"Open Access" is Just the Tip of the Iceberg by Jerome H. Saltzer October 22, 1999 The argument between cable companies and municipal regulators that has been labeled "Open Access" is actually just the first of a series of arguments destined to surface as it begins to dawn on customers that cable companies stand not only as access providers but also as gatekekepers to the Internet. Supporters of "Open Access" mean to forbid one, somewhat indirect form of gatekeeping: service bundling. Access providers would like to bundle access to the Internet with a collection of other services, such as e-mailboxes, internet name lookup service and web page hosting. For many customers, this bundle is exactly what they want and need, and bundling is a convenience. But there are other providers of those services, some of which may offer a more attractive deal, with lower price or better features than the outfit that happens to have the wire franchise. And a more ambitious customer can even provide these services himself. But reports are starting to come in that cable companies are also exerting several other forms of gatekeeping. These other forms have three features in common: - The majority of customers don't notice them, but they interfere with innovative Internet use by leading-edge customers. When only a small group is affected, it is hard to amass the necessary clout to repair the problem. But leading-edge customers are important, because they represent the future of the Internet. - The provider can offer a technical excuse that control is necessary to ensure good service. For more than sixty years, the Bell Telephone System offered exactly this argument: control is necessary to protect the network. Unfortunately, control can stifle innovation. It did so for telephone service, and it promises to do so for Internet service. - The control operates to the financial benefit of the provider, reducing incentives to overcome the technical excuse. Thus control becomes anti-competitive. Here are five examples of gatekeeping that have been reported by Internet customers of cable companies. Customers of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service have reported the same or similar examples of control: 1. Video limits. Some access providers limit the number of minutes that a customer may use a "streaming video" connection. Today, streaming video is not widely used, because it provides movies that are small and erratic, but one day streaming video is likely to become an effective way to watch television programs from many sources--chosen by the customer, not the cable company--or to purchase pay-per-view movies. The technical excuse for this restriction is that the provider doesn't have enough capacity for all customers to use streaming video at the same time. But cable companies have a conflict of interest--they are restricting a service that will someday directly compete with Cable TV. 2. Server restrictions. While advertising the benefits of being "always on" the Internet, some providers impose an "acceptable use" contract that forbids customers from operating an Internet service, such as a web site. The technical excuse is that web sites tend to attract lots of traffic, and the provider doesn't have enough capacity. But again the access provider has a conflict of interest, because it also offers a web site hosting service. The bundled version of this service satisfies many customers, but a customer with only a mildly ambitious web site will exceed the parameters of the bundled service and fees for extra storage space and high traffic volumes add up rapidly. (Some providers have adopted a more subtle approach: they refuse to assign a stable Internet address to home computers, thereby making it hard for the customer to offer an Internet service that others can reliably find. And some access providers have placed an artificial bottleneck on outbound data rate, to discourage people from running Internet services.) 3. Fixed backbone choice. Access providers choose where they attach to a long distance carrier for the Internet, known as a "backbone provider". The route to the backbone provider and the choice of the backbone provider are important decisions, bundled with the access service. If you reside in Massachusetts, and you connect to a computer in your office in the next town, unless your office uses the same access provider, your traffic may flow from Massachusetts down to Virginia and back. This detour introduces delays, which can significantly interfere with some kinds of service, such as video conferencing with your boss or interactive file editing. In addition to distance-related delays, you may encounter distant, response-slowing congestion, or even inability to communicate with your office when a hurricane hits Virginia. Your access provider again has a conflict of interest--attaching to the nearest, most effective backbone provider might divert revenue from a backbone company in which your access provider has a financial interest or other business dealings. More important for the future of innovative services, if a new backbone provider offers a specially-configured low-delay forwarding service which is just what is needed to carry telephone calls over the Internet, your access provider (which may also offer telephone service) may choose not to connect to that new backbone, effectively preventing you from using a better service. 4. Filtering. Data is carried on the Internet in batches called packets, and every internet packet contains an identifier that gives a rough indication of what this packet is for: e-mail, a web page, a name lookup, a remote login, or file sharing. Several access providers have begun to examine every packet that they carry, and discard those with certain purposes, particularly those used for file sharing. The technical excuse for this filtering is that many users don't realize that their computer allows sharing of files, and filtering prevents other customers from misusing that feature. But some access providers have imposed filtering on every customer, including those who want to share files. There is a similar risk that pressures to restrict access by children to undesirable content such as pornography may lead an access provider to impose content filters on all of its customers, including those who disagree with the particular content restrictions. And again, there can be a conflict of interest--the access provider has an incentive to find a technical or political excuse to filter out services that compete with the entertainment or Internet services it also offers. 5. No home network. An increasing number of homes have two or more computers interconnected by a home network, and as time goes on we are likely to find that this home network connects television sets, household appliances, and many other things. Some access providers have suggested that they aren't technically prepared to attach home networks, but the technology for doing it was developed in the 1970's. In refusing to attach home networks, providers are actually protecting their ability to assign the network address of the customer. By refusing to carry traffic to internet addresses they didn't assign, the access provider can prevent the customer from contracting for simultaneous service with any other Internet access provider. What is actually at risk in these examples is the very integrity of the Internet's design. Since 1975, when the architecture of the current Internet was laid out, the number of users has increased by nearly a millionfold; the power of computers has increased by 1000 times while their cost has dropped to one thousandth; the communications links that make up the network have increased in speed by a million times; and the Internet is being used in ways completely undreamed of at the time of its design. The primary thing that has made possible this remarkable evolution and adaptation is one simple design principle, called the End-to-End argument. The End-to-End argument says "don't force any service, feature, or restriction on the customer; his application knows best what features it needs, and whether or not to provide those features itself." Each of the five gatekeeping restrictions, as well as the service bundling that triggered the Open Access debate, is thus at direct odds with an important architectural principle of the Internet. the End-to-End argument is the principle that has enabled the thousands of innovative applications we see today and it will continue to enable that kind of innovation only so long as it is not interfered with. At this point there are at least four possible outcomes: - Everyone sits on their hands while providers continue with their present plans, bundling access with unwanted services, anti-competitive restrictions and lack of customer flexibility. This outcome can be expected to lead to stifled competition and innovation and slower market acceptance of broadband services. - Local communities can impose licensing regimes for Internet access that disallow service bundling and that require a minimum of access constraints and a maximum of customer flexibility. One hazard with this outcome is non-uniformity, with every community imposing a slightly different variation. It is also an intimidating prospect for smaller communities, who fear that taking such a position will lead to a lawsuit from a media company with deep pockets. - The Federal Communications Commission can impose a uniform regulatory regime with the same goals. - Industry members can decide that providing unrestricted local access not only has benefits to the Internet community as a whole, but by encouraging innovation and more rapid deployment of high-bandwidth Internet connections it will actually be beneficial for their own business. The first outcome is looking increasingly unlikely, as customers and cable competitors alike begin to understand better why the Internet works the way it does and the implications of some of the emerging practices. This leaves two regulation-based alternatives and a non-regulatory one grounded in a larger view of the business opportunity. It will be interesting to see which outcome the industry chooses. --------------- Mr. Saltzer is a professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.