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Internet Fast Lanes: A Misleading Metaphor

by Steve McMahon last modified May 30, 2014 02:25 PM
Proposed FCC Rules allow the creation of "slow lanes" -- not fast ones.

The popular press is busy trying to describe the FCC's recent proposals for US Internet policy, and a lot of them are explaining it this way: the FCC is going to allow the creation of "fast lanes" for those who pay more.

The "fast lane" metaphor is wrong and misleading. If you use it, you're already within the Comcast world view, and you'll have a hard time getting out.

The next time you hear or read "fast lane," substitute "checkpoints and slow backroads." The FCC is proposing to allow Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to set up checkpoints and slow backroads.

Let's say you've purchased an Internet connection that your provider says will deliver 10 MBPS. You ask for a movie or some other chunk of Internet content. The hosting party says "fine" and ships it to you like they ship the rest of their Internet protocol packets. Now, your packets reach the Comcast check point. Comcast will ask your packets to show their ID. If they're from a Comcast partner, they're waved on to the normal streets, and may arrive at the advertised speed -- the speed you think you're paying for.

But what if your content parcel can't show a "Comcast partner" ID? Then, it will be waved onto the unpaved backstreets. It'll be lucky to reach you at marginal quality speeds.

This is pretty much exactly what Comcast was doing to traffic from Netflix. It was throttling it down to far less than advertised connection speeds. Until Netflix payed tribute to the lord of the last mile. Then, the packets got to pass at advertised speeds.

With the FCC's proposed rules, the "fast lane" will deliver advertised speeds. All the traffic that doesn't show the Comcast, AT&T or Verizon partner pass at the checkpoint will get the slow, bottlenecked route.

So, the FCC is not licensing "fast lanes" -- they're licensing checkpoints and slow lanes. The Internet won't get faster; it'll get slower for all non-partner traffic.

Americans love speed. They're willing to pay for it. That's why they often buy fast Internet connections when they can get them. And, that's why Comcast loves the "fast lane" framing of the end of Network Neutrality. Everyone wants faster.

Stay of out the last mile monopolists' spin zone. Don't accept "fast lane" explanations.