Why net metaphors matter

You’ve heard a lot 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. And these folks argue that the Internet has become as vital as electricity and water, which means people need 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.”

But that model of the Internet misses a major point. Unlike other networks, Internet users are creating their own content and services, and relying on the Internet as an exchange mechanism.

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

Why does this matter? 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 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.

QuickLink: 064431

— Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at[email protected]

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