August 07, 2006

My Rebuttal (?) to some Comments on Net Neutrality

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 than most telcos”. In support of his belief that “we need an Internet which remains essentially neutral and application agnostic” Tom gives an elaborate response to Richard’s questions. In the following, I give my own reasoning that supports my claim that the market will ultimately prefer a neutral and application agnostic network.

My first evidence is the good old PSTN (even though Tom kind of dismisses it). I contend that for all its technological limitations, PSTN is a neutral and application agnostic. Otherwise, we would have been able to run data/fax modems. It is true that in many respects, the transport network was optimized to carry voice. This is true even when the transmission medium happens to be digital (what with robbed bit signaling and what not). Yes, the technology placed limits on the bandwidth (33 kbps symmetrical, if analog lines are involved at both the ends; 33/56 kbps if one end happens to be digital). But if the end-points conform to the transmission restrictions, the network infrastructure did not care the nature of application that generated the traffic. Even the tariff structure was not discriminative. Even though the network knew that a call is a data/fax call, the carriers were not allowed to charge extra, just because the application was different or was considered to be more valued. It was not for lack of trying; after all the carriers wanted to levy “modem tax” to compensate for long holding times observed for data calls. The public objected in unison and political force was used to squelch the idea.

The second evidence is the venerable America Online. Originally they thought that they were delivering content; so they partnered with content creators and pushed their body of work. When others provided generic access so that the users were free to access any corner of the Internet, slowly but surely AOL had to relent.

One can keep listing other examples. The bottom line is that Internet access is a Network Layer service and as such the service provider must concern itself only with that layer and also what is commonly accepted to be the functions of that layer, meaning a connectionless best-effort service. This does not mean flat-rate pricing with unlimited bandwidth consumption (if the market accepts, it could be a measured service); this does not mean that access providers are not allowed to offer application layer services (as long as these flows receive the same best-effort service as those from other providers).

Having made these points, I want to make a tentative proposal. I am willing to strike the following deal with an access provider: you are allowed to deploy as wide a pipe as you prefer, give preferential treatment (at the network layer) to the flows and charge the market rate for such preferential treatment. But this freedom comes with a big constraint: the best effort flows should get ALL the unused bandwidth. This way, if you are proven right that the market demands differentiated flows, you are rewarded; on the other hand, if, as I believe, the market prefers the best effort service, the users get to benefit from the extra bandwidth. I feel that a verifiable deal like that can be a solution to this debate. What do you think?

Posted by aswath at August 7, 2006 09:11 PM
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My concern with this is that I don't trust the ILECs to build a "wide pipe." I suspect they will keep the pipe narrow to artificially create a scarsity of bandwidth so they can "justify" this preferential treatment.

Posted by: PhoneBoy at August 8, 2006 05:24 PM

If they artificially keep the pipe narrow, then they also will not be able to offer high-bandwidth services as well. No? So the question is who will blink first. Since I believe in my model, I just have to wait them out.

Posted by: Aswath at August 8, 2006 05:57 PM

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