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Fiction: Postcard from an Un-neutral Net

I (Daniel), was part of National Novel Writing Month. Despite the name, you can pretty much write anything you want as long as you try to make 50,000 words during the month of November. I chose to write an anthology of short stories using randomly generated writing prompts. One of my stories turned out to be about Net Neutrality, which we at FGI have written about many times before. Today I offer a fictionalized account of what could happen to YOUR institution if you currently offer multimedia content to your users.


Postcard from an Un-neutral Net

God, I miss Net Neutrality. What’s Net Neutrality? It’s talk like that got us into our current situation, but I’ll indulge you and refrain from slapping you upside the head because of your disconnected ignorance. Net Neutrality is the concept that all bits on the internet should be the same. If you are a content provider Net Neutrality says that once you bought your internet access, your provider doesn’t have a right to charge you more to make sure your bits get ahead of other people’s bits.

Not having Net Neutrality means that service providers can favor some providers over others. Remember when FlixByNet was having so many troubles last year? That was in part because FastCast, a major internet provider, put FlixByNet’s video streaming bits at the end of their queue. This is known as throttling and it turned FlixByNet into an unwatchable nightmare for FastCast subscribers — no matter how fast a speed an individual subscribed to. That’s another bad aspect to not having Net Neutrality. A household can buy the most bandwidth they can afford, but they’re only going to have reasonable net experiences from the providers who paid for the privilege of not having their bandwidth throttled.

Got that now? Ok. I wish you would have asked back when it could have done some good. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finalized their rules and put them into effect August 1st. That’s when my life sorta went to hell.

I’m the webmaster for the Mallville University Library. One of our services is maintaining an online nature photography journal for the Arts department. We had close to 500,000 site visits a month. Emphasis on “had.” In July, five different Internet Service Providers sent us notices that we would need to pay to be in their “prioritized” tier. The amounts desired varied from provider to provider, but all were pretty high. We also figured we’d get more ransom notes for our content and indeed we are. We can’t pay them all and keep the University affloat. Actually, we couldn’t even pay the first five bandits their monthly fee and keep the physical library open.

So the alternative was to whistle in the dark. Our UL said, “How slow could it be?” Turns out August 1st, pretty slow. Unlike a lot of other sites, we want to hear from our subscribers so we make our contact information easy to find. As a result we had a lot of cranky calls from subscribers. About a third of them settled down when we told them it was a net neutrality problem. The rest complained that since THEY had fast internet connections it must be something we were doing wrong. We asked everyone for their ISP information and about 3/4 gave us that. It would have been simpler if our web analytics could classify visits from ISP, but we only get IP reporting. It’s possible to tease out ISPs from this, but very tedious. But it’s part of what I’m doing now. Unpaid overtime, you got to love it. At least they let me do the analytics from home.

Another clue that we were dying the death of a thousand throttles was the web analytics for the first week of August. On the 1st we were close to our usual figure for site visits, but our bounce rate for the journal’s home page had gone from 20% to 95%. What’s Bounce Rate you say? A bounce happens when a visitor only visits one particular page on your site without visiting any other. So the bounce rate is the ratio of bounces to total visits for that page. Some pages, like the journal’s masthead don’t really link anywhere else, so we expect high bounce rates there. But the journal’s home page has their current issue and the expectation (and the pre-August) reality was that people would land on the journal’s home page and then click on an article for the current issue. That wouldn’t be a bounce.

By the end of the first week of August, the journal’s site visits had plunged to 10% of their usual value and all the pages that were getting hits at all had bounce rates in the 90% range. By this time, a few people on the library and art department staff, including me, finally got the idea to browse the site from home as most of us belong to what we had taken to calling the bandit ISPs. Yes, I realize this should have been done earlier. Chalk it up to shock and move on, ok?

Browsing our site from home made it crystal clear that throttling had to be responsible for our drop in visits. From my house, the journal’s home page took 40 seconds to load completely — and I had a 10 Mbps connection at home. Prior to August it had taken 0.5 seconds. Other coworkers reported similar results. The poor guy stuck with FastCast wound up with a full minute to load our page.

Actually one thing did appear right away — our Google Ads. I think it made us look worse. From our subscriber point of view we were prioritizing ads over actual content. It wasn’t us. Apparently Google had no issues with paying its bandit bill.

So now we knew what the problem was, but not what to do about it. And not much cash on hand to have leisure time to figure it out. We did find one bright spot though – mobile users. The 10% of those subscribers still engaged with our site turned out to be smartphone users. We have a server that automatically downscales photos sent to smartphone browsers. They are not nearly as detailed, but they do show you the subject and make pretty smartphone wallpaper.

We bounced around the idea to make the smartphone sized images the default across the site, but people in the Art Department would rather take down the entire site than “immolate” their content. It was hard enough to get them to agree to a mobile site all. We told them it would lure people into the hi-res world of our desktop edition. They bought it. Resizing photos is a political decision so I have to wait for Art and our UL to come to an understanding.

The only other avenue available to us at the moment, that is also drowning me in tedium, is a very careful analysis of our web analytics. I’ve tweaked our software to give me the 2,000 top visitors by IP address. I then take the IPs and run them through www.arin.net, which gives me an ISP and ONE of its IP ranges. If this is all I do all day every day for 10 hours, I ought to have a list of visits by ISP, sorted by popularity in a week and a half. If a couple of top ISPs turn out to have affordable bandit rates (at least this year), we’ll pay up. Though we worry about what next year will bring.

The other problem with the “pay the ISP bandit approach” is that if one of the major players (say FastCast) comes out with a similar product, “prioritization” aka the bandwidth you’ve already paid for, might not be available at any price at all. Then what? Return to print? Howl at the moon? I don’t know.

God, I miss Net Neutrality.


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