First Draft FCC Piece

This is the full, uncut copy I submitted to the Mercury News. The published piece (In neutrality debate, carriers get blamed for Net’s weaknesses) has moved to the Merc’s archives, where you have to pay to retrieve it.

The Circus is Coming

The circus is coming to Palo Alto. The FCC’s network neutrality circus that is, the dramatic battle between two conflicting views of the Internet. In this tussle, the lovely but fanciful notion of a semi-divine and nearly perfect engine of democracy and community sets itself against the reality that today’s Internet is a warty gadget that lives on the edge of collapse in the best of times.

The FCC is investigating a group of complaints from the consumer protection lobby and a local startup, Vuze, Inc., against Silicon Valley’s cable company, Comcast. The complaints allege seven different kinds of villainy and seek enormous fines. The Commission has already held one public hearing, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, and holds the follow-up at Berkman Center alumnus Larry Lessig’s Stanford Center for Internet and Society.

Little good came from the Berkman hearing. Both panels were dominated by legal scholars, academics, and business interests dead set on securing free rides. Vuze was given its own time and the special privilege of a multi-media presentation, while ordinary witnesses encountered resistance from the Commission in simply showing Power Point slides, let alone short video clips (such as the Web Hog commercial from 2000, that I wanted to show.)

Chairman Martin made no secret of his sympathies. He badgered Comcast’s solitary witness after fairly swooning over Vuze and failed to display the slightest insight into the management challenges faced by broadband carriers. The Internet was designed for the polite society of network engineering professors and their graduate students, not our rough-and-tumble world of viruses, e-mail scams, and copyright theft, and it shows. Peer-to-peer applications, such as the open source version of BitTorrent used by Vuze, are designed to consume a disproportionate share of network bandwidth, and carriers have to limit this appetite to provide good service to mainstream users. Japan has learned that adding more capacity to the network doesn’t alleviate this problem: peer-to-peer consumes the largest share of the pipe, no matter how big it is.

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The poor commissioners

The FCC commissioners are going to sit through seven hours of non-stop testimony tomorrow, a severe test of bladder and patience. Here’s the last-minute witness list:

12:45 p.m. Panel Discussion 1 – Network Management and Consumer Expectations

Introduction: Lawrence Lessig, C. Wendell and Edith M. Carlsmith Professor of Law, Stanford Law School

* Rick Carnes, President, Songwriters Guild of America
* Michele Combs, Christian Coalition of America
* George Ou, Independent Consultant and Former Network Engineer
* Jon Peha, Associate Director of the Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking; Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University
* Jean Prewitt, President and Chief Executive Officer, Independent Film & Television Alliance
* James P. Steyer, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Common Sense Media
* Robb Topolski, Software Quality Engineer

2:15 p.m. Break

3:00 p.m. Panel Discussion 2 – Consumer Access to Emerging Internet Technologies and Applications

Introduction: Barbara van Schewick, Assistant Professor of Law, Stanford Law School

* Jason Devitt, Chief Executive Officer, SkyDeck
* Harold Feld, Senior Vice President, Media Access Project
* George S. Ford, Chief Economist Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies
* Brett Glass, Chief Executive Officer,
* Blake Krikorian, Chief Executive Officer, Sling Media
* Jon Peterson, Co-Director, Real-Time Applications and Infrastructure (RAI), Internet Engineering Task Force
* Gregory L. Rosston, Deputy Director, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research
* Ben Scott, Policy Director, Free Press

The ratio is two rational people to four lunatics and one moderate on each panel, which is about what you’d expect. It’s progress over the last hearing, however, where the there was only one rational person and one moderately rational person on each panel.

The people who will have me throwing bricks are Michele Combs and Robb Topolski on the first panel, and Jason Devitt and Ben Scott on the second one. Combs won’t talk about the current issue, as she’s unaware that the debate has moved on since she signed up for net neutrality two years ago. We’re actually talking about managing bandwidth hogs today, a subtly different notion. Topolski, the unemployed software tester, will spend most of his time talking about himself, and probably pull some numbers out of the air, and Scott will be generally annoying.

The lineup is less overtly biased than the last one, but the Stanford venue and the introductions by the highly partisan Lessig and van Schewick will set the tone.

Network neutrality is a nostalgia trap, the longing for a return to an Internet that never was. The question is how long this circus can continue before the players are unmasked.

BBC Breaks the Internet

Here’s a sign of the impending Exaflood, from the UK where the BBC’s iPlayer is breaking the Internet’s congestion controls:

The success of the BBC’s iPlayer is putting the internet under severe strain and threatening to bring the network to a halt, internet service providers claimed yesterday.

They want the corporation to share the cost of upgrading the network — estimated at £831 million — to cope with the increased workload. Viewers are now watching more than one million BBC programmes online each week.

The BBC said yesterday that its iPlayer service, an archive of programmes shown over the previous seven days, was accounting for between 3 and 5 per cent of all internet traffic in Britain, with the first episode of The Apprentice watched more than 100,000 times via a computer.

iPlayer is P2P, which is why the traffic it generates doesn’t bother BBC. And of course it has an impact on all the regional and core links in the UK, which are not provisioned with tonnes of idle capacity just in case a New Big Thing comes along that nobody anticipated. The impact of BBC’s P2P is comparable to half of America’s major networks offering P2P at the same time for all recent programming, for free. It’s considerable. But more is on the way, as it’s not unreasonable to imagine the day coming when IPTV is the primary delivery vehicle for video. How much capacity will that take?

Let’s do some rough math on the bandwidth needed to redirect 60 hours of TV viewing a week to the Internet: for SDTV, 2.5 Mb/s * 60 hours is 67.5 GB/week or 270 Gigabytes per month. For HDTV, we can multiply that by 4, to roughly a Terabyte per month. Consumers today probably use what, a Gigabyte per month?

To put it another way, let’s say America’s broadband customers all watched TV over their Internet connections at the same time, with a split of 50-50 between SD and HD. The typical cable modem installation would be able to support 5 users instead of the 150 that’s common today, so a 30 time node split. With DOCSIS 3.0, it could go to 20, so approximately an 8 time node split would be needed.

Verizon FiOS would be OK with 20 Mb/s per house at the first hop and second hops, but would need fatter pipes upstream and at the Tier 1 interface. They own the Tier 1 network, so they could expand that interface economically, while cable would have to pay Level 3 and their other suppliers.

How much capacity increase will we need in the core? It depends on caching. Without caching, we’re probably looking at a 1000 times increase, and with caching probably no more than 100 times, and probably much less. As disks continue to decline in price relative to wholesale BB connections, this is where the market action will be.

So we’re looking at a major sales opportunity for CMTS and cache companies, and P2P for the TV networks because they clearly don’t want to pay for their end of the pipes.

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Google falling

The inability to retain key employees is the first clear sign of company in decline, so this news has to be disturbing to Google shareholders:

Facebook hires away Google’s top chef

Is it “poaching” when a company steals a rival’s chef? At Google, executive chef Josef Desimone scrambled cruelty-free eggs by the truckload. Now Facebook has hired him to replace steam-heated trays of takeout with the kind of free food Googlers are used to. For engineers, Facebook is the new dreamland, and a company cafeteria is the kind of perk they’ve come to expect.

The end is near for the search monopoly.

The MAP Strikes Back

I called out Harold Feld of MAP, one of the FCC petitioners that started the FCC’s broadband circus, for his failure to respond to the BitTorrent/Comcast deal in my latest article in The Register, and he’s pretty upset about it:

There must be something in the air that has turned Comcast from a fighter to a lover. Apparently, Comcast and BitTorrent have kissed and made up, Brian Roberts has stood barefoot in the snow beneath Kevin Martin’s window at Canossa, and all is now supposed to be well in the world. Nothing to see here, move along, these aren’t the droids we’re looking for, and once again the magic of the market solves everything.

I would have written earlier, but I was having a flashback to when AOL Time Warner committed to creating an interoperable instant messenger. Then I was flashing on when AT&T Broadband and Earthlink “solved” the original open access problem by negotiating a contract and thus proving that “the market” would guarantee that independent ISPs would be able to resell cable modem service just like they were reselling DSL. Then I woke up vomiting. I always have a bad reaction to whatever folks smoke to conclude “the free market solves everything” especially when (a) this was the result of a regulatory two-by-four applied directly to Comcast’s scalp, repeatedly; and (b) nothing actually happened except for a real and sincere comitment to yack about stuff — at least until the regulators go away. Still, like Lucy and Charlie Brown, there are some folks for whom this just never gets old.

So while I’m glad to see Comcast forced to play the penitent, confess wrongdoing, and appear to give a full surrender, and while I generally like the idea of industry folks and ISPs getting together to actually do positive stuff on internet architecture issues, I think wild celebrations from the anti-regulators and the expectation that we can declare “Mission Accomplished” and go home is a shade premature. Indeed, the only people who believe this announcement actually solves anything are — by and large — those who didn’t believe there was a problem in the first place. I believe the technical term for such folks is “useful idiots.”

Harold has clearly been drinking the Vuze Kool-Aid, probably from the same cup as FCC chairman Kevin Martin. Chairman Martin may not mind Vuze exploiting the FCC petition process to score free public relations points, but I think it’s an abuse. Here’s my response, cross-posted from Harold’s comment section:

Given that you’ve disavowed any connection between your blog and Media Access Project, it’s interesting that this particular petitioner is still officially silent on the Comcast/BitTorrent deal. Was it just too stunning for MAP comment? I put the question here because I figure their Senior VP would have some insight.

But anyhow and to what you do say, there’s one big point that jumps out from the way you use the term “degrade” when talking about Internet access and the Internet in general. You don’t seem to appreciate that the Internet is a series of shared communication channels that rely on statistical multiplexing. In a system of this type (which is very different from the telecom networks the FCC is used to regulating) every packet “degrades” every other packet.

We don’t have dedicated end-to-end paths through the network so we all share with each other. So in the first analysis we all degrade each other, and the ISPs and NSPs are stuck with the chore of deciding whose traffic goes through immediately, whose waits at any given millisecond, and whose is discarded. And Internet switches drop lots and lots of packets as a part of routine operation. This may upset you (as it apparently upsets Kevin Martin) but it is the way the system was designed. We all hammer the switches as hard as we can and they take what they can and drop the rest. Sorry, the Internet is not a telephone.

So there’s no such thing as an ISP that doesn’t “degrade” traffic in the ways that you and Kevin Martin allege is a unique property of Comcast’s current management system.

And while I like the method Comcast CTO Tony Werner described to me as in development better than the one that’s currently in production, I don’t consider either to be an illegitimate approach to traffic management within the real-world constraints of businesses that have to return profit to their shareholders. The Sandvine system has the unfortunate side-effect of making original seeds slow to take root, but I don’t think that’s an intentional bug.

I also don’t buy the fiction that Vuze is a true competitor to Comcast and Verizon, and therefore don’t see an anti-competitive motive behind Comcast’s actions intended to affect Vuze. Given that Vuze has a business that relies on other people’s software (open source BitTorrent) moving other people’s content (Hollywood movies and TV) other still other people’s bandwidth (customers of Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, et. al.) their problems are much larger than one method of traffic management versus another.Given that Vuze purchases just enough bandwidth to start original seeds, they actually aren’t affected by Comcast’s treatment of robo-seeders in any significant way.

Apparently you have a long-standing beef with the Comcast TV service specifically and mistrust of capitalism generally. That’s fine, but it’s not immediately relevant to the question of what does and doesn’t make rational traffic management on the Internet and its access network. And frankly, it’s the invocation of animus of that tangential sort that makes me question whether you actually have a framework for deciding questions of this sort.

Comcast has correctly pointed out that the some commissioners have vowed to do rule-making on the fly, which won’t stand up to legal scrutiny because it grossly exceeds the Commission’s authority and bypasses formal rule-making. If such an action is taken, it will be struck down by the court to the embarrassment of the commissioners’ eventual private sector employers.

And finally, Om Malik is mistaken about the relative market shares of BitTorrent, Inc. and Vuze. BT owns uTorrent, the most populat BT client, while Vuze simply distributes a client based on the open source Python-language client that BitTorrent founder Bram Cohen wrote a long time ago.

Vuze filed their FCC complaint as a publicity stunt. And while it’s understandable that an under-funded startup would resort to this means of free publicity, only the truly credulous believe they have the standing they assert; it’s more like a case of delusions of grandeur.

Harold tries a little misdirection, but quickly gives up. We can have a technical solution to the P2P traffic glut, or we can have a government mandate, take your pick.