Google Fiber, net neutrality & the regulatory challenges in the age of gigabit broadband

Google Fiber signs

Google Fiber, the gigabit network that is live in Provo Utah and parts of Kansas City is facing its first big debate over network neutrality — it’s like a rite of passage for ISPs. As Wired reported on Tuesday, a Lawrence, Kansas resident filed a complaint with the FCC over Google’s terms of service, arguing that because Google prevented people from attaching servers to their fiber lines, Google was violating network neutrality rules.

Mike Farmer of Leap2 praising the Google Fiber box.

Mike Farmer of Leap2 praising the Google Fiber box.

The FCC deemed the complaint informal and passed it along to Google. Google’s defense in this matter was fourfold:

  1. Douglas McClendon, the man who filed the complaint, isn’t even a customer of Google Fiber and didn’t even live in an area the company served;
  2. Google prevents customers from operating servers on its network because Google Fiber is a residential and not business class service;
  3. The terms of service don’t violate network neutrality rules because preventing business users on a residential service was a reasonable way of dealing with network management;
  4. And finally, many ISPs contain the same provision against people operating servers on their networks.

Rather than showing Google going soft on network neutrality — although it totally has done so before¬†—¬†this tempest in a teapot could best be used to start two serious debates over broadband policy. The first is about the archaic definition of server in a world, that McClendon and the Wired article accurately point out is replete with them. The second is a debate about what constitutes business broadband as the lines between businesses and home users blur.

A server by any other name …

This is a server!

This is a server!

The crux of McClendon’s argument is that prohibiting servers is unfair, because more and more devices are servers, from connected thermostats to Raspberry Pis. I personally have a home media server attached to my network, use Skype and other peer-to-peer programs that turn my computer into a server, and have a variety of devices that have their own IP address, talk to the internet and execute programs sending the results back to the cloud. The definition of server at best is ambiguous.

Is this a server?

Is this a server?

Time Warner Cable, which also prevents me from attaching servers to my network, has yet to cut my service, even though I am a significant data user and write about the service in less than flattering terms. Clearly Google isn’t going to sweat your nanny cam, but given the popularity of residential devices that could count as servers, perhaps it’s time to rethink how ISPs define business broadband. Using server as a proxy for business may not cut it anymore.

And that ties directly to the second point, in an era of telecommuters and entrepreneurs working from their garage, how the heck do we define business broadband? Much like defining servers, there’s a large swath of gray area where the lines are blurred. I’ve certainly had people tell me that because I needed faster upload speeds to send my Gigaom videos, that I should be using a business class network.

Is my business my ISP’s business?

I fundamentally disagree with the notion that I should be classified as a business user since Gigaom doesn’t buy my broadband — something even IBM stopped reimbursing employees for as far back as 2009. My paltry home usage isn’t so far out of line with my neighbors even if I do upload the occasional video or record a podcast. I’m not serving email for 10,000 employees out of my home nor am I doing nightly backups that run to the gigabyte range.

Photo of Microsoft Campus courtesy of Flickr User, Wonderlane under Creative Commons license.

This is a business customer.

An easy way to solve this problem would be to look at the data consumed and generated by the network and create a cut off line, but given the conflicts of interest that ISPs have related to online video consumption and their desire to implement a usage-based broadband model that becomes potentially dangerous. The market isn’t competitive enough to welcome that model without needing strong regulators to monitor the caps — something our FCC isn’t doing.

Is my colleague Kevin Tofel's home a business?

Is my colleague Kevin Tofel’s home a business?

Another way to solve the issue of defining business class broadband for that swath of the market using it from home is to offer better service to those customers for a price. This isn’t a model Google has historically embraced, although with its cloud services, it’s getting there. Theoretically business class customers at other ISPs pay more and get better service, although for smaller businesses I know that’s not always the case.

So while Wired and McClendon might want to use this particular issue as a way to bring network neutrality to the fore again, it’s actually a chance to discuss a more important debate over what we’re paying for when we buy broadband. As speeds and capacity increase we’re going to have to start thinking about what’s possible, not just on the app front, but on the regulatory and legal side as well.

To give you one tantalizing example, check out the problematic area of Google’s terms of service:

Your Google Fiber account is for your use and the reasonable use of your guests. Unless you have a written agreement with Google Fiber permitting you do so, you should not host any type of server using your Google Fiber connection, use your Google Fiber account to provide a large number of people with Internet access, or use your Google Fiber account to provide commercial services to third parties (including, but not limited to, selling Internet access to third parties).

That bit about selling access or even partitioning off access is soon going to be possible when you have a gigabit connection and software-defined networks. Here in Austin, I’ve already talked to people interested in creating little neighborhood Wi-Fi hotspots or shared bandwidth pools to run a neighborhood watch app, using shared Google Fiber resources for backhaul.

To my mind, that’s exactly the sort of innovative apps (and community building experience) that Google is trying to encourage with its gigabit experiment, but Google’s terms of service look like they prohibit that activity. So the point here isn’t that net neutrality is in danger again (it’s always going to be in danger in an uncompetitive broadband access market) but that we need to start adapting our terminology and rules about broadband for a new era.

Google will be at the forefront of these debates because it’s trying to push the envelope on broadband offerings while still trying to turn a profit. It wants to encourage innovation, but leave terms of service in place that will allow it to control what happens on its network. Like a bar owner or a central banker it has to encourage exuberance, while curbing the obvious harms of irrational exuberance. That’s a tough line to walk.

So while these debates aren’t as exciting as a new app, they are important.

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