Comcast was right, FCC was wrong

A fellow named Paul Korzeniowski has written a very good, concise piece on the Comcast action at the FCC for Forbes, Feds And Internet Service Providers Don’t Mix. He manages to describe the controversy in clear and unemotional language, which contrasts sharply with the neutralists who constantly use emotionally-charged terms such as “blocking,” “Deep Packet Inspection,” “forgery,” and “monopoly” to describe their discomfort.

What Comcast actually did, and still does today, is simply limit the amount of free upstream bandwidth P2P servers can use to 50% of capacity. This isn’t “blocking” or “censorship,” it’s rational network management:

Cable giant Comcast is at the center of a very important controversy for small businesses. In the summer of 2007, it became clear that the carrier was putting restrictions on how much information selected customers could transmit. BitTorrent, a P2P application-sharing company, had been using lots of bandwidth, so the ISP throttled back some its transmissions.

“Throttled back some of its transmissions” is correct. Comcast doesn’t throttle back P2P downloads, which you can prove to yourself if you happen to have a Comcast account: download a large file using P2P and notice that it moves faster than it possibly can on any flavor of DSL. My recent tests with Linux have files downloading at 16 Mb/s, the advertised maximum for my account.

Korzeniowski then explains the facts of life:

The reality is that all ISPs are overbooked–they have sold more bandwidth than they can support.

This overbooking has been an issue since the old Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) days. In that situation, individuals would receive a busy signal when the network was overloaded. Because the Internet has an antithetical design, ISPs don’t have a busy signal option.

ISP’s actually do have a “busy signal option:” it’s the Reset packet that Comcast uses to limit active upstream sessions. But neutrality regulationists call it “forgery” and abhor it.

“Overbooking” bandwidth isn’t a bad thing, and in fact it’s central to the economics of packet-switching. The PSTN forces each caller into a bandwidth ghetto where he is allocated a small chunk of bandwidth, 4 KHz, regardless of how much he currently requires. If you’re on the phone and have to set it down to check on your chili, you have 4 KHz. If you’re blasting files over a modem connection, you have 4 KHz. It doesn’t matter how many other callers are on-line and what they’re doing: you each get 4 KHz. That’s the law.

But packet switching, of which the Internet is an example, allows your bandwidth allocation to float depending on what you need to do and what other people are doing. You share network facilities with your neighbors (and this is true whether you use DSL or cable, you just share at different points on these technologies), so you can get a larger chunk of bandwidth when they’re idle than when they’re banging the net hard.

Overbooking allows you to use very large amounts of bandwidth for short periods of time, which is ideal for web surfing: you click on a link, you get a ton of graphics sent to you computer. While you’re reading, your neighbors get to use the bandwidth that would be wasted if you had PSTN connections. It works for everybody, most of the time. It works so well, in fact, that ISPs haven’t bothered to meter actual bandwidth use: the resource is so abundant, and the demands so few (especially in the upstream direction, where your clicks move) that there’s never been a need to control or meter it.

Enter P2P, a method of moving large files across networks that relies on free upstream bandwidth. Now the abundant broadband upstream is constantly occupied, not by an interactive application that sends a click now and click 5 seconds from now and a click a minute from now, you’ve got applications running that constantly stream traffic up the wire, to the detriment of the others in the neighborhood. Something has to give.

One approach is to cap upstream traffic:

However, the “all you can eat” model may no longer be viable–a change the government seems to be ignoring. ISPs could use the open salad bar model when users were mainly transmitting small textual data. But with video becoming more common, users increasingly transmit very large high-definition files.

In response, Comcast plans to cap customer usage at 250 GB of data each month. That translates to about 50 million e-mails, 62,500 songs, 125 standard-definition movies, or 25,000 high-resolution digital photos. That amount would seem to meet the needs of most customers, including small and midsize businesses. The only folks affected would be companies such as BitTorrent, that have based their business on the “all you can eat” model, and hackers, who routinely spew out tons of unwanted solicitations and malware.

Capping has its critics, mostly the same people who object to traffic management as well:

For whatever reason, some believe ISPs should not be able to put any restrictions on the volume of information that any user transmits. That’s absurd. Per-bit and per-byte pricing models have long been used for data transmissions. In trying to build and sustain their businesses, carriers constantly balance their attractiveness and viability versus unlimited usage pricing models. By government decree, they no longer have that option. In effect, the FCC has decided to tell ISPs how to run their networks.

Capping frees up bandwidth for sharing by taking free bandwidth off the table for P2P. But it’s not a technically elegant approach. Humans respond to caps month-by-month, but networks experience congestion and overload millisecond-by-millisecond. So the sensible engineering approach is to manage traffic in pretty much the way that Comcast does it today: identify the bandwidth requirements of applications, and allocate bandwidth to those that need it the most, as we would with any scarce resource: grant transmission opportunities (that’s a technical term we use in network architecture) to highly interactive applications such as VoIP ahead of non-interactive applications such has HDTV file transfers. This is sound practice, but the FCC has now said it’s illegal. The FCC is anti-consumer.

Net neutrality supporters have pressured the FCC because they believe cable companies are unfairly monopolizing the Internet access marketplace. This conveniently ignores a couple of factors. First, there is no Internet access monopoly. A small or midsize business can get access from cable companies, telcos or wireless suppliers. True, there are not 50 choices, as you might have when buying a new pair of pants, but there is a reason why so few companies compete in the Internet access arena–it’s not a great business.

In fact, net neutrality advocates have turned a blind eye to the history of the dot-com bubble. Internet access start-ups burned through more cash with fewer positive results than any market sector in memory–and perhaps ever. Providing Internet access requires a lot of capital for the network and support infrastructure, and there’s not a lot of money to be made when customers pay about $20 a month for unlimited access.

The alternative to application-sensitive traffic management is a crude user-based system that treats all of each user’s traffic the same. This means, for example, that your VoIP streams get the same service from your ISP as your web clicks and your file transfers. This is insane.

Each Internet user should be able to multitask. We should be allowed to share files with P2P or any other non-standard protocol of our choice at the same time that we’re video-chatting or surfing the web. The heavy-handed FCC ruling that all packets must be treated the same undermines the economics of packet switching and delays the day when the Internet will make the PSTN and the cable TV systems obsolete.

Comcast was right to take the ruling to the courts to get it overturned. ISPs should be allowed to deploy a traffic system that combines elements of the protocol-aware system currently in use at Comcast with the new “protocol-agnostic” system that’s under test, such that each customer has a quota for each class of traffic. This is sound network engineering, but the current state of law makes it illegal.

This is not good.

Cross-posted to CircleID.

UPDATE: See Adam Thierer’s comments on this article at Tech Lib.

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Debate Verdict: McCain snatches defeat from the jaws of victory

I score the debate for McCain. The first part, on the financial crisis & bailout, was even, since neither candidate is truly in the loop. They’ve both tried to look they were involved, with McCain pulling the stunt about suspending his campaign to rescue the bill, but it didn’t work: the deal was still uncertain at debate time, so McCain had to break his promise to stop campaigning and work on the deal to make the debate. He didn’t have enough specifics to give straight answer on the bill, and neither did Obama. McCain was weak throughout the whole segment, and Obama should have decked him but didn’t.

The second part, on foreign affairs and national defense, went to McCain. Obama continues with the ill-advised strategy of trying to paint McCain as a Bush clone, and that’s just not going to work. Sure, it plays well with Democratic audiences, but Obama has to reach out to the indifferent voters who still see McCain as a maverick. As Debra Saunders puts it,

George W. Bush is not running for re-election. The gratuitous Bush-bashing has gotten old – and it makes Obama sound like a college student at a political rally. Maybe it works with the crowd, but most voters are looking for a leader for the next four to eight years. And it takes no leadership to kick someone with an approval rate higher only than that of Congress.

McCain was able to rattle off a long list of areas where he’s disagreed with Bush, and it’s persuasive. Obama scored points on being opposed to the Iraq War in the first place, but it’s academic at this point, and besides, most of America was where McCain was on that issue.

So at the end of the debate, McCain was the winner, and by a significant margin. The only saving grace for Obama is that a lot of voters probably tuned out before McCain gathered steam toward the end. But the McCain team soundly lost the post-debate debate. Joe Biden was all over the place giving interviews and sounding like an elder statesman, while Palin was in some undisclosed location getting a brain transplant. It was like a tag-team wrestling match on one side against a team of one on the other. Palin’s absence from the airwaves reinforces her lack of ability, and McCain’s pre-debate dramatics made him look less serious as well. So McCain did fine in the second half of the debate, but lost all the surrounding events.

One theory about McCain’s pre-debate dramatics holds that he was trying to buy time for Palin by delaying Thursday’s VP debate. The Couric interview suggests that’s a plausible ploy.

The VP selections are important, because there’s a greater than average chance that the winner of this election won’t live out his term. McCain is old and infirm, and Obama’s black. We have a nasty history of assassinations in this country, and Obama is bound to have his haters among the segment of the population that goes for that. That’s gruesome, but that’s the way I see it. I remember the Kennedy assassination and the attempts on Ford and Reagan all too well.

Another way to look at it: if we consider the candidates even in terms of temperament, preparation, and intelligence, then we have to turn to the VPs to be the tie-breaker. Biden vs. Palin’s not even close.

So how should Biden deal with Heidi Doody in their debate? Certainly, he can’t be snide or condescending, and he can’t be aggressive because she’s a girl. But it’s a real challenge for somebody who’s not an insult to the American system of politics to share a stage with someone who is. I’d suggest he take a page from Obama’s playbook on Bill O’Reilly and tune it for the occasion. Like Palin, O’Reilly’s completely insane, and while he’s probably not a dunce in real life, he certainly plays one on TV. Obama didn’t let O’Reilly ramble, politely interjecting his comments as soon as it was apparent he’d made some sort of point or asked some sort of statement.

Biden should let Palin talk, because she’s her own worst enemy. Let her talk, ramble, and tie herself up in knots, and then summarize her answers for the audience. When she trots out multiple talking points and connects them incorrectly, play it straight and say something like “Gov. Palin says the bailout is a job-creation umbrella program, I think, but I have to disagree. We don’t look to government to create jobs, that’s what free enterprise is for. The bailout is about preserving our financial system so that people *with jobs* won’t be thrown out of their homes. I’m all for job creation, but that’s not what the bailout is about.” He can also look quizzical and scratch his head when she makes some boneheaded remark, and there will be several. McCain tried to protect her by over-using the phrase “Obama’s naive and clueless,” but it won’t be necessary for Biden to say that in so many words, because the voters are going to see it with their own eyes.

But in any event, this is the high point of the McCain campaign. He’s just had his military debate, against a backdrop of high anxiety about the future of our economy. The next three debates are all downhill for him, as are current events, and at this rate the election could easily be a colossal blowout.

Google’s Telephony Patent Application not Novel

Google has apparently filed an application for a system that allows bandwidth provider to bid on phone calls:

Google’s patent is called “Flexible Communication Systems and Methods” and the abstract says:

“A method of initiating a telecommunication session for a communication device include submitting to one or more telecommunication carriers a proposal for a telecommunication session, receiving from at least one of the one or more of telecommunication carriers a bid to carry the telecommunications session, and automatically selecting one of the telecommunications carriers from the carriers submitting a bid, and initiating the telecommunication session through the selected telecommunication carrier.”

Read the full patent here

The thing I find interesting about this is that I invented a similar technique in 1997, motivated by the desire to get bandwidth-on-demand for video conferences. If this is granted, it certainly won’t survive a court challenge.

I’ll post some details on my invention, which was never patented, shortly.

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Time for Palin to Step Down

Kathleen Parker offers Sarah Palin some sage advice:

Palin didn’t make a mess cracking the glass ceiling. She simply glided through it.

It was fun while it lasted.

Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League.

No one hates saying that more than I do. Like so many women, I’ve been pulling for Palin, wishing her the best, hoping she will perform brilliantly. I’ve also noticed that I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful. Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted.

Palin filibusters. She repeats words, filling space with deadwood. Cut the verbiage and there’s not much content there. Here’s but one example of many from her interview with Hannity: “Well, there is a danger in allowing some obsessive partisanship to get into the issue that we’re talking about today. And that’s something that John McCain, too, his track record, proving that he can work both sides of the aisle, he can surpass the partisanship that must be surpassed to deal with an issue like this.”


Only Palin can save McCain, her party, and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons, perhaps because she wants to spend more time with her newborn. No one would criticize a mother who puts her family first.

Do it for your country.


Why I don’t like One Web Day

Today is OneWebDay, the annual exercise in promoting the World Wide Web and touting its many benefits. Each year the event has a theme, and this year’s is something to do with the American election, which is a fine, if somewhat parochial issue for a global event.

OWD is the brainchild of law professor Susan Crawford, one of the more passionate advocates of a stupid Internet (their expression) in which ISPs and Internet wholesalers have to treat all packets the same way. While Crawford is sincere, I think the exercise is misguided.

There is more to the Internet than the Web: the Internet is a general-purpose network that needs to carry real-time communications such as VoIP and Video Chat alongside Web traffic, P2P,and other kinds of large file transfer systems.

The call for a monolithic traffic handling and regulatory system comes from the misperception that all forms of traffic look and act like web traffic. This is clearly not the case, as we’ve argued until we’re blue in the face on this blog and in print.

One Web Day privileges web use over these other equally important uses of the Internet, and reinforces the myth that a dumb Internet is essential to the economy, politics, freedom, and the like. In fact, a functional network forms the basis of all human uses, for good and for ill.

Next year I’d like to see a “One Internet Day” that touts the projects that aim to improve the Internet. I’d make a sign and go to a rally for that. But “One Web Day” doesn’t do it for me.

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Secret laws are not law

While looking for the essence of Lessig’s “code is law” formulation, I happened on this little gem:

If there is one thing clear about the value we demand of East Coast Code, it is transparency. Secret laws are not law. And if there is one thing clear about the recent panic about privacy, it is that much of the anxiety was about the secrets hidden within closed code. Closed code hides its systems of control; open code can’t. Any encryption or identification system built into open code is transparent to those who can read the code, just as laws are transparent to those who can read Congress’ code – lawyers.

(“East Coast code” means laws and government regulations) Kinda makes you wonder why Lessig wasn’t critical of the rabbit-out-of-the-hat regulations the FCC imposed on Comcast.

Oh well.

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Comcast files their compliance plan

Today was the deadline for Comcast to tell the FCC how its existing congestion management system works, as well as how its “protocol agnostic” replacement is going to work. To the dismay of some critics, they’ve done just that in a filing that was hand-delivered as well as electronically filed today. It will be posted to the Comcast web site shortly.

The filing corrects some of the false allegations made by critics with respect to privacy, making it very clear that the existing system simply inspects protocol headers (“envelopes”) and not personal data. David Reed in particular got himself worked into a tizzy over the idea that Comcast was deciding which streams to delay based on content, but this is clearly not the case. Inside the IP envelope sits a TCP envelope, and inside that sits a BitTorrent envelope. User data is inside the BitTorrent (or equivalent) envelope, and Comcast doesn’t look at it.

The current system sets a bandwidth quota for P2P, and prevents P2P as a group from crossing the threshold from this quota (about 50% of total upstream bandwidth) with new uni-directional upload (AKA, file-server-like) streams by tearing down requested new streams with the TCP Reset bit. The system is a bit heavy-handed, but reserving 50% of the network for one class of application seems pretty reasonable, given that no more than 20% of customers use P2P at all.

Nonetheless, the new system will not look at any headers, and will simply be triggered by the volume of traffic each user puts on the network and the overall congestion state of the network segment. If the segment goes over 70% utilization in the upload direction for a fifteen-minute sample period, congestion management will take effect.

In the management state, traffic volume measurement will determine which users are causing the near-congestion, and only those using high amounts of bandwidth will be managed. The way they’re going to be managed is going to raise some eyebrows, but it’s perfectly consistent with the FCC’s order.

High-traffic users – those who’ve used over 70% of their account’s limit for the last fifteen minutes – will have all of their traffic de-prioritized for the next fifteen minutes. While de-prioritized, they still have access to the network, but only after the conforming users have transmitted their packets. So instead of bidding on the first 70% of network bandwidth, they’ll essentially bid on the 30% that remains. This will be a bummer for people who are banging out files as fast as they can only to have a Skype call come in. Even if they stop BitTorrent, the first fifteen minutes of Skyping are going to be rough. A more pleasant approach would be to let excessive users out of QoS jail with credit for good behavior – if their utilization drops to Skype level, let them out in a few seconds, because it’s clear they’ve turned off their file sharing program. This may be easier said than done, and it may raise the ire of Kevin Martin, given how irrational he is with this anti-cable vendetta.

The user can prevent this situation from arising, of course, if he wants to. All he has to do is set the upload and download limits in BitTorrent low enough that he doesn’t consume enough bandwidth to land in the “heavy user” classification and he won’t have to put up with bad VoIP quality. I predict that P2P applications and home gateways are going to incorporate controls to enforce “Comcast friendly” operation to prevent de-prioritization. There are other more refined approaches to this problem, of course.

At the end of the day, Comcast’s fifteen/fifteen system provides users with the incentive to control their own bandwidth appetites, which makes it an “end-to-end” solution. The neutralitarians should be happy about that, but it remains to be seen how they’re going to react.

It looks pretty cool to me.

UPDATE: Comcast-hater Nate Anderson tries to explain the system at Ars Technica. He has some of it right, but doesn’t seem to appreciate any of its implications. While the new system will not look at protocol headers (the evil “Deep Packet Inspection” that gets network neophytes and cranks so excited) , and it won’t use TCP Resets, that doesn’t mean that P2P won’t be throttled; it will.

That’s simply because P2P contributes most of the load on residential networks. So if you throttle the heaviest users, you’re in effect throttling the heaviest P2P users, because the set of heavy users and the set of heavy P2P users is the same set. So the “disparate impact” will remain even though the “disparate treatment” will end.

But the FCC has to like it, because it conforms to all of Kevin Martin’s rabbit-out-the-hat rules. The equipment Comcast had had to purchase for this exercise in aesthetic reform will have utility down the road, but for now it’s simply a tax imposed by out-of-control regulators.

A Conservative for Obama

John McCain is many things, but “conservative” is not one of them. See Wick Allison’s succinct essay on why he’s voting for Obama after donating the maximum to McCain during the primaries, A Conservative for Obama:

Liberalism always seemed to me to be a system of “oughts.” We ought to do this or that because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of whether it works or not. It is a doctrine based on intentions, not results, on feeling good rather than doing good.

But today it is so-called conservatives who are cemented to political programs when they clearly don’t work. The Bush tax cuts—a solution for which there was no real problem and which he refused to end even when the nation went to war—led to huge deficit spending and a $3 trillion growth in the federal debt. Facing this, John McCain pumps his “conservative” credentials by proposing even bigger tax cuts. Meanwhile, a movement that once fought for limited government has presided over the greatest growth of government in our history. That is not conservatism; it is profligacy using conservatism as a mask.

Today it is conservatives, not liberals, who talk with alarming bellicosity about making the world “safe for democracy.” It is John McCain who says America’s job is to “defeat evil,” a theological expansion of the nation’s mission that would make George Washington cough out his wooden teeth.

This kind of conservatism, which is not conservative at all, has produced financial mismanagement, the waste of human lives, the loss of moral authority, and the wreckage of our economy that McCain now threatens to make worse.

This man used to be publisher of National Review.

H/T Doc Searls