Re-reading my Berkman Center slanderer David Isenberg’s seminal paper The Rise of the Stupid Network, I was struck by the contradictory nature of the two paragraphs at the heart of the polemic.
First, he says his “Stupid Network” is aware of the types of messages presented to it, and handles each with appropriate service:
[In] the Stupid Network, because the data is the boss, it can tell the network, in real time, what kind of service it needs. And the Stupid Network would have a small repertoire of idiot-savant behaviors to treat different data types appropriately. If the data identified itself as financial data, the Stupid Network would deliver it accurately, no matter how many milliseconds of delay the error checking would take. If the data were two-way voice or video, the Stupid Network would provide low delay, even at the price of an occasional flipped bit. If the data were entertainment audio or video, the Stupid Network would provide wider bandwidth, but would not necessarily give low delay or absolute accuracy. And if there were a need for unique transmission characteristics, the data would tell the Stupid Network in more detail how to treat it, and the Stupid Network would do what it was told.
Yet this is the very behavior that Net Neutrality laws would ban carriers from embedding in their fee agreements, and moreover it contradicts the very next paragraph:
You would not have to ask your Stupid Network provider for any special network modifications – its only function would be to, “Deliver the Bits, Stupid.”
Network neutrality advocates say true neutrality is simply delivering the bits, first-come, first-served. But delivering the bits in ways that are sensitive to application needs is blasphemy, monopolistic, price-gouging and extortion. See Susan Crawford for an example of the “bits is bits” point of view:
There are lots of people out there saying “we need to treat all VoIP alike, all video alike, and all blogs alike.” For them, that’s network neutrality. That’s not what I hope we’ll end up meaning by net neutrality. That would require a heavy-handed regulator enforcing a provider’s determination of what packets are “like” other packets. I am not in favor of that approach. I have a different vision. I hope, someday, we’ll treat broadband access like the utility it is. That would mean separating transport from other activities, and separating access from backbone and backhaul transport. That doesn’t require a great deal of discretion to repose in any particular actor.
Yesterday’s debate at PDF seemed to be focused on the fuzzier definition of network neutrality (“treat all VoIP alike”). That definition plays directly into the arguments of the telcos. It would give the FCC an enormous amount of discretion and power.
(UPDATE) In a subsequent re-write of this article, Isenberg came over to the Crawford side and abandoned the special treatment idea:
Intelligent Network advocates point out that networks need to treat different data types differently. Right now, they’re absolutely correct. There is a network for telephony, another network for TV, and proprietary leased-line networks for financial transactions – and none of these are ideal for public Internet traffic. You need to have low delay for voice telephony, the ability to handle megabit data streams with ease for TV, and low error rates and strong security for financial transactions.
Quality of Service (QOS) is an intermediate step in the journey from separate networks to a single, simple Stupid Network…
But suppose technology improves so much that the worst QOS is perfectly fine for all kinds of traffic, without a repertoire of different data handling techniques. Suppose, for example, that everyday normal latency becomes low enough to support voice telephony, while at the same time allowing enough capacity for video, plus data integrity strong enough for financial transactions. This would be a true Stupid Network – one treatment for all kinds of traffic.
Why should anybody build a network to transport raw bits without packet inspection? None that Isenberg can see:
One thing about the Stupid Network is clear – the physical elements that comprise the network would be neither expensive nor scarce. There would be little profit margin in shipping dumb bits. There would be lots of high value Business Ideas supported by the Stupid Network, above and beyond transport.
As I read that, he’s justifying the Telco program to pay for the network by selling services. That’s a “high value Business Idea” instead of a low-profit transport business.
And indeed, Isenberg has come to recognize that nobody will build a high-speed, stupid network simply to carry bits, as there would be no money in it:
The best network is the hardest one to make money running.
So this realization ultimately leads to the real end-goal of network neutrality: broadband Internet access networks should not be built by private companies, they should be built by government and maintained as public utilities. The goal of network neutrality legislation, then, should be to discourage private investment in broadband networks, the quicker to energize local governments to jump into the networking business.
The end of Evslin’s talk was all about doing that in Santa Barbara, CA, where Doc Searls is on the case.