Net Neutrality

A week is a long time in politics but politicians seem happy to take most of the summer off. I have just had a 2 week break where I avoided anything to do with work and even kept away from blogging. The latter involved a huge effort because there is so much going on internet-wise.

This emotional pull was made more stressful by the fact that news is disseminated and commented on so quickly these days that to write about something that is more than a day old is to be seen to be writing about a historical event and not a current hot topic.

Fortunately last week’s Google news has spilled over into this week and I am back in action. This news concerns Google and its supposed pact with Verizon regarding Net Neutrality – both companies support the idea of an open net for fixed line services but with loopholes for mobile traffic and for some specialized content.

This has prompted widespread protest including the delivery to Google’s offices last week of a 300,000 signature petition “upholding the values of net neutrality, a founding principle of the net that states that all web data is treated equally no matter where it comes from”.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not) this week’s quarterly meeting of the London Internet Exchange (LINX) saw a debate concerning the subject of Net Neutrality. LINX meetings are gatherings of the techies who actually run the internet and should therefore have the best appreciation of the issues surrounding this contentious subject.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that engineers overwhelmingly support the idea of a free internet. The issue comes down to how do we go about defining net neutrality. It certainly is not possible to run the internet without some kind of network intervention, at least not in any way that makes economic sense.

Take for example the sporting events of this summer. Most ISPs’ networks hit capacity during the Football World Cup and Wimbledon Tennis. In an unmanaged network this would have resulted in traffic congestion and a degradation of the customer experience. Fortunately by and large the customer experience was not affected this summer because the vast majority of consumers internet connections were being managed. This means prioritising time sensitive applications such as VOIP, video and gaming ahead of less time critical ones such as the oft vaunted Bit Torrent file sharing.

To provide a network that can cope with unlimited traffic would not be something that consumers are unlikely to want to pay for. Based on the traffic levels this summer this would potentially add 50% to the cost of the average broadband connection (back of a beermat guestimate – a big proportion of the cost of broadband delivery is the backhaul bandwidth). Is this something that concerns the proponents of Net Neutrality?

There is more. To save costs frequently accessed web content is delivered from caches provided by Content Delivery Networks. When you are watching a programme on say the BBC you are probably watching something delivered not by the broadcaster itself but by such a CDN even though it looks to your browser as if you are accessing the BBC website.

To do this the network has to intervene to redirect the traffic and must therefore be inspecting the traffic for the content type. Does this contravene the principles of Net Neutrality?

There is lots more. The internet is filled with bad guys after your money or wanting to hurt you. Some of these operate spamming techniques to get at you. A good ISP will prevent these spam attacks from reaching your PC. You can sit at a Network Operations Centre and see the attacks coming in waves – literally – see diag. This SPAM is discarded before it reaches you or filtered so that you can chose whether to receive it or not. This is a direct involvement in manipulating your traffic. How does this stand in respect of Net Neutrality?

Internet users are daily subjected to Denial Of Service Attacks (DOS). DOS Attacks are used to maliciously bring down the internet connection/server/business of an individual or organisation. Often they are means of cracking the defences of a business to gain access to their network. ISPs prevent these attacks by black listing the originating IP addresses and thereby stopping access of the bad guys to their customer. This is intervention in the network but how does it stand in respect of Net Neutrality?

The whole debate, which has been going on in the USA for some time has now reached Europe. I am not sure what the answer is because it is a hugely complex subject. Regulators such as Ofcom are now getting interested but I am pretty positive that neither the regulator nor their political masters will have a good enough handle on the wide issues involved to make sensible decisions (witness the Digital Economy Act).

Having said that I am also not sure that leaving it to the market is the right answer as players with significant market power will flex their muscles when they feel they can get away with it – it is human nature.

Lets discuss.

Published by Trefor Davies

Liver of life, father of four, CTO of trefor.net, writer, poet, philosopherontap.com

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  1. Trefor Davies

4 Comments

  1. Here’s a thought on net neutrality, given the fears I’ve seen expressed:

    Given that I’m your customer, and there are companies A and B on the wider internet that I wish to deal with, you are providing a neutral service so long as both of the following hold true:

    1) A cannot pay anything to get you to degrade service between me and B, nor can B pay you anything to get you to degrade service between me and A.

    2) If A can pay you to improve service between A and me, B can pay similar money for the same improvement.

    And note that I’d consider this to apply even if A is Trefor’s VoIP service, and B is (say) Gradwell’s VoIP service; it should be possible for me to get as high a standard of service from Gradwell as I can from Trefor, even if I’m a Trefor data customer.

    For wholesalers, there’s one more condition that applies; they must not examine the contents of the data stream without permission. This permits BT to offer their RT QoS product (you give them permission to examine DSCP codepoints), but not to (e.g.) deliberately delay traffic to and from the BBC as part of their politicking over iPlayer.

  2. I think you are bang on Simon. ISPs will inevitably be offering improved performance for VoIP once the BT RT QoS service is available. However this should not differentiate between the VoIP service of different providers. I don’t think mobile networks should be let off the hook here either.

    There are more macro scale nuances to this debate. For example what happens if BT pays YouTube to only provide the best quality videos to BT customers? Other ISPs get a reduced quality stream or none at all. This would encourage people to sign up with BT. I realise that this is an extreme situation that is unlikely to happen but something in between might. At which point does a regulator decide an ISP has Significant Market Power and intervenes?

  3. tref said : ” … frequently accessed web content is delivered from caches provided by Content Delivery Networks … To do this the network has to intervene to redirect the traffic and must therefore be inspecting the traffic for the content type.”

    I am going to be pedantic here but this is inaccurate. CDNs are working with the websites and not the ISP to perform the redirection of the site content to a server farm near the website user.

    CDNs are working with ISP, mainly to ensure a high speed connection to their equipments near the surfers but the redirection to their kit is done using DNS and is performed by the web site owner.

    A good talk on the topic is available here : http://www.uknof.org.uk/uknof10/Gilmore-CDN-peering.pdf

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