Should All Bits be Treated the Same?

Polk County SignNetwork neutrality asks the question if different providers should be treated the same. That question asks if it’s okay to give priority to NetFlix over another movie provider like AmazonPrime. The concept has people up in arms because they understand that the deals made between content providers and network owners will end up restricting their choices. And people want choice.

But many of the articles I have seen talking about net neutrality have confused the issues between ISPs and content providers to somehow mean that there can’t be any discrimination among bits. And so I ask the question, should all bits be treated the same? And the obvious answer from a network engineering perspective is no, of course not. We already discriminate today for some bits and in the future it’s going to be desirable to discriminate a lot more.

Today any ISP delivering their own VoIP product already discriminates in favor of voice. Customers don’t want their phone call disconnected when another family member starts watching a movie or downloading a large data file. And so we give the voice packets first priority using techniques that are called Quality of Service (QoS).

QoS is the combination of a number of techniques that can give some packets better treatment than they would get using only best effort delivery. For example, QoS uses traffic shaping techniques like packet prioritization, application classification and queuing at congestion points to give priority to preferred bits. QoS also can use the Resource Reservation Protocol (RSVP) at gateways to fine tune the level of packet prioritization.

In the future there are going to be other kinds of packets that we will want to give top priority. Some things that come to mind are signals from burglar alarm, fire alarm and health monitors  which we will always want to have delivered as quickly as possible in case of the emergencies they were designed to monitor.

But we are also nearing a time when we are going to generate a lot of bits that we will want to give the lowest priority. We are going to have numerous monitors and sensors as part of the Internet of Things that will be delivering data that we will not want to interfere with voice calls or even video viewing or web browsing. It’s hard to imagine that we will insist on high priority treatment for packets from monitors that are looking at things like the humidity levels of a flower bed or the number of eggs left in the refrigerator.

And so I think it is likely that we are headed for a time when we will have three types of traffic in our homes. There will be the high priority packets for things like telephone calls and medical monitors. We will have regular priority for things like watching movies or browsing the Internet. And we will want the lowest priority for some of the background sensors that will keep an eye on our world.

And perhaps we will also someday get the flexibility for each household to choose which bits they want to give the highest and lowest priorities. It certainly is going to be a bit of a challenge for network operators, because the easiest thing to do is to treat all bits the same. But if the world demands different priorities for bits, then network operators will find a way to deliver.

What nobody wants is for our ISPs to dictate to us what we can watch by picking winners and losers among content providers. We want the option to watch movies from some start-up content provider and not be forced to watch NetFlix if they are the only ones with deep enough pockets to buy faster connections. If network providers take the path of picking Internet winners and losers they cannot be surprised when people flood to alternate network providers as they show up in any market.

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