Thoughts About Network Neutrality

Advocates of network neutrality state that it's unacceptable for ISPs to prioritize certain types of traffic above others, especially if the traffic they're giving more priority to earns them money.

On the other hand, the anti-neutrality camp argues that today's Internet is bursting at the seams with all the high-bandwidth traffic created by rich media applications. Tiering of traffic would allow ISPs to impose some sort of QoS (Quality of Service) guarantees on different types of applications.

We're not 100% in either camp, but our corporate gut tells us that today’s IP routing technology is holding up well. It’s the lack of investment in sufficient peering bandwidth and router horsepower that’s spoiling some users' Internet experience. That, and the criminally glacial progress toward IPv6, which would allow end-to-end traffic prioritization.

Those who argue the Internet is failing under the strain often claim that high packet latency is what's destroying the user experience. However, those of us who are on the other side of the Atlantic live with 250ms+ latency every day, at least when we connect to services hosted in North America (the same is true for those on the other side of the Pacific). There's not much getting around the speed of light.

Yet communication-rich applications still work just fine. TCP is designed to get the best out of a latent connection, even if that latency is unpredictable or chaotic (as is often the case with latency caused by congestion).

Of course, if application writers make assumptions that ignore realities, such as the speed of light or temporary congestion, their applications are going to behave badly. But no premium QoS in the world is going to help that.

One explanation is that the ISPs complaining about net neutrality are simply being greedy and don't want to invest money to cope with the growth in usage.

There are perhaps some lessons to be learned from the experience of U.K. ISPs when many users' connection "suddenly" jumped from fixed-rate DSL connections in the 512Kb/s - 2Mb/s range to an "up to 8Mb/s" rate-adaptive service, which offers the highest speed the phone copper can support. How the various ISPs coped with the associated jump in demand makes for a salutary tale.

But that's the subject of another bulletin, some other day...

... Richi Jennings

One Comment

  1. Posted April 25, 2007 at 12:07 PM | Permalink

    Yes, the broadband crunch in the US is real. This article – The Coming Exaflood – appeared in The Wall Street Journal recently. It illustrates the importance of backbone investment.

    I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.


    HandsOffPlease ~ With Hands Off the Internet Coalition

  2. Posted April 25, 2007 at 12:23 PM | Permalink

    Dear reader, while we don’t censor comments on this weblog, I feel it’s important to point out that HandsOffPlease represents a lobbying group funded in part by ISPs, telcos, and telecom equipment manufacturers.

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