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.

The Many Takes on the Network Neutrality Decision

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolEarlier this week the DC District Court of Appeals struck down most of the provisions of the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules. There are dozens of web articles and I am not going to repeat a detailed summary of what that decision said. In short, it said that the FCC messed up years ago when they decided that the Internet is an information service and that common carrier rules don’t apply. But the net neutrality rules relied on looking at the Internet as if it is a common carrier service. A lot of legal experts pointed this out when the net neutrality rules were issued and they were right.

What I find interesting is how the press has reacted to this ruling. I went to a Google search and I read dozens of articles about the ruling. There are not too many really controversial issues in the telecom industry and for the most part our press mostly looks at technical and business issues. But it seems that the net neutrality ruling hit people in a more visceral way. Since every article author relies on the Internet they all had a very personal reaction to the ruling and so the reactions to the ruling are all over the board. It is the range of reactions that I find so interesting:

  • The Court itself said that they agreed that their ruling could have a chilling effect on future innovation and if the carriers were to strike sweetheart deals with large content providers on the web it might disadvantage start-up companies who cannot afford to pay to get preferred access. Lots of articles took this perspective.
  • Public interest groups are massively alarmed over the ruling and one article went so far as to say that this ruling marks the first day of the end of the Internet. Most of these reactions were not quite so dire, but in general these groups assume that the ruling means that the large network providers like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast are going to use the Court’s ruling to quickly change how the Internet functions. They think that these large companies cannot resist the urge to monetize the ability to discriminate among content providers and that they will use this power to choke and slow down internet traffic providers that won’t pay them a toll.
  • Legal experts took a very different tact and most of them talked about ways that the FCC could fix what they have done. Almost universally they opined that they saw this coming (and most of them did). They say that the FCC screwed up years ago when they declared the Internet to be an information service and that the only way to fix this is to somehow get the Internet back under the common carrier rules. As a whole the legal opinions were pragmatic and not particularly politically biased or emotionally charged.
  • And there were political opinions. There are those who opined that the new FCC chairman Wheeler is not entirely thrilled with the idea of net neutrality and that he would put a brave face on the ruling but not fight hard enough to overturn the Court ruling. Others thought just the opposite and assumed that the FCC would fight this ruling to Supreme Court while working to craft a new approach to fix the problem.
  • And finally there were the business prognosticators who took at a shot at predicting what this would mean to the business world. These opinions varied widely. At one extreme was an opinion that the network owners would do almost nothing so as to not make the FCC enact a different set of more effective rules. On the other extreme were those business analysts who assumed that the carriers already have a list of changes they will make due to the ruling and that we will see a lot of announcements soon of deals between network owners and large content providers. I also saw a number of predictions that once the cat is out of the bag that the FCC is going to have a big practical challenge to undo the results of this ruling.

I don’t have any better crystal ball than anybody else. I have no idea how hard the FCC is going to fight this. I agree that the only practical solution is to somehow bring the Internet under the common carrier rules. But that is going to be a hard thing to do. I also think that the carriers will start implanting some arrangements that break the spirit of network neutrality. AT&T had announced a plan to do that just a few days before the court ruling. Comcast and Verizon had proposed arrangements in the past that went against the grain of network neutrality. But I can’t see this as the beginning of the end of the Internet. If the big companies abuse this too badly they will give consumers the impetus to look for providers who don’t screw them. So the big companies will find ways to make money off of this, but they won’t be the total demons that are feared by the public interest groups. It’s going to be interesting to watch and I will report back on this from time to time.