Future Tense

Missed (Inter)connections

Why consumers are the big losers in ISP fights.

Netflix loading

Screengrab of Netflix

After several years of most people’s eyes glazing over at the words “network neutrality,” things finally seem to be changing. Last week the Federal Communications Commission appeared to be on the brink of implementing a net neutrality plan that would dramatically change the way the Internet works. Then President Obama injected a new dynamic into the debate this week when he called for clear network neutrality protections and uttered the magic words: reclassification of Internet access service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. (Magic has a very different meaning in telecommunications policy.) As you were following these dramatic twists and turns, you might have missed another key issue: the role that interconnection, a critical but little-discussed element of the debate, might play in the FCC’s final proposal.

First, Obama’s statement. In addition to calling for strong net neutrality rules and the clear authority to implement them, the president made an additional appeal for oversight and transparency of Internet service provider interconnection. (I’ll explain what that is in just a minute.)

The connection between consumers and ISPs—the so-called “last mile”—is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.

How did a topic as obscure and technical as network interconnection make it on the shortlist of the strongest White House statement yet on net neutrality? For the past few years interconnection has impacted U.S. Internet users on a daily basis. We now have solid, unequivocal data proving how much it matters—and just how bad interconnection disputes made things for American Internet consumers.

To understand why those disputes are important, we must understand what interconnection really means. Generally speaking, the Internet is actually a series of networks (interconnected networks, as it were). In order for data to make it from Point A to Point B, it must be routed through that series of networks. Different companies own different portions of the network—there are major transit providers that operate like highways to send information over long paths to other transit providers, and there are “last mile” retail Internet providers, which deliver content to your front door. We’re concerned with only a limited subset of interconnection points—the ones between those transit providers and the last mile providers—because these points are where congestion can directly impact the consumer experience. For example, a Verizon subscriber in Los Angeles pays for a high-speed connection to the Internet but might find that some of her favorite websites are slower or more difficult to load because Verizon and Cogent, the transit provider delivering that content to Verizon’s last-mile network, are embroiled in a high-stakes standoff over whether Cogent should pay additional fees.

In the late spring of 2013 and into the following year, you may have been among the millions of Americans sharing the same frustrating experience—some of your favorite Internet applications and services stopped working properly. For many people, Netflix would not load and play movies in the evening, access to company VPNs for telecommuting would not maintain a steady connection, telephone systems between corporate offices operating over the Internet could not maintain a steady voice call, video conferencing was out of the question, and high-bandwidth online gaming was nearly impossible. Consumer complaint forums filled up with angry reports.

The outages happened at the worst possible time—at the end of the workday and throughout the evening. Precisely when you and millions of others were looking to upload your work for the day and access entertainment, your connection to the Internet slowed to a crawl. Sound familiar?

Here’s what bewildered most consumers: It wasn’t their Internet connection in general that was slow—only particular websites and services. People tried everything to fix the problem, assuming it must be something they had done wrong. ISP customer service agents suggested rebooting computers, restarting browsers, and recycling the power switch on modems. Nothing worked. The 20, 30, and 50 Mbps connections that consumers relied on were failing miserably.

We don’t just have anecdotal reports to depend on here. Data unveiled last month in a technical report from the Measurement Lab Research Consortium, or M-Lab, shows just how bad the situation was. Building on the analysis in that report, the Open Technology Institute at New America released a policy report situating the data analysis amid the public narrative. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University; New America is also a member of M-Lab.)

Measurement Lab data
Click to enlarge.

Courtesy of Measurement Lab

The data in the M-Lab report indicates that millions of customers experienced speeds less than the 4 Mbps that the FCC defines as the minimum standard for broadband. For many people, the speeds bottomed out at a mere 1 Mbps.

So what happened, and what does it have to do with Obama’s statement on net neutrality?

When we talk about network neutrality, we’re generally concerned about our retail Internet providers serving as gatekeepers to the content that Americans are paying dearly to access. Because your Internet provider is the only pathway to your home, it has a tremendous amount of power to determine the content you can access and on what terms. Indeed, it has a monopoly on the “terminating access line” directly to you because you only subscribe to one home Internet provider at a time. In order for a content or service provider to reach you, they have no choice but to send their data over the network owned by your Internet provider.

From a technical perspective, ISPs can manipulate your Internet access in a number of ways. They can block content over the network, so it appears as though certain content or services simply don’t exist; they can throttle your access, deliberately slowing down some content over others; or they can do what happened in the scenario described above—allow prolonged periods of widespread congestion to occur over their networks while they attempt to negotiate interconnection fees from transit and content providers. Ultimately, what the M-Lab research and OTI policy brief confirm is that customers of most of the major U.S. ISPs experienced substantial Internet slowdowns when their traffic passed across the boundary between their Internet service provider and the network hosting popular content and services. Congestion at the interconnections resulted in slow download speeds, dropped IP phone and video calls, and application freezes. These problems were not isolated events. They persisted for at least nine months for the majority of American broadband consumers, and in some cases continue on today. This graph shows the median download speeds that customers of AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon in Los Angeles received when connecting across the Cogent network.

The FCC can and should step in when these situations occur. We at the Open Technology Institute recommend a few things in our net neutrality comments and the interconnection policy brief. Specifically, the FCC should prohibit ISPs from charging tolls simply to access the customers on their terminating access network (what some argue the ISPs are simply doing here). But importantly, the FCC must also exercise continued oversight over the broader negotiations that are happening at these last-mile interconnection points and should step in with stronger interventions as necessary. President Obama is right: When these interconnection disputes spill over into the last-mile network and hurt consumers, it’s time to address them. The stakes are much higher than just whether it takes a few extra minutes to load Orange Is the New Black.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.