The Cliff and the Slope

The proof is in: Detailed report shows how U.S. Internet access monopolies punish rivals and catch innocent bystanders in the crossfire—legally.

Susan Crawford
Oct 30, 2014 · Unlisted

Devan Dewey, the Chief Technology Officer of midsize investment consultancy NEPC, has an orderly office and a highly organized mind. So naturally, when some at-home employees near Boston complained they could barely work because their connections to the company data center had slowed to a crawl, Dewey and his team determined to find out why.

His team’s research led him to suspect something astonishing and dark: that NEPC, and probably many other businesses and consumers, were caught in the crossfire of an ongoing battle between “eyeball networks” run by Internet access providers, such as Comcast and Verizon; and “transit networks” used by competing video services, such as Netflix. He came to wonder whether, in their attempts to charge Netflix for access to their subscribers, Comcast and some other networks were recklessly affecting Internet connectivity for businesses like NEPC. Could that possibly be true?

Dewey was baffled: Who or what was choking NEPC?

Although many people use the Internet in America, the physical lines that carry data from one place to another are invisible — and therefore mysterious to most of us. Let’s assume you’re one of the twenty-one million Comcast high-speed data subscribers. Comcast owns its own lines that transport your data from your living room to a handful of points in the U.S. for handoff to other networks. Seven key interconnection points — in New York City, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami — collectively handle about ninety percent of all handoffs among networks in the country. In these cities, hundreds of disparate networks meet in buildings, co-locating their facilities so that data packets can be easily handed off from one network to another. They are extremely large hubs of Internet inter-networking activity; three New York City points, for example, complete handoffs for most of the east coast of the United States.

While one cannot get inside the corporate minds of the Internet access giants, one does not need a conjurer to see the obvious motive for this: the eyeball networks think they should be paid for access to their subscribers.

In the past, requests for upgrades were routinely granted. Now, suddenly, upgrades are impossible without painful negotiations over fees that have no perceptible relationship to the cost of making the upgrade — and Comcast and the other eyeball networks are making no promises about restraining themselves in the future.

Backchannel

Mining the tech world for lively and meaningful tales and analysis.

Thanks to Steven Levy and Evan Hansen

Unlisted

Susan Crawford

Written by

Contributor to @backchnnl; prof @Harvard_Law; books (#TheResponsiveCity, #CaptiveAudience); all things tech & Internet

Backchannel

Mining the tech world for lively and meaningful tales and analysis.

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