Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Comments on Net Neutrality

I wrote the following article as a response to the frequent comments on CNET’s Buzz Out Loud podcast misrepresenting the RBOCs intentions to prioritize traffic on their networks.  The hosts commented on my article but they did not seem to comprehend what I was saying.  The press is misrepresenting the concept of net neutrality.  Packet prioritization and net neutrality are not mutually exclusive.

Once again Congress may screw up a valuable resource.  Senator Ron Wyden's bill will cripple Internet access services to millions of Americans and stifle the creation of new and innovative services.  There is no question that Internet access providers should not give preference to their services or content that they distribute.  Likewise, they should not negatively impact any potential service competitor's traffic that goes over their networks.

The press, Congress, and many others are confusing bandwidth and speed with packet prioritization. All packets travel through the network at the same speed.  The speed at which a packet travels is somewhat less than the speed of light dictated by the medium they travel through.  Along the way they are slowed down by transport equipment, routers, and switches.  So saying that there is a "fast lane" is technically incorrect.

Traffic becomes limited because interconnections and equipment are limited in the amount of packets that they can process.  We call the rate at which information flows through equipment or interconnections: bandwidth. Bandwidth is always a limiting factor. Internet carriers attempt to fully utilize their bandwidth to reduce cost and improve margins.  There are many places in the network where bandwidth can become constrained, but the most common location is the last mile to the consumer.

When there is more traffic than bandwidth, then some packets have to wait their turn until bandwidth is freed to pass them on to the next point in the network.  Currently all packets are treated equal so e-mail is just as important as web browsing as VoIP calls.  Here's the rub.  If there are several web browsing, p2p, and e-mail packets waiting to go through the pipe, VoIP packets will have to wait a long time to reach their destination. As long as they only wait a couple of hundred milliseconds, users will not hear the delay.  If the wait is longer then users will hear garbled speech, echo, and in extreme cases the call will be disconnected.

This is the reason why we need to prioritize certain traffic. Packets from services like VoIP, IPTV and interactive gaming need to be moved to the head of the queue to provide an excellent user experience; otherwise, consumers will not find them acceptable over today’s alternatives. Each packet should be labeled depending on the class of service it requires enabling bandwidth to be used more efficiently and better quality of service for all users.

Throwing more bandwidth at the problem is not the solution because bandwidth is always consumed as soon as it is provided by new services and greater usage of existing services.  The bandwidth answer is a never ending spiral.  The only true solution is creating tiered services for all service providers to use.

Notice that I have not mentioned who is providing these services.  The point is that all service providers whether RBOC, cable company, or Internet service provider benefits from implementing quality of service (i.e. packet prioritization). Actually tiered services provide a level playing field for Vonage, Netflix, or any other IP service providers as long as they can purchase these service guarantees for the same price that the access providers’ charge their internal content distributors.  In other words, the RBOC or cable companies do not give preference to their own services. The way services are delivered today, the RBOC or cable company can control the quality of their VoIP or IPTV services; thereby, providing a higher quality user experience than service providers that use their networks. The current situation is not fair. Google, Yahoo!, Netflix, Vonage, and all of the other IP service providers should welcome this new service from the RBOC. It offers entrepreneurs that do not have billions of dollars to build a network the ability to create new and innovative services.

What alarms me is that the industry cannot work out this issue on their own and are relying on 535 old men and women that have their staff print their e-mail to decide the future of the Internet in the United States. These people do not have a clue of what to do about this issue. Instead they depend on industry lobbyists to help draft this legislation. Wyden’s bill is too restrictive and will stifle competition. Frankly it scares the hell out of me.  Barton’s bill just gives more power to the FCC over the Internet. Neither one is good for our industry. Unfortunately there are too few people in the industry that understand the issue and the ones that do are less than eloquent in explaining it. The bottom line is that we should let the free market sort it out. There are already sufficient laws in place if the RBOC or cable companies give preference to their own services. Let the market work!

Tag: net neutrality

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