago Tribune

            Like their south side University of Chicago economists, the Editorial Board of the Tribune waxes poetic and snarky about the virtues of the marketplace and how it can solve any and all network neutrality ills.  See

            While I am not a neutrality absolutist, I cannot share the newspaper’s “all clear” conclusion that the marketplace will solve all bandwidth ills.  The Editorial Board dismisses a particularly egregious throttling episode as “humiliating customer service failure” for Verizon when the company’s software automatically slowed transmission speeds of California first responder handsets as they tackled life and property threatening fires.  Does deliberate slowing down of transmission speed and commensurate service degradation warrant an all clear, A-OK seal of approval, because the tactic gets obliquely identified as a possible consequence of bandwidth hogging? 

            How many service providers can get away with offering poor service as leverage for upselling?  Perhaps no one on the Editorial Board remembers the woes besetting Intel when a minor, undetectable degradation in a microprocessor triggered a massive recall and mea culpa.

            The editorial writers do not seem to appreciate that service degradation happens all the time and a forensic analysis of the cause during and after the fact has proven quite difficult at identifying the cause and culprit. Whenever content on the web stops streaming seamlessly, three possibilities exist:

1)         the last mile Internet Service Provider has deliberately slowed transmission speeds, because it needed to conserve bandwidth, by throttling all video traffic to standard definition DVD quality, and by punishing high volume users who may cause congestion;

2)         the ISP has targeted specific sources of content or types of content for throttling; or

3)         network congestion somewhere, somehow affects quality of service without intentional degradation.

            The Editorial Board is woefully naive to think that a rising tide of innovation and market driven pricing can solve any of these 3 quality of service problems.  Upselling to faster transmission speeds for so-called last mile delivery will not remedy problems elsewhere in the Internet cloud.  Insatiable demand for video has prompted ISPs to throttle complete categories of content, even after frequent network upgrades.

            Lastly, without disparaging ISPs, one should acknowledge that they have both the ability and incentive to throttle competitors’ content.  Simply put, throttling is easy and effective, without being readily detected. A last mile ISP can always blame someone else, e.g., content providers like Netflix, for any quality of service problem. 

            I agree the Internet and neutrality enforcement does not require heavy handed regulation.  Still, a cop on the beat can resolve the likely instances of carrier misbehavior. Just ask any California fire fighter.