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Why Internet metaphors matter

Mar 27, 20063 mins
Internet Service ProvidersNetworkingRegulation

You’ve heard a lot (including from this column) about topics such as net neutrality and universal broadband. Behind the buzzwords, there’s a broader debate raging about how to characterize the Internet.

Listen closely to the metaphors that are invoked for certain arguments. Proponents of universal broadband see the Internet as a utility, like electricity or water. The image here is a vast grid that carries services from upstream reservoirs or power stations into homes and businesses. And these folks argue that the Internet has become as basic and vital as electricity and water, which means people need consistent and reliable (read: regulated) access.

Cable companies and carriers have a different view. They see the Internet as a giant broadcast network, with Web sites such as Google and Amazon providing content that gets piped into users’ homes, just as television networks deliver “Law and Order” and “The Sopranos” to viewers. That’s one reason for the carriers’ position on net neutrality: If Google and Amazon are content providers for whom the Internet is a distribution mechanism, the carriers argue it stands to reason that content providers should pay for that distribution.

These metaphors have one thing in common: They position the ‘Net as a way to connect users to content and services that live “out in the cloud.” That’s why providing connectivity to the Internet is usually called Internet access – the idea is that users are granted access to Internet services or content.

But that model of the Internet misses a major point. Unlike with the power, water and broadcast networks, Internet users are creating their own content and services, and relying on the Internet as an exchange mechanism – not merely a distribution network.

So I’d insist on calling it Internet connectivity to highlight the fact that the Internet isn’t so much a pipe delivering someone else’s content as a peer-to-peer link that lets you exchange your content and services with your neighbor.

Why does any of this matter? Two reasons. First, as I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, 2006 is a big year for policy changes affecting the Internet – and flawed metaphors make faulty policy.

A second reason is practical. Flawed metaphors lead to faulty service offerings. ISPs often offer Internet access services that filter certain ports and offer asymmetrical bandwidth (more on the downlink than the uplink), on the theory that a user is passively clicking on Web sites.

But what if that user is a programmer working from home developing code for a grid computing project? That requires symmetrical bandwidth, connectivity through all ports and high QoS.

Network managers who are crafting virtual worker policies for mobile and home workers need to be aware of the limitations of such access services, and also be realistic about the fact that true connectivity may cost more.