Monday, April 7, 2008

Still Clueless on Net Neutrality

From NYT, yet another op-ed that completely misses the point on net neutrality.
We hate when things are taken from us (so we rage at censorship), but we also love to get new things. And the providers are chomping at the bit to offer them to us: new high-bandwidth treats like superfast high-definition video and quick movie downloads. They can make it sound great: newer, bigger, faster, better! But the new fast lanes they propose will be theirs to control and exploit and sell access to, without the level playing field that common carriage built into today’s network.

They won’t be blocking anything per se — we’ll never know what we’re not getting — they’ll just be leapfrogging today’s technology with a new, higher-bandwidth network where they get to be the gatekeepers and toll collectors. The superlative new video on offer will be available from (surprise, surprise) them, or companies who’ve paid them for the privilege of access to their customers. If this model sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s how cable TV operates.
But the internet isn't cable TV, which is essentially a pre-allocated bandwidth system. The IP network is packet-switched, which means that uncoordinated traffic can arrive at any router and cause it to become congested. When that happens, real-time applications like video and voice simply stop working.

There are only two solutions to the real-time application problem. First, you can massively over-engineer the network so that the odds of having congestion are vanishingly small. Of course, this is prohibitively expensive. So if you'd like to have net neutrality enforced this way, be prepared to have your ISP bills go up by a factor of ten.

The only other solution is to pre-reserve the quality of service you need for the application you're consuming (or providing). The technology exists to do this. You can explicitly reserve bandwidth using a protocol called RSVP or you can implicitly reserve bandwidth by marking your IP packets according to the diffserv standards.

But there's a catch: If everybody were simply to start marking their packets with code points that would guarantee expedited service, then the whole system falls apart. If all traffic is expedited, then no traffic is truly expedited and we're back where we started.

So you need a mechanism to make sure that everybody only requests what they really need. That mechanism is to charge a premium for the expedited services. And that would conflict with what most clueless people (including politicians) consider to be the doctrine of network neutrality.

Please understand: I am an ardent defender of common carriage--the requirement that ISPs transport data indiscriminately, regardless of its origin, destination, or content--but you simply have to be able to charge for quality of service. You're running up against simple laws of physics here. They may be unobvious laws but they are nonetheless laws. To force ISPs to carry expedited traffic at the same price point as unexpedited traffic simply will not work. The net neutrality advocates have to understand the difference between common carriage and legislating pi equal to 3.000.

Minor disclaimer: Since I work in the biz, I should point out that my opinions are solely my own, although they largely agree with those of my employer. That's because my employer is not clueless.

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