Monday, January 22, 2007

Net Neutrality - Forit or Aginit?

Forit or Aginit?

What the Heck is Net Neutrality Anyway?

It's a very interesting debate actually. It is a debate in which both sides have merit. Both sides have a lot of dishonesty too. On one side we have your "grassroots" salt of the earth types, the little guy... On the other, big, bad corporate America out to screw said little guy.

Now that we have that out of the way we can try to make up our own minds on a rather complicated but fascinating problem. It involves the future of the Internet as well as the past. That is to say in the past the Internet was one large unrestricted, unregulated TUBE. Did I say tube? Err, I meant to say pipe. I sure hope Comedy Central doesn't find out I said tube instead of pipe, but I digress...

The post DARPA Internet has always been a bit of a free for all. Since the birth of the World Wide Web (WWW) many companies and organizations have used it as test bed for new ideas and money making schemes - some that stuck, many that didn't. It has always been the same for everyone - no special privileges - provided you paid for access. Most of the time the amount of bandwidth you wanted dictated the cost.

For many years this worked fine. The Internet we all know and love for all intents and purposes is now over a decade old and its "wild westness" is just now starting to be tamed. Those who were there at the beginning including Vinton Cerf, the co-inventor of TCP/IP and current Chief Internet Evangelist of Google do not want to see the common cartage nature of the Internet changed. In his recent testimony, he said, “allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success.” Net neutrality has been pushed by virtually all of the major internet companies now benefiting immensely from this "pricing" structure including, Yahoo!, and especially Google. The largest bandwidth hog in the world, Microsoft has also taken a stance in support of Net Neutrality. Not surprisingly, opposition has come primarily from those in the telecommunications industry.

The problem with what Mr. Cerf asserts is that it's not a complete or completely honest description.

Let me explain:

When I first started in computer networking we didn't prioritize anything. In other words it was a first come first serve basis for all traffic (data). Occasionally the "network" would come to a crawl and all users and all processes would suffer. We would eventually find that the culprit was someone doing a large file transfer using FTP. FTP will take every megabit of pipe it can gobble up until it is done. We tried to control it - or we just lived with the network bogging down now and again. Along came IP Telephony, or voice over the data network (which is physically separated from the traditional phone network). Voice over IP or VoIP as it is called has a tremendous cost savings that companies simply love. But when you throw voice on the data network a slow down just destroys the conversation - the call becomes unintelligible.

The nature of TCP/IP allows for a congested network to drop data packets. By using error detecting it retransmits the lost data which is then reassembled at the receiving end. Try doing that with a telephone conversation. (Remember Max Headroom?) So, we use QoS (Quality of Service), traffic shaping, and priority queuing at the network level to support the phone call without adversely affecting the network as a whole. It means that sometimes "regular data" transfers at a slower rate .

This is a rudimentary description of what the telco carriers (your ISP) will need to do as the Internet evolves. They want to be able to separate types of traffic; giving certain traffic a bandwidth edge - sort of like the "sane lane" on a freeway system. The rub is that the broadband carriers will want to charge more for accessing the sane lane. They claim that the Internet will act the same way it always has for everyone else. However those who pay the extra freight charges will get priority when push comes to shove.

Both sides say that the other side will stifle innovation. I tend to disagree. The ISP's, the carriers, say they need to build the system in a segmented fashion precisely to spur innovation, innovations we haven't even thought of yet. The Net Neutrality folks say that the spirit of the Internet has always been equal access for all. The things we now take for granted on the Internet were pioneered by someone throwing something out there at little to no cost to see if it was viable. Clearly innovation will happen either way. The broadband providers simply want to have a multi-tired Internet where they can charge more for offering a more guaranteed "pipe".

Google and Microsoft chew up enormous amount of bandwidth and pay the same per potential megabit as you or I whether we use it or not. It is no wonder they don't want it to change. When Vinton Cerf and the Net Neutrality lobby use the common cartage model of our roadway systems (meaning we don't have separate highways for trucks, we all use the same roads) they are really making a poor case. Trucks and trucking companies pay an enormous amount of local taxes and federal excise taxes, far beyond what you or I pay for our cars. As they should. Trucks eat up the roads while they make a lot of money moving goods around on "our" roads. Gee, sounds a lot like Yahoo! Microsoft and Google doesn't it? Besides, we do have different systems to move freight such as the airlines, ships and the railroads that the average person has absolutely no access to.

On the other hand many broadband carriers exist without any competition. They set the price at whatever they want. This is potentially a huge problem. Potentially not... Wireless is on the way and there is competition in that arena, or, at least there is for now.

The Nutshell

The Net Neutrality supporters have a valid fear. It's that same fear socialists have about the unbridled power of the "corporate state". The fear is that the broadband carriers could simply choose to block or significantly slow down traffic moving to a from web sites and Internet users that don't pay up. Pure control in the hands of a few... Given the mega-corporation penchant for maximizing profits and pure greed one can't simply dismiss this concern out of hand.

The broadband carriers want to be able to develop incredible fast and wide "pipes" by upgrading their infrastructures to the tune of billions of dollars. Like the pharmaceutical companies they feel they should be able to charge accordingly to recoup their investment. Net Neutrality says no, you can't charge some people (organizations) more than you charge others. This is idiotic. The potential for a future we can't even imagine yet rests on these "providers" "road builders" "plumbers" being able to construct this new foundation and making a profit.

It is not a slam dunk for either side in my opinion. However, if I were to take sides I will always lean to the side that does not involve Congress making new laws. If I had a vote on the matter it would be thumbs down on Net Neutrality. What do you think?