Neutral Net? Who Are You Kidding?

Wired has a half-good article on Internet regulation today, Neutral Net? Who Are You Kidding?

“Net neutrality” has many meanings, but in the broadest sense refers to a cooperative principle whereby everyone on the net is supposed to make the same effort to help deliver everyone else’s traffic. In fact, pushing bits through the network-of-networks that makes up the internet is an anarchic business and frequently an ugly one. ISPs must often fight to get their data carried on neighboring networks, and those who are willing to pay extra reap immediate benefits in the form of faster and better service. Vast amounts of traffic are rerouted and blocked every day. The system, while successful overall, seems to ride on the very edge of chaos, insiders say.

They ultimately get around to discussing the priority thing, but they more or less mangle it, so here we go again:

A truly neutral network provides each application with the type of service it requires, which is low latency for voice, low jitter for video, and high throughput for the downloads/file transfers/web browsing. The Internet can only accomplish this by assigning priorities to these different traffic types. These priority assignments don’t have the effect of making some web sites faster than others, as all web traffic has the same priority.

This does not have anything to do with blocking or degrading specific web sites, really it don’t, and it’s quite consistent with the meaning of “net neutrality” orginally used by Prof. Tim Wu in the paper cited below.

Priority traffic is not the end of the world, in fact it’s a step toward a more application-neutral Intenet.

Saving the Internet from Web tedium

What’s really going on with “net neutrality” regulations is that the Big Content companies are afraid the Internet will become more a medium of communication than a means of delivering canned content, and that will eat away at their profits. So they’ve concocted this whole FUD campaign that dishonestly makes Quality of Service enhancements for communications applications a threat to web access.

The Internet is more than the Web, and beefing up the communications side makes the content less compelling. Instead of whining about the Telcos, Big Content should try to be more interesting.

John Carroll is not a moron

He’s pretty clear on why “net neutrality” as imagined by leftwing blogs and pandering politicians is big, steaming load of crap:

That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Broadband providers, most notably AT&T, aren’t suggesting that they will “control what we access over the Internet.” Rather, they are saying that some content may be given “fast track” access into the home, access to which is contingent on a fee paid either by the provider of content or the consumer.

To consider why this might be useful, imagine 5-10 years down the road when the average size of the datapipe into the home is in the 25-50 megabit range (placing us still behind the South Koreans, but oh well). VoIP service might start to get enhanced by video that is not just the simple 320 by 240 image we are used to in the IM world, but in the Standard Definition, or even the High Definition range.

Given the time criticality of such data, not to mention the fact that such usage will vastly outweigh, from a network load standpoint, the simple text and image traffic that constitutes a large percentage of the current Internet, a fast track might not be just useful, but fair to boot. We charge ten ton trucks more for access to a toll road than standard-sized automobiles because of the extra wear and tear they cause on these roads. Why shouldn’t we make “bandwidth hogs” pay more?

Net neutrality = shifting communications costs from content retailers to consumers. Brilliant.

Adam Cohen drinks the Kool Aid

The New York Times isn’t what it used to be. Rocked by scandal over the made-up reporting of Jayson Blair, torn apart by the dramatic ouster of Howell Raines, and shaken-up by Judith Miller’s megaphoning the Bush Administration’s fantasies about Iraq’s nuclear program, it increasingly relies on sensationalized, drama-queen reporting and opinion to hold on to a piece of market share. The most recent example of the Times’ descent into rank hysteria is a column today by Adam Cohen on the pending destruction of the World Wide Web:

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who invented the Web in 1989, envisioned a platform on which everyone in the world could communicate on an equal basis. But his vision is being threatened by telecommunications and cable companies, and other Internet service providers, that want to impose a new system of fees that could create a hierarchy of Web sites. Major corporate sites would be able to pay the new fees, while little-guy sites could be shut out.

This is bullshit, as anyone who’s read this blog before surely knows. There is no plan on anybodies part to create a “hierarchy of web sites,” there is simply a plan to make the Internet — not the Web — better able to meet the needs of real-time applications such as telephony and live streaming of TV programs. This plan actually makes the Internet more “neutral” than it was at the time of its creation as an e-mail carrier for the nation’s weapons researchers, and it does nothing at all to web sites other than potentially make more bandwidth available to them under the existing structure for pricing and selling Internet hook-ups.

Cohen is a member of the Times’ editorial board, and that fact should tell you a lot about that paper’s slide into mediocrity.

Tiered peering and business models

This post by Dave Siegel on tiered peering addresses some the most high-anguish issues in a truly application-neutral Internet:

The issue of peering is this. If ATT demands that content providers pay them in order to put them into the premium class (similar to how our IP-VPN customers pay us to put traffic in the premium queue, but on a whole different level, then that content provider has to connect directly to the ATT core (i.e. become a directly customer of theirs). Unless QoS/CoS is enabled across the existing peering connection that exists between ATT and Global Crossing, and then a content provider could connect to Global Crossing and we could transport the packets between the content provider and ATT at a premium level and give them to ATT at a premium level.

The kicker is that today peering amongst the top providers (known as the Tier 1, not to be confused with the other use of tier in this post) is settlement free. So here is where the business issue enters the equation. If the Best Effort Internet traffic remains settlement free, what is the charge for the premium traffic, and how will it be billed? By the bit? In both directions? Do we bill ATT for the premium traffic that we receive from them and vice-versa? But what about VoIP where the traffic is roughly equal bi-directionally? How does that help ATT if the billing is a wash? Believe it or not, these are the same discussions that have raged in the Internet peering debate since the Internet went fully commercial in 1995. Ultimately, we all decided that peering should remain settlement free, although some providers do requirement settlements if the ratio of in to out traffic is too high because of the unfavorable economics.

What if ATT billed the content provider directly and Global Crossing was just a pass-through, with a contract with ATT to ensure that we didn’t give them any premium traffic that wasn’t being billed. Then there are the billing mechanics to content with…ATT has to know which content provider to bill for what amount of traffic, since they will probably get multiple content providers sending them premium traffic over the same link.

There is also the technical issue of insuring that the content provider that pays for the priority ride on ATT’s network gets it in both directions. In order for that to happen, ATT has to identify the content originating at each broadband connection and identify it as premium traffic. This is not so easy in current edge equipment…it is not only processor intensive but it requires a lot of administrative overhead. The lists of IP addresses that identify content providers and their applications will need to be updated across all customer connections every time a provider connects or disconnects from this premium service.

Okay, for now let’s assume that we can get that all sorted out so that ATT can collect additional revenue, either by billing us and Global Crossing passing that cost on to the content provider, or by collecting it directly from the content provider.

How does the content provider who is either still trying to turn a profit or turning a profit (but not an unreasonable one) going to pay this added business expense. They probably can’t absorb it in their current business model, and even if they can to maintain margins they will have to raise prices. Since most content revenues are derived from advertising (see Andrew Odlyzko’s paper Content is Not King, they will have to raise their ad rates. I’m not sure if advertising will pay more, my understanding is that it’s a pretty competitive business as it is.

While other technologies like ye old Infranet iniative or IMS may have something to say about improving the billing mechanics around this, the business implications are still something to be concerned about.

If you don’t understand it, you probably aren’t entitled to an opinion on the various attempts at regulating Internet service levels we’re contending with these days.

H/T Lippard Blog

Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination

Columbia University law professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” in a paper he published in the Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law. The paper is an interesting read because it’s sharply opposed to the regulations adopted by the House Judiciary Committee this week, so I’d encourage anyone who wants to have a neutral Internet to go read it. Some of Wu’s more interesting observations follow.

Proponents of open access have generally overlooked the fact that, to the extent an open access rule inhibits vertical relationships, it can help maintain the Internet’s greatest deviation from network neutrality. That deviation is favoritism of data applications, as a class, over latency-sensitive applications involving voice or video. There is also reason to believe that open access alone can be an insufficient remedy for many of the likely instances of network discrimination…

I believe there are several reasons to question the fit between open-access remedies and network neutrality. First, the concept of network neutrality is not as simple as some IP partisans have suggested. Neutrality, as a concept, is finicky, and depends entirely on what set of subjects you choose to be neutral among. A policy that appears neutral in a certain time period, like “all men may vote”, may lose its neutrality in a later time period, when the range of subjects is enlarged.

This problem afflicts the network neutrality embodied in the IP protocols. As the universe of applications has grown, the original conception of IP neutrality has dated: for IP was only neutral among data applications. Internet networks tend to favor, as a class, applications insensitive to latency (delay) or jitter (signal distortion). Consider that it doesn’t matter whether an email arrives now or a few milliseconds later. But it certainly matters for applications that want to carry voice or video. In a universe of applications, that includes both latency-sensitive and insensitive applications, it is difficult to regard the IP suite as truly neutral as among all applications.

This point is closely linked to questions of structural separation. The technical reason IP favors data applications is that it lacks any universal mechanism to offer a quality of service (QoS) guarantee. It doesn’t insist that data arrive at any time or place. Instead, IP generally adopts a “best-effort” approach: it says, deliver the packets as fast as you can, which over a typical end-to-end connection may range from a basic 56K connection at the ends, to the precisely timed gigabits of bandwidth available on backbone SONET links. IP doesn’t care: it runs over everything. But as a consequence, it implicitly disfavors applications that do care.

Network design is an exercise in tradeoffs, and IP’s designers would point out that the approach of avoiding QoS had important advantages. Primarily, it helped IP be “downwardly” neutral as to the underlying physical media. But this requires us to be more circumspect in our discussions of network neutrality. IP’s neutrality is actually a tradeoff between upward (application) and downward (connection) neutrality. If it is upward, or application neutrality that consumers care about, principles of downward neutrality may be a necessary sacrifice.

This returns us to the question of structural separation. We have a public network that is indeed a great creative commons for data applications, but it is less so for any application that requires a minimum quality of service. True application neutrality may, in fact, sometimes require a close vertical relationship between a broadband operator and Internet service provider. The reason is that the operator is ultimately the gatekeeper of quality of service for a given user, because only the broadband operator is in a position to offer service guarantees that extend to the end-user’s computer (or network). Delivering the full possible range of applications either requires an impracticable upgrade of the entire network, or some tolerance of close vertical relationships.

This point indicts a strict open-access requirement. To the extent open access regulation prevents broadband operators from architectural cooperation with ISPs for the purpose of providing QoS dependent applications, it could hurt the cause of network neutrality. By threatening the vertical relationship required for certain application types, it could maintain IP’s discrimination in favor of data applications. More broadly, this argument shows that the concept of network neutrality cannot be taken as counsel against all vertical integration.

So which side of the debate is Wu on? He argued before Congress that the Telcos are acting like gangsters, and Congress addressed his concerns by making the Internet less neutral than it is today.

Somehow this doesn’t seem right.

Zoe Lofgren is a moron

Zoe Lofgren spins tall tails about the Judiciary Committee’s bid for power, making the grandiose claim that it saves the Internet:

The bill requires broadband providers to operate their networks in a non-discriminatory manner and makes sure that the phone and cable companies cannot favor or block access to the Web sites or online services that they pick instead of the consumer. It will keep the Internet an open and free marketplace of ideas and services chosen by consumers instead of big corporations. It will also guard against those who own “the pipes” gleaning profits by creating a virtual toll road.

What it really does is apparent from the bill’s actual text:

If a broadband network provider prioritizes or offers enhanced quality of service to data of a particular type, it must prioritize or offer enhanced quality of service to all data of that type (regardless of the origin or ownership of such data) without imposing a surcharge or other consideration for such prioritization or enhanced quality of service.

It bans performance levels and pricing flexibility, making the Internet a truly one-size-fits-all network, except for one big thing: companies like Google who have private feeder networks attached to the public Internet will still be able to buy faster connections and control the flow of information on the public Internet. So in the name of creating a “level-playing field” (quoting another moron, Craig Newmark) it actually creates a status quo where the guy with the fattest pipe controls the network, and nobody can do a damn thing about it. Unintended consequences, anybody? Not inintended for Google, those freedom-hating bastards know exactly where they’re going.

Lofgren was last seen in these parts pushing the silly V-chip, the device that’s supposed to raise your children for you by blocking undesirable TV shows. Her grasp on reality hasn’t improved any, nor has her consistency.

What happens to an ISP that wants to sell an Internet V-chip to heroic single mothers working three jobs to make ends meet and unable to monitor their daughters’ access to pedophile-friendly web sites and chat rooms? Why, they would go to jail, of course, because they would have to filter and block certain web sites.

Back to the ole drawing board, Zoe.

Google wins a battle

Droolin’ Jim Sensenbrenner got his fascist bill through his committee today:

By a 20-13 vote Thursday that partially followed party lines, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would require broadband providers to abide by strict Net neutrality principles, meaning that their networks must be operated in a “nondiscriminatory” manner.

Impeach the bastard.

Seriously, this was a foregone conclusion once he agreed to sponsor the bill. Any committee chair can pass any bill through his committee he wants, even one as stupid as this one:

If a broadband network provider prioritizes or offers enhanced quality of service to data of a particular type, it must prioritize or offer enhanced quality of service to all data of that type (regardless of the origin or ownership of such data) without imposing a surcharge or other consideration for such prioritization or enhanced quality of service.

The reason he wanted to do it is to take jurisdiction over the Internet away from Energy and Commerce so he and his friends can soak the telcos and Google for campaign contributions:

Because the FCC is overseen by Barton’s committee, that proposal would effectively cut off Judiciary Committee members from being able to hold hearings on Net neutrality antitrust violations, give speeches about corporate malfeasance and solicit campaign cash from affected companies–the lifeblood of modern Washington politics.

The test will occur on the floor of the House, where the committee jurisdictional issue will be settled. The leadership doesn’t support Sensenbrenner’s bid for power, so it will be an interesting fight.

And in any case, the Senate would have to concur for this bill to become law, and that’s not a foregone conclusion by any means. But that being said, this action was a victory for the forces of regulation, and anybody who cares about a free and unfettered Internet should be worried.

Google’s not your friend, and neutrality’s not neutral.

Scruffy Hippies at the Ball Park

The scruffy hippies doing Google’s dirty work failed miserably:

About a dozen protesters convened outside AT&T Park (formerly SBC Park) in San Francisco before a Giants baseball game. They held up signs telling AT&T to “stop wiretapping Giants fans” and exhorted baseball fans to switch to the left-leaning Working Assets long-distance provider.

The fans seemed, for the most part, amused or uninterested. But the protesters did succeed in chasing off AT&T representatives who set up a publicity table outside the stadium and quickly decamped after being surrounded by megaphone-wielding activists.

UPDATE: Sensenbrenner’s bill cames up for a committee vote Thursday. It passed.