The Not So Hidden Truth of Net Neutrality

ALL ISPs oversubscribe the bandwidth that they’ve purchased. In the late 90s, when cable broadband was just taking off, an ISP used statistical multiplexing models to determine the amount of bandwidth they needed to purchase knowing that they were oversubscribing what they had.

Net NeutralityThe idea behind statistical multiplexing was simple. If you had 25 customers, not all 25 were using the Internet AT THE SAME TIME. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that 10 of the 25 were actually using the Internet. By the “bursty” nature of web traffic, if those 10 customers were viewing web pages, they would not be pulling in a constant stream of bandwidth – it would come in bursts. And those 10 may not all be viewing web pages. 5 of them could be checking email, which is also “bursty”.

As bandwidth capabilities increased, so did the requirements of the content that was springing up on the Internet; the biggest being streaming video (audio came first, but it really didn’t take that much bandwidth). When YouTube came on the scene in 2005, the load on the Internet started to escalate and the statistical multiplexing models started to fail. When Netflix streaming became popular, the statistical multiplexing model was all but destroyed.

Internet Service ProviderWith the model gone, ISPs could no longer oversubscribe like they did before (I’m not saying they still didn’t, but in ratio terms they could no longer do a 10 to 1 bandwidth allocation – more along the lines of a 5 to 1 or 3 to 1). This meant increased costs for the ISP because they had to purchase more bandwidth for the same amount of customers than was previously required. From the perspective of the ISP, their costs had increased without any significant increase in revenue. And the driving force behind this was the increased usage of the customer viewing streaming content, such as YouTube videos and Netflix.

This scenario wasn’t really the driving force behind Net Neutrality – at least not at first. My earliest recollections of hearing about Net Neutrality came from ISPs that were launching their own Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service and how they would throttle another company’s “nomadic” VoIP service (the one case that comes to mind is Comcast versus Vonage) or provide a higher priority for their own. This was deemed anti-competitive and Comcast was ordered to stop.

The Netflix equation came in later and I personally think it shouldn’t even be in the Net Neutrality discussion. Do I believe that [adrotate group=”2″] an ISP should have the right to slow down certain types of traffic because they feel it’s overwhelming their network because their customers are using said service a high percentage of the time? No – just as they shouldn’t do the same thing if they had a competing product to Netflix. In either case it’s anti-competitive.

In the case of Netflix and Comcast, Netflix made a decision to provide a better quality product to a large customer base – namely Comcast subscribers. They did so by peering or essentially connecting straight into Comcast’s network instead of relying on the traffic flowing from Netflix over their backbone provider to Comcast’s backbone provider to Comcast’s customers (which also happen to be Netflix’s customers). On the surface, this seems to fly in the face of Net Neutrality, but on further scrutiny, it’s a good business decision that Netflix made. You could call it the “cost of doing business”.

YouTube and NetflixI don’t believe that we need any type of government regulation or FCC ruling to ensure any type of fairness on the Internet. As real world examples have proven, market forces will make the necessary changes. At some point, when a company is no longer providing the level of service that its customers demand, they will make different choices. And when different choices aren’t readily available, those same customers will make enough noise and provide enough bad press that some changes will eventually be made. Sometimes, competitors will even spring up to provide those customers with better service.

I believe that government regulation has stifled innovation in the telecom industry. Telephone companies have no real incentive to develop new services or take chances on rolling out newer technologies when they are required and bound by regulations on what they can charge. Hell, even if they lose money on providing a service connection for a customer, they have to do it because the regulations say they must.

Some pundits have argued that it’s really not technically possible for ISPs to downgrade the traffic from a company such as a Netflix because the nature of the protocols allow for routing to determine the best paths and process traffic accordingly. This is only partially true. Take Comcast for instance. They probably have multiple entry points into their network that bring in and send out traffic to and from their customers. They CAN downgrade, lower the priority or slow the traffic down at those points for ANY incoming traffic and they can pinpoint the traffic coming from certain companies. If anyone tells you otherwise, then they truly do not understand networking and have probably never worked for an ISP or broadband cable company (I did for 13 years, first as Network Manager and eventually General Manager).

FCC SealInternet traffic patterns have changed significantly over the last decade. The model of determining bandwidth needs no longer works as traffic has gone from bursty style traffic to almost constant streaming for a large majority of the day. Broadband providers are finding that they have increased bandwidth costs and those costs can be directly associated with a select number of companies that provide services to the broadband providers’ customers. I agree that broadband providers should not tamper with the traffic coming into their network, but we also don’t need government regulation to keep it from happening. At some point, the customer will provide enough pressure on the provider to stop actions such as those. We all vote with our dollars. The main issue is when we don’t have an alternative to give our dollars to. That, to me, is where the real problem lies. We need more competition, not regulation.

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Donovan Adkisson
Donovan Adkisson
8 years ago

Another interesting read from the Broadband Commission report in 2013, Universalizing Broadband – http://www.donovanadkisson.com/stateofbroadband

Donovan Adkisson
Donovan Adkisson
8 years ago

This isn’t the exact document I was looking for, but it’s a pretty good description from Cisco on understanding data throughput in a DOCSIS world – http://www.donovanadkisson.com/statmux. If I can come across the actual document that I remember reading so many years ago, I’ll also post it in the comments.

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