Of Bananas and Digital Communications
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.
When I was a lad, my father worked on the railroad. I used to accompany him as he organized rail traffic at a central switching station they called the "hump." His job was to align the cars according to priority. A carload of bananas, for example, would take priority over things like wood and coal. The perishables had first priority because it was imperative to get them to market quickly. And of course the shippers of perishables paid a premium to assure their products went to the front of the line. No one thought that unusual or unfair.
That experience informs my position on the seemingly endless debate about what is called "network neutrality," the notion that all traffic on the Internet should be treated the same and charged the same. The basic idea of net neutrality is that the full resources of the Internet should be easily accessible to all individuals, companies and organizations on a first come, first served basis.
The term net neutrality was coined by Colombia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003. His idea was that the Internet should follow the paradigm that operation of a service at a certain layer should not be influenced by any data other than the data interpreted at that layer, and in accordance with the protocol specification for that layer. Presumably this would encourage greater access and a fuller flow of information.
No doubt it would, but the fact is that the Internet is not an unlimited resource. There is only so much bandwidth available and providing open access to anyone makes it difficult if not impossible to accord priority to more important traffic which I would define as data vital to national security and data that has higher commercial value than your run of the mill chatter generated by texting, Twitter, Facebook and other pastimes that have relatively little value either to society at large or even the individuals using it.
I think a more accurate term than "net neutrality" is that of a "dumb network" made up of "dumb pipes" on which there is little or no control or management of data flow. The analogy is to water pipes used in city water supply systems which provide water at the same cost to all users regardless of its priority or uses.
But even those "dumb pipes" are not delivering water for free. Everyone may pay the same rate for water, but they all have to pay something. That is yet another bone I have to pick with the net neutrality people - the notion that everything conveyed over the Internet should be free. I would argue that intellectual property is at least as valuable, and often more valuable, than more tangible goods. The people who create it deserve to be paid.
Further, it has been my experience that anything free of cost is held in contempt by many if not most consumers, and there is a tendency to waste anything that is free - including digital transmissions. Perhaps a more effective pay-as-you-go system would weed out a lot of frivolous network traffic and free up more space for useful information.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.