Google Gambles in Casablanca

I’m shocked.

Google has been caught red-handed negotiating deals with ISPs to host servers inside the building, just like Akamai does. The semi-technical press thinks this is some sort of a game-changing event:

The celebrated openness of the Internet — network providers are not supposed to give preferential treatment to any traffic — is quietly losing powerful defenders.

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principal [sic] known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same — nobody is supposed to jump the line.

Oh my goodness, where do I begin? Google already has a fast lane to most Internet users today thanks to their network of mega-data centers around the world, which I’ve written and spoken about at some length. These systems are wired directly to public Internet exchange points in high population areas and effectively move Google’s traffic to a higher priority than all but three competing routes: Akamai’s servers hosted inside ISP premises, Limelight’s private network wired directly to ISP networks, and the ISPs’ own content. Google’s desire to host servers (or routers, it could be either) inside ISP networks is a move calculated to improve on the ROI on the existing network of server farms and to blunt the Akamai advantage. It makes more sense to wire directly to the ISPs through private arrangements than to stress the public Internet infrastructure any further.

One thing that this deal doesn’t do is change the Internet infrastructure. Arrangements like this already exist, predating the kerfuffle over fast lanes created out of thin air by public interest advocates three years ago.

The Internet is not a network, it’s a complex set of agreements to interconnect independently owned and operated networks in various ways. There is no standard agreement, and this story doesn’t report on a new one. What it simply shows is that money buys performance in the technology space, and that should come as no surprise to anyone. Google has to do something like this to avoid being clobbered by ISP-friendly P4P as well as by Akamai.

Yes, Virginia, network neutrality is a myth, and it always has been.

UPDATE: Google’s response to the WSJ piece does nothing but muddy the waters. Net Neutrality advocates have insisted on a wall of separation between content and infrastructure, and this deal, if it happens, brings down that wall. I’m happy with that, because I don’t see the prohibition on expedited delivery as a good thing. But Google should admit they’ve come around to my way of thinking about the Internet instead of insisting nothing has changed. See my write-up in The Register.

UPDATE 2: The spin that Google’s supporters are producing around this issue is a marvel for those of us who appreciate the major league curveball. This subtle piece of nuanced distinction by Dave Isenberg deserves some sort of prize:

The concern of Network Neutrality advocates is not with access but with delivery. The fear is that Internet connection providers would charge for expedited delivery of certain content to the end user, and in so doing would put themselves in the business of classifying which content gets enhanced delivery.

Wow. Caching speeds up delivery, otherwise there would be no reason to do it. Google has paid for expedited delivery of its content in effect, regardless of the spin. What counts is bits on the wire, and Google is out to ensure theirs are better situated than yours are.

Don’t be fooled by the spin, this is a distinction without a difference.

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10 thoughts on “Google Gambles in Casablanca”

  1. Actually, what this story — and the lightning quick denials from Google and Lessig — really show is that there is no definition of “network neutrality.” It’s a vague buzzword that largely means what the speaker wants it to mean. If you’re Google and your corporation wants something that doesn’t conform to someone’s definition of “network neutrality,” that’s no problem; just claim that the definition is something different. Ditto if you are a lawyer whose high profile thinktank at the Stanford Law School — and salary — are paid for largely by Google.

    One quibble about a point above, however: P4P is absolutely not ISP-friendly. Especially to small ISPs, whom it puts at a disadvantage. (Larger ISPs are more likely to have one or more users who are offering a file that another user wants, so they may save on bandwidth as a result of P4P. But this will virtually never happen on a small ISP’s network.) Thus, P4P is essentially an anticompetitive tool that can and will be used to try to impose a duopoly and drive small and independent ISPs out of business. It’s also very bad for rural providers, whose bandwidth is exceedingly expensive.

  2. P4P, like Google-style edge caching, is a duopoly-friendly system to be sure. And I get the irony that the critics of duopoly are doing all they can to make it even more dominant than it already is. But they’re also facing up to the reality that the third pipe represents a small share of the American ISP business. I suspect that’s changing, however, thanks to the advent of 3G and the beginnings of 4G wireless networks.

  3. Richard, there’s a big difference. P4P is inherently duopoly-friendly; there’s no way to avoid it. Edge caching, on the other hand, is not. If Google allows any ISP to set up a cache, it actually levels the playing field. If it restricts caches to big players, well, then yes — it would favor duopoly.

    The third pipe is growing — and not just 3G and 4G, which are mobile technologies whose speed is intrinsically limited by the need for mobility. WISPs like my own are actually increasing in number. If the “net neuts” don’t get legislation in place to squash us, we will likely be THE third pipe.

  4. Richard, isn’t the distinction in net neutrality debates mostly about the last mile — and whether or not the end users can actually get to the content they seek? I have been covering this topic for a while and don’t know that “net neutrality advocates” either speak with a united voice or that they necessarily seek separation of content and infrastructure. (But I am sure you are likely to respond with some links to such claims so I will be glad to read them if so; it just doesn’t strike me as something at the top of their wish list.)

    It may be hair-splitting but I can see a huge difference between, say, A) a service provider who cuts an exclusive deal to provide video from one content provider over its broadband link to the customer and slows, blocks or excludes (by not allowing similar deals) other content providers; and B) a service provider who cuts deals with content providers of all stripes to give the customer the best access to the content of their choice. The former seems like something that should be regulated (because consumers without adequate choices of broadband providers have no economical power to leave for another provider), while the latter seems like good business for everyone involved — consumer, content provider and service provider.

    No matter how fast Google makes its connection to the ISP, it doesn’t gain anything if the end user doesn’t click there; and unless Google is paying for exclusive connections that exclude end users from choosing other sites, how is it hypocritical to their stated net neutrality principles?

  5. @Brett: I’d say it’s unlikely that Google will volunteer to pay you for a cache inside your network, so in that sense their scheme is extremely duopoly-friendly. Let me know if you make a deal with them, but I’m not holding my breath.

    @Paul: Structural separation, meaning the ban on ISPs selling content delivered over their networks, is the primary demand of Isenberg and Obama transition team member Susan Crawford. They want ISPs to be confined to operating the network, and banned from collecting money for any content; they’re supposed to be happy with collecting access fees from retail and wholesale customers.

    In effect if not in name, caching inside the ISP network improves reliability and quality of content delivery, so it is a means of effectively boosting priority. Granted, it’s an end-to-end system, but when the end points are only a thousand feet apart, you’re in a whole different ball game than when they’re a thousand miles apart; the network becomes a LAN rather than a WAN, and standard congestion rules don’t apply.

    If such deals were exclusive, regulators would smell a rat instantly, but making them non-exclusive but only practical for a hand full of players hides their nature in the fog of regulatory uncertainty.

  6. Richard, I’ve already told Google that I’ll dedicate a terabyte of cache to caching their video if they would simply make YouTube cacheable. I do not know if they will take me up on that offer. They did say, however, that they were giving caches to small ISPs in Kenya. If they’re doing it there, they’d be hard pressed to neglect ones in rural America.

  7. This whole discussion is missing something important.

    Just above we have a posting from an ISP who says he’ll gladly host a Google cache for free. In fact, I’ll bet that Google will be able to place an edge cache at the site of any ISP it wants. Probably for free, because Google is big. Google, YouTube, and its related services consume SO much bandwidth that no ISP would say no. The ISP would easily save big on its backbone connection. Terabytes per month on YouTube alone.

    But would the ISP afford to allow just anyone to get free hosting by putting a cache at their sites? Doubtful. Caches take up space and power and require access for maintenance. If a small startup were to call your local cable company and ask for “co-location space,” the person there would probably say, “That’s not a product we sell to the public.” That is, if the person who answered the phone even knew what it was.

    And of course, would-be competitors won’t be able to buy space on Google’s private edge caches.

    So, in what way is this neutral? Google can get its servers into places where can’t.

    So, Google is still getting preferential access to infrastructure It’s just co-location space instead of pipes. And this is even a more difficult thing to buy than bandwidth. Any Internet carrier will sell you a pipe. But co-location space at ISPs, which is more cost-effective than buying pipes, isn’t necessarily even for sale to you unless you’re Google. So this is really, really non-neutral and anticompetitive.

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