Democracy & Technology Blog Stuck in Neutral

Are Comcast and Verizon bent on slowing your Google and Yahoo! searches to a crawl? Each day, it seems, yet another pundit jumps into the “net neutrality” fray, and that is the impression they give readers. In last Sunday’s Washington Post, it was Christopher Stern failing to listen to the technology. Stern’s treatment was fairer than most but still drew a false caricature of the complex business and technical issues that have recently dominated the Internet and New Media debate.
Stern asks:

“Do you prefer to search for information online with Google or Yahoo? What about bargain shopping — do you go to Amazon or eBay? Many of us make these kinds of decisions several times a day, based on who knows what — maybe you don’t like bidding, or maybe Google’s clean white search page suits you better than Yahoo’s colorful clutter.
“But the nation’s largest telephone companies have a new business plan, and if it comes to pass you may one day discover that Yahoo suddenly responds much faster to your inquiries, overriding your affinity for Google. Or that Amazon’s Web site seems sluggish compared with eBay’s.
“The changes may sound subtle, but make no mistake: The telecommunications companies’ proposals have the potential, within just a few years, to alter the flow of commerce and information — and your personal experience — on the Internet.”

The fact is that simple Google and Yahoo! searches or eBay or Amazon transactions are not going to slow down at all. They don’t require very much bandwidth. Most of the delay comes in processing the query or transaction at the server cluster. In fact, with advanced new networks delivering broadband speeds of tens of megabits per second, the Net is going to deliver a far better experience for the vast majority of users and applications. After the flood of bandwidth, the key to delivering bits quickly and robustly is “storewidth” — the capacity of computers to find, sort, process, and serve web pages, applications, answers, services, transactions, and other forms of content with little delay. Customers want quick computing. Slowing down Google searches or eBay transactions would be disastrous for the bandwidth service providers.
The real question, then, is what about large files and huge streams — namely, rich media such as video and audio. These are the only types of Internet traffic that will impose much of a bandwidth burden on the network operators. Video and audio also happen to intersect with (interfere with?) the content business models of the cable and telecom companies. High definition video packets traveling from coast to coast will require special processing, using priority quality of service (QoS) technologies integrated in the new generation of routers and switches. High definition video consumes massive amounts of bandwidth and requires precise delivery without latency or jitter. New algorithms like Digital Fountain’s ingenius “raptor codes” or “fountain codes” can do some of the work. But much of the work will be done through packet prioritization, both in the core of the network and at the edge.
Today, the Internet is a “best effort” system that seeks servers in a roundabout way with algorithms that seek the best route but sometimes hit obstacles or bottlenecks. All sorts of methods have been employed to shuttle VIPs (Very Important Packets) around the Net with faster and more reliable service than their pedestrian counterparts. We’ve given streaming video and voice-over-IP, for instance, special attention. Very often extra bandwidth is used as an elegant substitute for complicated QoS or geographically optimized content caching. Increase the size of the pipe enough, and all the packets get red carpet treatment. Nevertheless, going forward, some combination of big bandwidth, big storewidth, and QoS will be used to deliver the goods. This stuff costs money, and in many cases the VIPs will cost more to serve than the JSPs (Joe Six Packets). Content companies will pay bandwidth providers for VIP service, as they do today. Bandwidth providers will offer their customers contracts that say we will give you so much bandwidth to the open, best effort Internet for so many dollars. If the bandwidth providers don’t provide that access, if they actively block or slow certain sites or certain packets that effectively break that bandwidth-per-dollar contract, not only will they not fulfill their contract, but customers also will find another provider.
The fact that some VIPs will enjoy bandwidth martinis will not prevent Joe Six Packets from drinking as much beer as he wants.
-Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson

Bret Swanson is a Senior Fellow at Seattle's Discovery Institute, where he researches technology and economics and contributes to the Disco-Tech blog. He is currently writing a book on the abundance of the world economy, focusing on the Chinese boom and developing a new concept linking economics and information theory. Swanson writes frequently for the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal on topics ranging from broadband communications to monetary policy.