Posts Tagged ‘quality of service’

“Net Neutrality” does not mean “equally fast, everywhere”

August 22, 2010

“Net Neutrality” means too many different things to different people.

For example, concerns about the potential for discriminatory practices by ISPs or telcos based on content, application, or identities or affiliations of content consumers or producers are usually conflated with simplistic observations about the need for ‘equal speed’ being a necessary condition for net neutrality.

Al Franken discusses issues and concerns related to competition (or sufficient lack thereof), but he too raises the ‘speed equality’ notion as a requirement for ‘free speech’ on the internet.

It is safe to say that 99% or more of the public does not understand how the Internet works, or for that matter how computers attached to the Internet work. Discussing legitimate concerns about non-discriminatory processing of Internet traffic in simple terms of speed only further confuses the public, and create political responses for the wrong reasons.

What we all agree on is NOT the issue

What is not to be tolerated in any scenario, ‘network neutrality’ or not, is discrimination based on type of protocol, or content, or application, or content provider, or consumer.

It is this type of discrimination which has vociferous proponents of ‘net neutrality’ most up in arms, and yet it is not the type of discrimination that is likely to ultimately be the real net neutrality issue, for the simple reason that it is and will be easy for everyone to agree that those forms of discrimination are inappropriate, anti-competitive, and, yes, illegal.

The Need for Speed

Unfortunately, it is “speed” discrimination on which simplistic overtures to net neutrality are based.

For example, the following from the recent op-ed  by Al Franken on the subject:

An e-mail from your mom comes in just as fast as a bill notification from your bank. You’re reading this op-ed online; it’ll load just as fast as a blog post criticizing it. That’s what we mean by net neutrality.”

This definition of ‘net neutrality’ — that every interaction is “just as fast” as any other, is the most dangerously misleading of all attempts to define (and, in Senator Franken’s case, legislate) ‘net neutrality’.

If, by his comments, Senator Franken means to say that “the rate at which bytes are transmitted over the network, for consumers sharing the same level of cost for the same level of quality of service, should be the same”, then yes — (that is, definition #3 of ‘net neutrality’) — and is perfectly reasonable.

But the imprecise language of the appeal to ‘equally fast’ will incorrectly lead people to believe that net neutrality is intended to make the time it takes to download Avatar equal to the amount of time it takes to send a tweet, with the further stipulation that this be via terrestrial or wireless connections, and all for the same cost as the least demanding of levels of service.

Where “Net Neutrality” really applies is in the requirement to not discriminate based on content. This includes, of course, any selective slowing down of traffic based on application or protocol from sources who have paid the same for the same bandwidth. Local ISPs (notably cable companies with their claims of 5MB/sec and more bandwidth) need to be able to support those promises, or else not promise so much — truth in advertising, quite simply.

The “15 Facts” infographic

ReadWriteWeb has posted an ‘infographic’ entitled “15 Facts About Net Neutrality“.

The 15-point summary covers ‘bullet points’, but does not provide sufficient insight into the not-so-obvious distinctions among definitions of ‘net neutrality’.

In particular, the ‘3 definitions of net neutrality’ makes a stab at this, but more attention needs to be focused on specifically and exactly what is being talked about when different folks debate ‘net neutrality’.

To recap, the ‘3 definitions of Net Neutrality’ provided by the Online MBA Programs folks are:

1. Absolute non-discrimination:

No regard for quality of service considerations

2. Limited discrimination without QoS tiering

Quality of service discrimination allowed as long as no special fee is charged for higher quality service

3. Limited discrimination and tiering

Higher fees for quality of service provided there is no exclusivity in contracts

The definitional hole in the above summary points is simply: what is the domain potentially being discriminated? Is it content type ? application ? protocol type ? bandwidth ? consumer ? content provider ?

Definition 1 is, for the most part, the hue and cry of the status-quo, and is bound to run into trouble with consumers at some point.

This will occur when the volume of internet traffic of a (growing) minority of highly active internet consumers reaches thresholds where it taxes the bandwidth and capacity of Internet service to the point that a majority of less-active consumers are noticeably and negatively affected.

For example, when a sufficient volume of constant bit torrent traffic — or a sufficient increase in the amount of video-on-demand being streamed — reaches a level where local delivery is saturated or visibly impacted, consumers will notice (and ISPs and telcos will seek to maximize the number of satisfied, paying customers). This is what started the whole issue, after all !

Definition 2 would appear to be the worst of all worlds. “no special fee … charged for higher quality service” would of course never occur in a bandwidth-challenged network. Quite the opposite – that definition is absolutely equivalent to: “same fee charged for poorer quality service” ! It would let ISPs degrade service (or simply let service degrade on its own). This is the least desirable scenario.

Definition 3, which acknowledges that higher quality of service (translation: continuously available higher bandwidth) is something which consumes more of the capital infrastructure resources of the supply chain (ISP and backbone) — and for which a higher cost is appropriate — would seem to be a reasonable starting point for network neutrality that guarantees equal access within a given quality of service.

Unfortunately, this definition is one which is also drawing considerable flak over the concern that it will create two classes of internet users: “rich” and “poor”, or “fast lanes” and “slow lanes”  (See the transcript of Cali Lewis’ interview on CNN, for example).

Until the language and conversation regarding ‘net neutrality’ is cleaned up and made more precise, the controversy will continue to swirl unproductively. And can you imagine the provisions or effect that Congressional legislation — in the absence of such specificity, and in the presence of such fuzzy emotional appeals — will have ? It certainly will not have the desired effect !

If, for example, a clumsy, and poorly thought-out, knee-jerk legislative reaction results — one which is too restrictive or onerous — then the result could be one where growth and competition to provide higher bandwidth service is replaced by a strategy on the part of ISPs and telcos to simply start charging more by the data byte with minimal investment in technical infrastructure. This outcome would ultimately cost all consumers more, and for less service !

Net Neutrality, or, Tea and the Tillerman

August 11, 2010

Did Google turn its back on tech and run up the sidelines with Verizon just to plant its flag in future territory ?

Was the proposal aimed at pre-empting the FCC, or just gaming them to forestall regulation ?

Is a compromise between corporations arguing over the spoils of the internet possible ? Or have they jammed the gears of the free market ?

Will ISPs be stretched, squeezed and deformed by consumers and producers, or merely flattened by the FCC ?

Just how much tea should the tillerman get to ferry our internet traffic across the river?

Setting the stage: the Google-Verizon ‘Net-Fest’

On Monday, August 9, 2010, Google and Verizon released a joint Legislative Framework Proposal, offering a “proposed open Internet framework for the consideration of policymakers and the public”.  The following day the two respective CEOs, Eric Schmidt and Ivan Seidenberg, submitted an op-ed piece to the Washington Post to add some narrative background to their initiative, which began:

We have spent much of the past year trying to resolve our differences over the thorny issue of “network neutrality.” This hasn’t been an easy process, and Google and Verizon are neither regulators nor legislators. But as leaders in our respective fields, we have searched for workable public policies that serve consumer interests and create a climate for investment and innovation. What has kept us at the table and moving toward compromise was our mutual interest in a robust Internet and our recognition that progress would occur only when players from across the Internet space work together.

This naturally has generated quite a bit of reaction from multiple points on the compass. The ElectronicFrontier Foundation weighed in thusly.

Update: Richard Whitt, Google’s Telecom and Media Counsel in Washington, D.C. has posted some “Facts about our network neutrality policy proposal” on Google’s Public Policy Blog, prompting this response from Karl Bode at DSLreports.

As popular as it appears to be to bash either Google, Verizon — or both — regarding their joint initiative, the fundamental issues which make the net neutrality debate what it is are not going to go away ultimately without some form of negotiation or cooperation among the major players and their respective back benches — which includes content providers, tech companies, ISPs, the FCC, and the public.

For consumers, watching the positioning and movement of the still-fluid ‘tech-tonic’ plates that impinge on this debate can be a lot like witnessing a battle between Godzilla and Mothra without knowing who the good and bad monsters are — or if there is even that distinction among monsters — and all the while becoming anxious about whether or not the Public Defense Forces will be able to tame the beasts simply with small-arms fire or risk having to blow the entire city out of the water by desperately resorting to far more destructive ordinance. In such ultimate fight club-type struggles it is hard to see clear to optimal outcomes for peace, prosperity, and the public good.

Although it is easy to see some (many?) of the unstated motivations and agendas of Google and Verizon behind their arm-in-arm why can’t we all just get along locker room embrace, it is also true that some degree of industry and private sector cooperation on the question is needed in order to sort out the legitimate concerns on all sides. Hopefully, constructive efforts will converge on a workable solution without requiring that the government play the role of Solomon and threaten to cut the baby in half as well as throw out the bath water.

“Workable solution for whom?” one is quite right to ask, of course. Is it for the corporations sitting across the table with the revenue / expense pie of the huge internet market between them — which they seek to carve up — or for the consumer who provides the demand and ultimately pays for the continued growth and prosperity of a thriving pie-making economy? (memo to self: in my half-baked metaphor, is the ISP the crust and the content provider the filling, or … oh, nevermind )

Both Google and Verizon have something to gain by scratching each other’s backs. Google is much, much more than just a ‘content provider’, of course, and much more than just a ‘tech company’, as they clearly have designs on the communications infrastructure side of the coin that flips traffic into their waiting arms (jaws?). Verizon also seeks to go beyond its role as just a sprawling network of pipes and antennas and grow to manage/sell content, although the bloom has come off of that rose as the competition among the network players has made it table, for the time being, that expansive wish list agenda.

Furthermore, Google and Verizon are just place holders for similar industry players and roles. Apple and AT&T fit the M.O. as well, and are no doubt rubbing their chins as a result of the joint announcement, but they will likely watch to see where the dust settles before venturing further into the mine field.

It would also seem that the ‘proposal’ by Google and Verizon was a foray driven somewhat by game theory, to wit: best to keep the private sector options open to work out mutually optimal solutions to the issue and keep the FCC and the government from having to make a definitive, across-the-board ruling in the absence of visible progress on the matter by the private sector — a ruling which is more likely to be bad for one side or the other, just not clear which.

Fundamentals of the Internet-enabled Economy

Let’s not lose sight of the fundamentals of the internet-enabled economy as we try to decide who to root for (or boo) in the debate, whether the opposing teams or the referees.

1. The Internet is no longer a DARPA science experiment, but has become THE information utility and enabling technology of the modern era;

2. The skyrocketing growth and benefits afforded by this now-ubiquitous infrastructure and services platform which spans the globe are due largely to three primary dimensions of the Internet phenomenon:

(a) The explosion, in general, of applications, services, content, and online information which the platform enables, and which is also fueling and increasing consumer demand and expectations in a chicken-and-the-egg fashion;

(b) The efforts on the part of the infrastructure developers (i.e., ISPs and Telcos) to keep pace with this ongoing and increasing demand and, at the same time, competitively maintain and grow their respective market share;

(c) Rapid technological innovation in the functionality, capabilities and performance of the part of the so-called ‘content providers’ and tech companies in the supply chain to continue to deliver services, web resources, information access, and user experiences to consumers and businesses at the leafy ends of the Internet tree of life.

This business and technology nexus of innovative supply-side vendors and corporations responding to consumer and business demand for any manner and variety of internet-enabled solutions and services is populated by an ocean full of creatures large and small. There are a relatively small number of extremely large ones like Google, and an extremely large number of relatively small ones — the agile and fast moving entrepreneurial startups seeking to carve out their niches and be the next big break-out internet success story.

The smaller Internet and technology businesses and technology vendors have concerns regarding how their fates might be impacted if (and how) a giant like Google happens to willfully or inadvertently rolls over on them. This apprehension, or at least the uncertainty, is one basis for many of the criticisms of Google’s ‘participation’ in the joint proposal with Verizon voiced by some in the tech sector.

3. Quality-of-service, and distinctions between different classes of communication modes, are considerations which were, along with the connect-to-anything-anywhere design cornerstone of the Internet Protocol (IP), factors from the outset in the design of the Internet. The higher-level protocols on top of IP, such as TCP, UDP, and RTP, as well as the many flavors of physical network and data link protocols and network architectures, were developed by computer scientists and communications experts who spent considerable effort to elegantly solve the technical and usability challenges in robust ways.

For example, in the (now disbanded) 802.6 Metropolitan Area Network spec (essentially a token-passing, wide-area bus architecture which time-division multiplexes access to a deterministic network access protocol), access to the network for higher-priority traffic with realtime performance requirements (e.g. interactive telephony) was insured by allocating a portion of the network bandwidth (in the form of designated, reserved time slots) for services with minimum quality constraints. The provisioning of quality of service protections meant that network traffic of this type would not be denied service or minimum-required bandwidth as a result of the network being swamped by less time-critical and longer running data transfer processes and queues.

802.6 has been deprecated and is no longer deployed, due to the advances in bandwidth and higher performance which the IP network is now able to provide via standard [802.3 (ethernet), 802.11 (wireless), 802.14 (cable modem)] data link protocols. There are a host of new link-level protocols which have been specified for new uses, mainly for wireless spectrum in one form or another (see the many varieties of IEEE 802 link-level protocols at ) . IEEE 802.23, for example, is a new working group devoted to Emergency Services — clearly an area where quality of service and performance guarantees and priorities are extremely important.

Furthermore, even though the Internet protocol (IP) can be made to (logically) work seamlessly across interfaces to new data link technologies and architectures, it is certainly not the case that any given end-user should expect or demand equivalent performance and services across all data links and end-user interface equipment.

It is also reasonable to expect that such protocols as emergency services, would, if routed for some portion of its network connectivity via IP networks provided by ISPs, have a different quality of service than a long-running, background download of an e-mail archive, for example.

Consumer demand and vendor supply: a growing gap

We should be very careful, in this whole ‘net neutrality’ debate, to — a priori and out of the starting gates — think that ALL uses of the internet communication platform are, or should be, completely and anonymously equal in priority, access, and performance, and furthermore that all services and transports must necessarily be of equal cost regardless of its mode of use .

Clearly, there are some distinctions that can and should be made regarding both quality of service and the associated cost of contracted and/or assured types and priorities of access to communications services across the broad gamut of public, private, emergency, commercial, consumer, recreational, and even national security uses.

4. Consumers and content providers are collectively placing increasing demands on both ends of the collective pipes of the internet infrastructure. That is a simple and obvious fact of life. The providers of that internet connectivity — the cable companies, telcos, and wireless providers — are also in a position to profit by being in the position to provide and charge for that connectivity. Where is the fair balance, and how to achieve it?  How much tea should the tillerman get to ferry us across the river, in other words.

So far, the commercial interests which use the Internet infrastructure to sell and deliver their services, and consumers which avail themselves of same, have been relying upon so-called free market competition to manage the cost/benefits tradeoffs and pricing of internet connectivity and level of service, ranging from dialup to T3.

For the consumer, at the leafy, fruit-plucking end of the sprawling, gateway-connected amalgamation of ISPs who shuttle traffic anywhere around the world, the ‘competitve’ choices usually boil down to choosing between cable, DSL, and – lately – wireless, and — within that — a subsequent choice of price for a certain level of ‘bandwidth’.

Unfortunately, both the competitive choices and the price-for-bandwidth options currently have undesirable artifacts and serious shortcomings for the consumer, a situation which has left, and is increasingly producing, levels of discontent and dissatisfaction among consumers.

For starters, there is usually only one cable company in any one market, since only one company owns the cable, and multiple ISP ‘competitive access’ to the cable is, however desirable, slow in coming and certainly resisted by the cable industry.

Also, even though telcos, such as Verizon with FIOS and AT&T with Universe, are trying to leap out of the bandwidth constraints of DSL and compete more effectively with cable in urban areas, the capital investment required to provide such last-mile, truly broadband point-to-point internet connectivity to the home ( and thereby compete with cable ), is significant, and even more so in rural areas.

Furthermore, regardless of the choice of ISP, price-point choices for levels of internet service predicated on levels of bandwidth are often moot.

In the case of cable company ISPs, it does not much matter if you are signed up for (and theoretically promised) 5 MB/sec if enough people in your neighborhood are saturating the local network segment bandwidth of the cable ( it *is*, after all, a shared-wire, collision-avoidance, ethernet wire protocol, albeit multiplexed into video bands of the cable).

Telcos can deliver more deterministic levels of bandwidth between the central office and the consumer, but their equipment will also ultimately face traffic congestion issues as well, namely in their switches and gateways which must aggregate and route traffic and then interface with the fatter pipes that flow into their wide-area networks.

As for wireless, anyone who has used a mobile phone knows the frustration and miserable experience of poor connectivity and dropped voice calls, regardless if the color of your ‘map’ is blue, red, or any other color. The upsurge in smart phones has added further burdens and bottlenecks to wireless networks, spurring changes in billing plans as well as customer complaints. The prospect of being asked to pay more simply for reliable service is another source of fuel for customer concerns regarding the plans and intentions of ISPs and wireless telcos.

Be careful what you wish for

5. I completely concur with those who would not allow the ISPs to impose arbitrary, and certainly undocumented, decisions about which types of internet traffic to block, restrict, or selectively throttle back in order to manage total demand and maximize the number of satisfied customers (and hence, revenue – their objective function).

However, a very unsatisfactory and unsavory outcome will ensue if we do not recognize that there is a legitimate need on the part of the ISP to be able to provide a consistent level and quality of service as part of a consumer’s contract with an ISP — and allow ISPs the means to provide that quality of service for a price that supports the necessary capital investment required to keep up with the market demand for a given level of supposedly ‘guaranteed’ bandwidth.

Failing a resolution to the ‘net neutrality’ battle that is fair to ISPs as well, we are likely to reap an undesirable and regressive outcome. We will drive the ISPs business models into territory that we will ultimately come to hate (and which is already raising its ugly head): pricing by data volume in lieu of pricing by bandwidth.

If ISPs are forced, one way or another, into being regulated like a public utility such as water or electricity, then we will get similar results: pricing based upon how much informational commodity you send or receive over a slow-growing and under-capitalized set of infrastructure, just like water or electricity.

ISPs and telcos will be able to continue growing revenue with a minimum of capital investment aimed at improving the capacity and system bandwidth of their local and backbone infrastructure. The ISP revenues will simply ride up with the growing traffic and will provide that revenue growth — at least in the short term. The longer-term effects of this business model will be disastrous, and will be a significant drag on the continued growth and capabilities of the Internet, for all parties involved, as well as for the economy as a whole.

Wireless telcos have long had this model for data, and AT&T, reacting to mushrooming demand on its network from iPhones, has rescinded the ‘unlimited’ data plan for new iPhone accounts. Time Warner and other ISPs are already conducting ‘trials’ of measured-data pricing models for residential accounts. This practice is full of pitfalls for content providers and consumers alike, who are of course the camps fervently holding up the banner of zero-tolerance ‘net neutrality’.

An approach to addressing this issue that does allow a degree of cooperation among the major players on both sides, and the recognition of the realities of what is required for different levels of service across the Internet food chain is needed. Absent workable solutions, the consumer will eventually be worse off than before, for any number of reasons.

Yes, the consumer must have a voice that has some weight, and — short of voting with our feet in the currently semi-flawed competitive marketplace — the FCC is the likely, if not exactly first choice, to help provide that voice and keep the players from playing dirty. And yet falling back on the government to somehow omnisciently and optimally pick a live rabbit from the bureaucratic black hat is itself fraught with unintended consequences and precedent.

But the challenge of keeping the growth in the explosive potential and innovative offerings enabled by the Internet in some degree of elastic sync with the connective infrastructure that is capable of keeping pace with that growth is a non-trivial problem, and one that will not be solved by an all-or-nothing campaign which seeks to make any one stakeholder the evil party.

Unless we are level-headed, the ultimate ‘net neutrality’ could well be a very level, but very unsatisfactory, playing field — one where consumers and businesses alike are billed with a simple metric that resembles nothing more than number of bytes transferred X effective speed of transfer. Something like that is sure to give businesses and consumers alike, and the entire internet economy, a migraine headache.

The Internet is not a data storage resource, to be billed based on how many bits or bytes it is asked to ‘save’. Increasingly, the Internet is a temporal experience, whose relative value and reasonable cost to the consumer are driven by any number of factors other than metered bytes.

It would certainly seem that some accommodation to allow different classes and quality of service — where the cost of a certain level of performance for broad classes of service was a fixed cost which could be budgeted and pegged to an assurance of continuous bandwidth appropriate to the type and class of service and desired performance — would be a good thing, whether that service be home wireline streaming video-on-demand, background large file transfer, e-mail, interactive web collaboration, or wireless multi-media access.