Wednesday, December 22, 2010

That's not how it works

James Robertson shares this depressing quote from the FCC:
"A commercial arrangement between a broadband provider and a third party to directly or indirectly favor some traffic over other traffic in the connection to a subscriber of the broadband provider (i.e., 'pay for priority') would raise significant cause for concern," the Commission then elaborates. This is because "pay for priority would represent a significant departure from historical and current practice."

Follow the link for analysis.

Let me focus just on this part. The FCC, here, joins the ranks of those who think the Internet is a star topology. The apparent model is that there's an Internet, and then everyone plugs their computer into the Internet. When one user routes a packet to another user, it takes two hops: one to the center node, and one to the other user. Everything that happens within this mythical center node is abstracted away.

As an aside, the FCC also presents a view of the Internet where a handful of providers are sending broadcasts to the masses. Individuals don't contract for Internet services. They are "consumers", and they "subscribe" to the feeds. Leave that aside for now.

The Internet is not a star topology, but a general network. When you send a packet to someone else, it usually takes a dozen or two hops to get to them. How fast it gets to them depends enormously on the intermediate nodes that are taken along the way. I used to play around with traceroute and watch just what routes the packets take under various circumstances. I saw some particularly striking examples when I worked on a Department of Defense bulletin board and watched how packets route between a university network and a DoD machine. Let's just say the routes favored security over latency. They'd go a LONG way in order to go through carefully controlled choke points.

Because the Internet works this way, people who provide Internet services work hard to make sure their servers are well connected with respect to their users. For example, if you want to provide service to British folks, then you really want to get a server up on the island. It wasn't so long ago that all major ftp sites had clones in the UK. Sending data across the English Channel, much less the Atlantic Ocean, was just horrendously slow. When you install an extra server in the UK, you must pay for it.

Relocating a server is just one option. It's also possible to lease network connections between where your server is and where you want the IP traffic to route to. When you do that, you will have to pay whomever you are leasing the bandwidth from.

In short, if you want better connectivity, you have to pay for it. The more you pay, the better the connectivity you get. What the FCC calls a disturbing development is a hair split away from how things already work. They seem to be riding on the notion of whether you pay a broadband provider or some other entity. I fail to see what a big difference it makes.

Let's try a few thought experiments and compare them to the star-topology model. Suppose Netflix pays Comcast to let them install some servers in the same building as a major Comcast hub. Is anything wrong with that? I don't see why. They'll get better bandwidth, but they're paying for all the expenses. Similarly, suppose Netflix, on their own dime, installs new network fiber from their data center to a major Comcast hub. Is there anything wrong with that? Again, I don't see it. After Netflix lays that network, would there be anything wrong with Comcast plugging into it and routing traffic to and from it? Again, I can't see how it would help users for them to decline.

Where the FCC seems to draw the line is when you go past barter and use more fungible resources. What if, instead of Netflix installing new network fiber itself, it pays Comcast to do it. And what if, instead of Comcast laying new fiber for each customer, they split the cost over different customers, giving more access to those who pay more. From the FCC's view, this goes from totally normal to something they've never seen in the past. From my view, this is how things work already. You pay more to get more bandwidth.

I wish the FCC would just abandon trying to regulate Internet service. I want a neutral network, but I don't see how the FCC is going to anything but hurt. I want the Internet we have, not something like broadcast TV, cable, wired telephony, or cellular telephony. I don't think it is a coincidence that the Internet is both less regulated and far more neutral than these other networks.

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