An article of faith

The Net Neutrality crowd is motivated by a desire to promote innovation. They firmly believe that such things as blogs, blog aggregators, on-line auctions and dating services like My Space are innovative. While it’s not fruitful to argue with this point of view, its background is questionable.

The early Internet, you see, was justified as a playpen for experimentation with packet switching. Kahn and Cerf argued that keeping traffic control out of the network interior would enable researchers to experiment with protocols that could be easily implemented outside the network. They were motivated by the belief that Ethernet made traffic management moot, so the only field where they could hope to distinguish themselves was in the protocols and applications that used the Ethernet. They wanted the Internet to be Ethernet on a larger scale.

This dubious assumption gave rise to a religious dogma: “The “smarter” the network, the less innovation on top of it.” I recently encountered this on the Lessig Blog, a veritable wonderland of Kool-Aid consumption, and you can find similar sentiments on David Isenberg’s blog, where he promotes his idea of “Stupid Networks” as great stimulators of innovation. Isenberg once worked for a phone company, but not in a technical capacity.

This article of religious faith isn’t provable. Let me show you why with an example.

The old Ethernet was a simple, dumb network. It provided a single speed and single priority, making end-users control access through a totally distributed CSMA/CD scheme. As I said, it was the architectural model that Kahn and Cerf borrowed for TCP/IP.

But the marketplace was offered a choice with the New Ethernet, the one that used active switches, twisted-pair and fiber optic cable, and multiple speeds. It centralized access to the network inside network switches instead of in end-user nodes. It offered VLAN overlays. The New Ethernet killed the Old Ethernet, completely and utterly.

Along comes WiFi, offering still more intelligent network services than even the New Ethernet. It does things that make the Internet shudder, such as mobility, and uses obscure features of the IP suite to prioritize traffic.

Does WiFi nurture innovation? Clearly it does, as it makes the entire realm of mobility-enabled applications possible and does cool things for voice and video.

So a careful look at the historical record says, no, dumb networks don’t promote innovation, they circumscribe it to the class of applications they can support. Like anything else in engineering, we should place network controls where they can do the most good, not where they can do the least harm.

Religion is not a good guide to engineering, folks, logic and evidence work much better.