Despite the fact that I’ve been trying to explain why companies like Time Warner need to impose broadband usage caps on their systems before going to the capital markets for assistance in beefing up their innards, I’m not a fan of usage caps generally. They’re a very crude tool for imposing an equitable distribution of bandwidth, and one that ensures that the actual infrastructure in any given network will not be used efficiently. The key to network efficiency for a truly multi-service network like the Internet of the future is successful discrimination of application needs and traffic types. If the network can be made smart enough to follow orders, users can control their network usage according to their personal economics with no big surprises in the billing cycle. Network operators don’t need to manage traffic streams all the time, they need to manage them during periods of peak load (which better not be all that often.) And their best guidance in doing this comes from users and applications.
Many cities around the world manage access to the city core with something called congestion pricing: if you want to drive into the very heart of Singapore or London during peak hours, you have a pay a fee, which keeps traffic from gridlocking while permitting access by those who really need it. The Internet should work the same way: if you need low-latency service during peak load hours for Skype, you should be able to get it. And if you want to play P2P at the same time, you should be able to do so, but with higher latency (or at least higher jitter.) Accounts can be provisioned to allow a certain amount of congestion traffic for a flat rate, with additional portions available for an added fee. Users who demand a lot of transit from their networks should be able to get it, but at a reduced rate relative to average loads or for an additional fee.
The point is that networks are never going to be so fat that they can’t be overloaded, and local congestion is always going to occur. So the trick in managing networks is to allocate resources fairly and transparently, and let users control their use of whatever quota they have (not manually, but through home router and application signaling to the network.)
The least congested residential broadband service in the US today is Verizon FiOS. Verizon sells access at up to 50 MB/s, and has the capacity to increase this as consumers demand more.They can do this because they’ve invested money in a total infrastructure that consists of neighborhood loops, second hop infrastructure, and core network links. Their current system can carry 100 Mb/s per user without any contention short of the core, which is rather awesome. This is why you never hear anything about caps or quotas for FiOS: the system can’t be overloaded short of the core.
Despite that, Verizon’s visionaries realize that network management is going to be a part of the Internet of the future:
In part because most of the attention in the early days of the Internet was on connectivity and ensuring networks and devices could interconnect and communicate successfully, security and quality of service techniques were not a focus of the discussions around network protocols and functionality. Such features have instead often been offered â€œover the topâ€, usually as attributes in applications or as functionalities in web sites or distributed services.
The complexity and volume of Internet traffic today â€“ and the fact that much more of it than ever before is â€œreal timeâ€ or time sensitive â€“ means that the Internetâ€™s traditional routing and processing schemes are challenged more than ever. It is no longer realistic to expect that all of the heavy lifting to make applications and services work well on the Internet in todayâ€™s â€œtwo-way, heavy content, complex applicationsâ€ world can be done through the old models. More work needs to be done at all levels to ensure better quality and improved services. This includes the network level as well.
This need not threaten the basic foundation of the Internet â€“ its ability to provide consumers with access to any content they wish to use and connect any device they want to a broadband network. Competition, broad commitment to openness by industry and advocates, and oversight by regulators helps ensure this foundation remains. But it does mean that enhanced network based features and functionalities should not be automatically viewed with concern. Such features can be an important aspect of the Internetâ€™s improvement and future evolution.
Indeed we shouldn’t fear rational and transparent management; it’s part of what has always made these systems work as well as they have for us.