Who Manages the First Mile?

A discussion at CES concerning the load that pirated movies place on carrier networks has generated a bit of controversy, beginning at the NY Times:

For the last 15 years, Internet service providers have acted – to use an old cliche – as wide-open information super-highways, letting data flow uninterrupted and unimpeded between users and the Internet.

But I.S.P.’s may be about to embrace a new metaphor: traffic cop.

At a small panel discussion about digital piracy at NBC’s booth on the Consumer Electronics Show floor, representatives from NBC, Microsoft, several digital filtering companies and the telecom giant AT&T said discussed whether the time was right to start filtering for copyrighted content at the network level.

Of course, most of us do know that the Internet and its related privately-owned carrier networks has never really been as wild and free as our network-romantic set would have us believe, but yes, carriers are dealing with extraordinary loads in the upstream direction today, and as most of the “content” is illegal, there is a convergence of interests between carriers and copyright holders.

As far as I gather, this was a hypothetical discussion, but that doesn’t stop the prophets of doom from printing currency against it. The most interesting discussion turned up in the comments at David Weinberger’s blog, in a conversation between Seth Finkelstein, David Isenberg, and Harold Feld. The conclusion that the Davids and Harold reached is that end users should administer the Layer Two network:

So rather than turn traffic shaping and QoS over to the carriers, or to third parties whose choices will distort the market away from true user preferences, why not turn QoS decisions over to the users themselves?

We have already seen the most primitive forms of this idea in the development of edge-based QoS solutions and metered pricing. Things like caching technology (move the content closer), distributed computing (distribute the work among many more computers), and virtual private networks (control of security and privacy by the communicating machines at the edges) are all ways in which end users of various kinds achieve the quality of service they want. Certainly these are not perfect solutions, and network operators can replicate them. But, rather like the magicians of Pharoh replicating the trick of Moses and Aaron of turning a staff into a snake, the fact that network operators can replicate these technologies is not the point. The point is that these primitive first steps at end-user managed QoS rather than network provided QoS are a sign that the folks on the edge do not need to remain in bondage to the telcos and cable cos in order to enjoy QoS. Let end users go and they will provide for themselves.

I don’t see that as practical, but there is a way to deal with this that’s not completely retarded. More on that later.

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