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August 07, 2006

Reader Comment on Net Neutrality (and My Rebuttal)

Reader Richard Bennett, whose own blog often articulates the telco point of view on Internet Neutrality more coherently than most telcos, posted a challenging comment to my post announcing that I’m speaking at the Berkman Center tomorrow.  His questions deserve answers which I’ll give in this post and also tomorrow when I speak.  Richard’s whole comment is quoted below but I’ve taken the liberty of interspersing my answers.

Richard: “You say: I very much believe we need an Internet which remains essentially neutral and application agnostic.

“Perhaps you could explain why you believe that and what it means to you. For example,

“* Do you believe that all applications have the same requirements from the network?”

Answer: The reason we need an Internet which is network application agnostic is because only an application-unaware network allows the kind of incredible innovation which has occurred on the Internet.  David Isenberg (who Richard mislabels on his blog as a marketing person – David’s background is Bell Labs) explains why this is so brilliantly in The Rise of The Stupid Network).

My simplistic explanation is that a network which is built to be aware of specific applications may work well for those applications that the network designers had in mind but will inhibit if not absolutely prevent applications the network designers didn’t think of as well as the evolution of existing applications.  The traditional phone network is a great example of that.  Handsets on that network don’t even have the capability of cell phones because the network is optimized for voice and voice alone.  I posted more on this here.

To answer the starred question: I KNOW that different applications rely on the network in different ways.  We get to the implications of this in Richard’s next question.

Richard: “* Do you believe that applications that require tons of bandwidth, such as movie downloads, should have the same service from the network in terms of average packet delay as applications such as VoIP with modest bandwidth requirements but more stringent jitter requirements? (note: "jitter" is the variation in packet delay.)”

Answer: Yes, I do.  I do know what jitter is since I founded and ran the world’s largest wholesale carrier of international VoIP and am a nerd but I do appreciate the explanation.  Richard is right to say that VoIP has modest bandwidth requirements and is sensitive to jitter (because the human ear is very sensitive to breaks in speech).  In fact, this is a wonderful example of both why a neutral network is needed and why it succeeds.

When Mary and I founded ITXC in 1997, the common wisdom was that voice over the public Internet couldn’t work because the Internet is a chaotic place and does not promise quality of service in any dimension including packet delivery times, jitter, or even reliable delivery of packets.  In fact, Internet routers throw packets away when they are overburdened.  Moreover, the Internet certainly wasn’t designed with voice in mind. But it IS application agnostic.

Guess what?  We found that we could do exactly what David Isenberg said: put intelligence at the edge of the network – actually the interface between the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and the Internet.  Some of this intelligence – jitter buffers for handling jitter, for example – was designed by gateway vendors like pioneering VocalTec and later Cisco and others.  Part of it was home grown: technologies for discovering which routes over the Internet were currently giving us the best quality and value and using them.

It worked.  When ITXC was sold in 2004, it was the seventh largest carrier of international minutes in the world (measured in minutes carried) – this includes all the traditional carriers.  Note that virtually all of these minutes both originated and terminated on ordinary phones.  The callers did not know that their carriers – most of the major carriers of the world and many new ones – were handing the calls off to us for delivery to the called-country via the Internet where our affiliates then fed them back into the phone network.  We would not have been successful if we could not deliver the quality of service which these callers and their carriers expected.

The point is that we succeeded BECAUSE the Internet didn’t try to help us.  We were able to build what we needed at the edge of an application-agnostic but open network.  File sharing services, video distributors, and other Internet services all do their own customization of the network AT THE EDGE.  That’s why the network does NOT have to try to figure out what services each application needs and why revolutionary new applications can be developed.

There would be no VoIP today if we were waiting for the owners of Internet pipes to optimize them for our application.

Richard: “* Do you believe that it would be a good thing for Americans to have fiber-optic tubes running between their homes and the public Internet? If so, do you believe that the companies who install the tubes should be allowed to make a profit from their operation?”

Answer:  That’s easy.  Yes and Yes.  More bandwidth costs more.  I would happily pay more for more bandwidth if it were available in Vermont.

Richard: “* Do you believe that it's good for content producers to profit from the advertising they move down the tubes, but no one else?”

Answer: I don’t accept the premise that only the content producers benefit from the advertising.  Internet users benefit because they receive the content which is paid for by the advertising.  The advertisers  benefit or they wouldn’t advertise.  And the Internet Service providers benefit because they are paid for faster connections both by consumers who want the content and by the content providers. We wouldn’t need megabits of speed if we only did email.  In fact, in a recent deal, Verizon agreed to pay for content in order to make their newest network more attractive to the end users who pay a premium (properly) to connect to it.

Richard: “* Do you believe that triple play is legitimate or illegitimate? And does your answer depend on whether triple play segregates traffic by frequency or by time?”

Answer: By triple play, I believe Richard means the offering of phone service, Internet access, and entertainment in a bundle.  Yes, I do think it is legitimate for one company to offer all three services no matter how they’re delivered technically. As a technician, I believe it’s a bad idea to segregate by frequency rather than time on a new network (the Internet segregates packets and applications by time) but that doesn’t mean I’d outlaw frequency segregation.  Both DSL and today’s cable-provided Internet access are examples of segregating by frequency which is OK as a transition technology.

What I object to is the ability of the telco and cableco duopoly in the US to use their duopoly position to advantage their own phone and entertainment services when they are also the underlying provider of capability.  This is exactly analogous to the dominant provider of operating system software using the operating system to advantage its own applications.  If there were a competitive market for Internet access in the US,  I would think that discriminating would be bad business for an access provider and that the market would sort that out – assuming that discrimination was known which is what I’m speaking about at Berkman.

Richard: “* Do you believe that companies who invest in infrastructure are entitle (sic) to recoup their investment in part by selling services on the infrastructure that are advantaged technically over services sold on the same infrastructure by companies who have no infrastructure investment at risk?”

Answer: Yes.  But, if the companies that you’re talking about are part of a duopoly, then I believe that they must make it equally possible for their competitors to technically advantage their applications whether they own infrastructure or not.  The advantage can’t come from duopoly control of the infrastructure.  See the Windows analogy above.  Microsoft has to make its APIs available to application developers who have NOT invested in the infrastructure of an application.

Richard: “* And finally, do you believe meaningful measurements can be reported by people who don't understand what they're measuring or why?”

Answer: Yes.  So long as they have the right software.  That’s exactly what I think and what I’m recommending.  Note I have NOT called from Net Neutrality regulation or legislation despite my fears of the duopoly.  I am calling for information so that the marketplace and, if necessary as a last resort, the political body can act.

Richard: “I won't be listening to your talk at Berkman, but will most likely check whatever podcast is available after the fact.”

Answer:  Good.  Thanks for helping me plan the talk (sincerely) and I look forward to your comments after.  This is an issue which needs more light and less heat.

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Reader Comment on Net Neutrality (and My Rebuttal):

» Tom Evslin answers my questions from The Original Blog
I left some questions for Tom Evslin on the talk he gave today at Berkman on neutrality regulations. Tom has a technical background, and while hes not come out in favor of new regulations, he appears sympathetic to the arguments for them. Check... [Read More]

» My Rebuttal (?) to some Comments on Net Neutrality from Aswath Weblog
This morning Tom Evslin posted his responses to comments/questions raised by Richard Bennett, one of his readers on the topic of Net Neutrality. According to Tom, Richard “often articulates the telco point of view on Internet Neutrality more coherently... [Read More]

» My Rebuttal (?) to some Comments on Net Neutrality from Aswath Weblog
This morning Tom Evslin posted his responses to comments/questions raised by Richard Bennett, one of his readers on the topic of Net Neutrality. According to Tom, Richard “often articulates the telco point of view on Internet Neutrality more coherently... [Read More]


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