Net Neutrality

There has been a lot of talk about Net Neutrality lately and people are finally waking up and taking the topic seriously. Unfortunately, there is an enormous amount of misinformation circulating. Some of that is intentional, some of it is simply a lack of understanding on the topic. And some of it is because, as with many issues of this nature, the term itself has changed over time such that nobody fully understands what it means anymore.

Net Neutrality Image

I’m going to take a crack at it anyway.

Many years ago, back when I was heavily involved in network operations for a major player in the Internet world, I sat on an international industry council whose purpose was to discuss and develop new models of operations for the global Internet. It was a pretty cool experience and somewhat humbling to be part of such an august group of very smart people from all around the world.

WARNING: I am going to greatly oversimplify some very deep technical concepts. I apologize in advance to my more technically astute readers.

As the work of this council progressed, it became more and more driven by the desires of a small number of large telecom providers who were members. To oversimplify the main topic of discussion at that time, the council set out to create new standards that would enable QOS across carriers. While ultimately the motivation of the carriers was to make more money, they were trying to do this by finding a way to get heavy users of the Internet to pay more for their usage.

QOS = Quality Of Service.

QOS is a way of prioritizing data moving across a data network. Using QOS can be a useful tool in making high priority applications operate correctly. But, there is a big problem with it.

Many people think of QOS as a way to get their data to move across the network faster. And, in a way, that is correct. But, it’s not that simple.

A data network connection has a fixed maximum speed. All data traversing the network share that path and essentially take turns sending packets of data.

QOS does not work by making data move faster. A given network connection has a physical maximum capacity. No, QOS works by allowing certain types of data to be treated with higher priority than others. Often, this means ignoring lower priority data, or worse, actually discarding it.

So, QOS does not make high priority traffic move faster. It makes lower priority traffic move slower, thus providing a clearer path for the higher priority traffic.

There is a bit of an analogy, albeit a crude one, with express lanes on a crowded highway.  It’s all fine and dandy if you have access to the express lanes. But, if you don’t, you get bogged down crawling along with everyone else.

Perhaps a better analogy is the FastPass at Disney and other theme parks. The overall rate at which riders can be loaded onto the ride is fixed. But, if you have a FastPass, you get to skip to the head of the line. Again, great if you paid that extra price, but for everyone else? Really annoying. Especially if it’s late in the day and despite waiting for over an hour, the ride closes before you get your turn.

OK, so I can hear the voice in your head. Shouldn’t I be able to pay more if I want faster network delivery? Shouldn’t those who consume large amounts of network bandwidth pay more for using more?

If only it were that simple. The problem crops up when your Internet provider, let’s call them MegaCable, doesn’t like your content provider. For content delivered across the Internet, MegaCable does not receive any revenue from the content provider, e.g. NetFlix.  Conversely, on a traditional cable TV service, MegaCable does receive revenue from providing you a specific channel of content, e.g. HBO.

You see the problem?

Delivery of NetFlix content to MegaCable Internet customers consumes a large (and ever increasing) amount of the overall bandwidth at MegaCable. In order to continue delivering good service to their customers, MegaCable has to keep increasing the size of their Internet connections. And that costs money. But they get no compensation for this.

What to do?

Simple. MegaCable implements QOS across their delivery network, essentially limiting the amount of bandwidth that can be consumed by NetFlix (in our example). As more customers tune in to the latest edition of House of Cards, or start binge-watching Sons of Anarchy, QOS starts throwing away data, customers see “buffering” issues, frustration increases, etc.

Or, you could simply increase capacity until you have enough that QOS is no longer needed. The question is, who should pay for that extra capacity? Not so simple.

In the beginning, all data traversing the Internet as we know it was treated equally. As we say in the techie world, “bits are bits”. The goal of Net Neutrality, in its original context, was to continue to this equal treatment, giving all types of data equal priority. It was a movement. A campaign to encourage fairness.

The carriers did not listen. They continued down the path of putting limits on certain types of traffic. And now the result is the government getting involved.

Who is right? That is a topic for a later post.