Public Knowledge’s new star off the rails

Public Knowledge and Free Press have apparently hired file-sharing enthusiast Robb Topolski in some lofty-sounding role, and he feels compelled to expound on network theory that’s way over his head. I’m trying to correct some of his misunderstandings, but it’s not going well. Here’s what I told him at his new employer’s blog:

It’s unfortunate that you feel the need to adopt the nasty tone that’s characteristic of others at PK, Robb. These issues of network management and Innovative New Applications are often difficult, and there’s no need to attack people for giving technical solutions that can’t be packaged as easily-digestible sound bites. Just because you’re on the PK payroll doesn’t mean you have to lose your pleasant, aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-barbershop-singer demeanor. You could teach Art and Gigi quite a bit about public image. This would be especially useful for them the next time they want to complain about text message blocking on the Internet, for example. Or about something that actually exists. But I digress.

George Ou, like you, doesn’t have a deep background in protocol design or network architecture. But he does have a great deal of hands-on, practical experience and the ability to learn new concepts very quickly. I rate him very highly in native intelligence and diligence, and find no fault with him asking people with more experience to explain things to him. That’s what smart people do.

The problem the ISPs are dealing with today was caused by the acceptance and popularity of an Innovative New Application, peer-to-peer file sharing. It creates a different mix of traffic than previous applications, and managing this traffic on top of the existing traffic created by more traditional apps, such as VoIP and the Web, has given rise to a number of experimental approaches.

The IETF recognizes that the Internet toolkit is inadequate for managing this Innovative New Application, and has created a study group to explore a standard approach. So it’s a fallacy to assert that existing, standard mechanisms are sufficient. The IETF doesn’t see it that way, and they’re the ones who should know.

While we wait for the IETF to develop its standard solution, we’re in a gray area where the ISPs aren’t precisely sure what they can and can’t do, and what will and won’t work, and what’s cost-effective and what isn’t. Consumers who don’t use Innovative New Applications don’t necessarily want to be stuck with the bill for network upgrades they don’t need, and who can blame them? Granny Sue and Uncle Earl never signed up to pay for you to publish the movies you share with the World Wide Internet, and we have to respect their rights.

I personally believe we’re going to solve the P2P traffic problem (much more upload than we’ve ever seen before, by a factor of thousands) through the IETF’s efforts. But in the meantime, it’s reasonable for an ISP to solve the problem by employing a two-stage system:

1. Allocate bandwidth equally across user accounts, according to instantaneous load; and then:
2. Prioritize traffic within each account by native requirements, using DPI or any other classification scheme that’s efficient.

Now that’s just my personal theory, and it’s not necessarily the best way for every ISP to approach the problem, but I offer it here as an example of a provisional system that can be put in place while we’re waiting for the good folks at the IETF to recommend a standard solution.

The scenario reminds me of the transition from WEP to AES in wireless LANs. It took the IEEE 802.11 a long time to figure out the ins and outs of AES encryption, the Wi-Fi Alliance jumped into the breach and gave us the provisional TKIP solution. We used that as WPA until AES was standardized, and then we moved to WPA2.

These things happen, and it would be unfortunate for the FCC to jump up and down and get its face all red because the Innovative New Application went on-line before the Innovative New Application’s Management Solution.

So be patient, and don’t advise the regulator to do anything stupid, as they’re likely to take you up on it, and then your barbershop singing will suffer.

And nobody wants that.

His response is simply more vitriol. This is all very sad.

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