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Net Neutrality - the Argument for Being Dumb

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Written by Phillip Kim

No one likes being called dumb, whether it’s warranted or not. And in the world of technology, being dumb is often desired, which is not always obvious to the average consumer. Take the plain old telephone (POTS) line. If it were smart, it might question you when you order that Dominos Pizza – “Are you sure you don’t want to eat an organic mixed green salad with low fat vinaigrette instead?” Or it might say “Hey, looking to call that cute girl you met the other night? That’ll be $10.” As it is, it doesn’t do either of these things, nor much else except make a call. It’s pretty darn dumb.

The Internet, as often quoted, is “fast, cheap and dumb.” Thankfully. One would think if it were smart, not far behind would be expensive and slow. So welcome to the big brouhaha that is Net Neutrality.

This commotion has its origins in the common carrier world of the PSTN – telco’s must be non-discriminatory and terminate all calls regardless of the content or purpose of the call, hence the term common carrier. Telco’s however are not extending this policy to the Internet, which by all measure, are also owned by them. What a coincidence. The Internet started out with neutrality but now the battle is heating up, with the marquee heavyweight opponents being AT&T and Google.

Net Neutrality has always been a simple concept for me. I don’t want to pay my local broadband provider a percentage of the purchases I make on Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace depending on whether it was Jay-Z or Miles Davis. Nor do I think it’s fair that Ford Motors gets paid by Costco every time I go there to buy toilet paper. Though for accuracy sake, I shop at Costco but own an Audi. I pay for changing the oil in my car based on the miles I’ve driven, not where I’ve driven. Examples abound ad infinitum. Let the broadband providers charge me for the packets but not the content of the packets.

That last sentence is what I think of with Net Neutrality. Go ahead and meter me for the bandwidth I use, or give me a flat rate plan, or even by how far the packet has traveled. But don’t charge me depending on what the content is, whether directly or indirectly. Directly would be by packet content inspection and billed to me, or through limiting choice such as restricting video on demand through my broadband provider only and blocking other content providers such as Youtube. Indirectly would be to charge the content provider, such as Google or Amazon, and would basically be something very similar to what we all know and love – called a tax. Well, I guess you could also call it monopoly pricing.

The arguments against Net Neutrality by free marketers is “Well, once the government starts regulating the Internet, it will be a slippery slope and pretty much the Internet will soon be nothing but regulation.” I don’t buy that, the caveat being I really don’t know what the exact legislation Genachowski  has in mind. Ensure, through regulation, that the Internet is non-regulated is the hope. Is the FCC going to be like the DOJ with regards to Anti-Trust? The 1998 Internet Tax Freedom Act was “regulation” which prevented additional regulation of the Internet and according to my latest Amazon purchase, is working out pretty well for me.

I get back to my initial point about being dumb. Net Neutrality wants to keep the Internet dumb. Sometimes dumb is smart.

MPLS – the Argument for Being Smart

The Internet being cheap, fast, and dumb is a good thing for consumers. Those attributes allow for broader adoption throughout the world and for the vast majority of applications, it works out great for everyone. But businesses and consumers have different needs. A free Skype video call might be adequate for friends and family but businesses needs demand a $250k Cisco Telepresence room for video conferencing running over a private network. Businesses have a bit higher quality requirement than consumers and are generally willing to pay for it, i.e. the industrial strength Lysol.

Historically, many businesses, including most SMB’s, find it challenging to maintain the hefty costs of running a private wide area network. Private lines to run voice and video are expensive and was generally justified only in the realm of large companies. Creating virtual private networks (VPN’s) over the Internet is an option mostly for data and not quality sensitive applications such as business VOIP.

“The Holy Grail of computer networking is to design a network that has the flexibility and low cost of the Internet, yet offers the end-to-end quality-of-service guarantees of the telephone network.” – S. Keshav, An Engineering Approach to Computer Networking

Enter MultiProtocol Label Switching (i.e., MPLS).  By labeling packets based on different applications, the network is able to treat the differently labeled packets differently. In most cases, it puts packets of different labels in separate queues and is able to prioritize those queues based on the business requirements. Thus VOIP packets can be prioritized over video packets which are prioritized over email packets, and so on. This quality of service (QOS) paradigm is a great solution for many businesses, including SMB’s, as it is the closest thing we have to Keshav’s above definition of the ideal network. Basically, the cost of a packet based network but the quality of a private circuit.

So MPLS works by being smart. A router in an MPLS network does care what the content of the packet is. It doesn’t blindly forward packets to next hop. It does a packet inspection and checks the rules, treating the packets based on how the business wants them treated. Businesses have very specific needs and the ability to tailor a specific solution is something they can and are willing to pay for. This is in contrast to the mass consumer market which the Internet has become. The Internet is not meant to be tailored to be a specific solution for a specific business.

And the smarter we can make the network, the greater we can provide differentiated services and meet the unique requirements of each business, all within cost effective parameters. By pushing the intelligence out onto the network, the less expertise and infrastructure the business itself needs to own and maintain. MPLS is and will continue to dominate as the de facto solution for QOS enabled networks, just as VOIP is and will continue to be the de facto solution for voice.