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

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.

11 Responses to “Google Fiber, net neutrality & the regulatory challenges in the age of gigabit broadband”

  1. What I find interesting about the discussion of Google’s TOU’s is the revelation that the company does not offer a business-class service and doesn’t permit commercial use of its network. While that’s certainly a rational choice for Google or any other ISP, it causes me to wonder where the economic growth benefits ascribed to Google Fiber are supposed to come from.

    If the stories of entrepreneurs moving to KC to do fantastic startups thanks to GF are true, there are a lot of people violating the TOUs day-in and day-out. Seriously, how can you launch a business on a network that forbids commercial use?

    Seems to me this is the elephant in the room.

    (PS: Comcast’s TOUs get around that question of “what’s a server and what’s P2P?” by banning “dedicated servers” and the reselling of bandwidth.)

  2. Michael Elling

    In web 4.0 (HD, full duplex) artificially and arbitrarily imposed geographic and market segment boundaries disappear due to congestion management and power issues brought on by video and mobility. Google finally has the opportunity to rewrite 100 years of false network doctrine and policy. But doing so will require them to continue riding the horse that brought them here.

    Equal access, open access, net neutrality, common carriage, etc… all birds (or horses) of a feather that historically are highly generative and scale rapidly depreciating technology over highly dynamic and changing demand. Why have we not learned this and included the lessons in our policy and business models across all layers and boundary points?

  3. Roland

    Some of this is a matter of infrastructure: AON vs cheaper PON.
    ISPs need to be more explicit. Will they portscan and cut you off if they find open ports? It may not indicate a server. Lots of people run SSH servers. Many of them do so only occasionally via portknocking. Or will they only cut you off if they find an active server? Or only if they find congestion? Current policies leave customers guessing.
    The future is definitely symmetric. But being cheapass inflates their already-gross profit margins.

  4. dhruva

    what i dont get is why would google distinguish between a server sitting next to me or in the cloud? with 1 Gbps speed you could download and upload terabytes of data to the cloud, or you could host terabytes of data on a server in your home. whats the difference to google?

    also, this assumption that net neutrality wont be in danger if there was more competition. for god sake, we have google and other smallers isps in the fray. competition cant be a substitute for regulatory oversight.

  5. Its a bit rich really isn’t it.. for instance. Most broadband (except cable) was built for a static HTML world and a bit of email (actually narrowband) ….Web 1.0 if you will. Definitely not for video… then along come over the top providers like Youtube and Netflix …there’s an explosion of gigs down the pipes…costs go up exponentially, revenue flatlines then falls…. and yet the Telco cannot charge the OTT….”net neutrality”….

    Now you have semantic case of ‘that looks like a business use” being thrown in…

  6. John Nemesh

    The reality of rules like this is that most people, even when they run personal servers, are never going to be called on it by the ISPs. As long as you are not saturating the line, you will never have an issue. The problems occur when people set up their own private video streaming servers for friends and family, or host their own webservers for distributing files, or otherwise get hundreds or thousands of users connecting to their box. If you are using Slingbox, running a file server for PERSONAL use, or have a dozen Rasberry Pis on your network, you aren’t going to have a problem. They simply have these rules there in case there is an issue with a bandwidth hog.

    • Nathan

      I’ve seen this comment pop up a lot, and I think it pointlessly mires the debate. One should always operate under the assumption that if a company reserves a right, they will one day exercise that right. Perhaps not in the near future, but, hard as it is to believe, leadership does change over time. 30 and 40 years ago, people were clamoring to get cable companies into towns. They were the white knights of their times. Then management changed, and here we are today.

      It is far better to have the discussion now, when the company is interested in innovating, than later, when it’s too late to have the discussion, and we have to start looking for another white knight.

  7. Why not differentiate services by the use of burstable bandwidth. Say 100Mb/s connection with 1Gb/s burstable for x seconds. A normal user will get the benefit of the 1Gb/s, but anyone ‘abusing’ the service will only get what they pay for, 100Mb/s.

    At the end of the day, an upload bit is the same as a download bit, if I purchase 1Gb/s I should be free to use it in what ever way I wish. If you don’t want users to use the bandwidth they pay for, it seems disingenuous to sell it too them in the first place.

    Given the peering wars between Google and others, this has added import. Google is treating customers in a different way to how they would like YouTube to be treated by the carriers … or so it would seem.

    Justin Collery

      • YouTube stresses ISP networks in a very different way than Google Search does and deserves to be treated differently for peering purposes. Google’s historical deals are probably settlement-free, so they’re not “commercial agreements” like the one I have with my ISP.