I remember being told three years ago that, in general, internet backbone issues weren’t really a subject for regulatory involvement, and didn’t need to be. Although the last mile was a problem, the upstream fat-pipe relationships weren’t – they were all competitive and thriving. Or at least that’s what people thought.
Over the last couple of days I’ve been looking around trying to figure out what the facts are about backbones and peering. It seems that we don’t even know what we don’t know (“we” being the public). It’s an interesting area. Wikipedia has a good article on peering, but I can’t find a visualization of data (or even the data itself).
CAIDA makes clear, via kc claffy, that data about what happens on backbones is not available to us or, more importantly, to researchers. Gordon Cook says that everything about prices for backbone carriage is secret.
Why does this matter? Perhaps this is too simple, but if large ISPs (including traditional incumbent telephone companies, here or in other countries) have the market power to refuse to carry the traffic of smaller/competitive ISPs, or to condition the carriage of this traffic on agreement to particular discriminatory policies, then the neutrality problem just goes up a level. It ceases to be a “last mile” problem and becomes a backbone problem. If all arrangements carried out by large carriers are private and secret, then there isn’t even a platform for a policy discussion – traffic carried by (say) nondiscriminatory, smaller ISPs will just go more slowly.
In a way, the backbone issue (if there is one) potentially bears the same relationship to “network neutrality” that government ownership/control of spectrum bears to our current scuffles over spectrum policy: we may be missing an enormous part of the issue without knowing it. It’s as if we’re trying to describe the “issue,” the small vessel of points and counterpoints, without seeing that the vessel is housed in a gigantic, fortress-like, and mostly secret building.
(In America, as in many other places, our government controls a huge amount of spectrum without paying for it or even carrying its value on its books. Or even making precisely clear how much it really controls.)
So maybe I’m misunderstanding the importance of this issue, or maybe there really is a competitive backbone marketplace out there. But I wish there was more information about this. It seems fundamental.