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This article by me was first published at The Mark News:
http://www.themarknews.com/articles/269-the-limits-of-net-neutrality

Full text below:


On Friday [May 29, 2009], NDP Digital Affairs Critic Charlie Angus tabled a new bill to amend the Telecommunications Act with an eye to restricting the abilities of network operators to perform network management and thus, the reasoning goes, ensure so-called net neutrality. Specifically, the amendment states that "telecommunications service providers shall not engage in network management practices that favour, degrade or prioritize any content, application or service transmitted over a broadband network based on its source, ownership, destination or type." Net neutrality is a complex subject and there's much that can be discussed with respect to this bill but for the moment I'll focus only on one of its aspects.

In addition to a few specific safety - and security - related exemptions, the bill specifically would allow providers to "manage the flow of network traffic in a reasonable manner in order to relieve extraordinary congestion." But here's where the problem lies - as always, the devil's in the details. The health of any network is dependent upon on-going reactive and proactive network management. That such management should be reasonable is certainly a valid concern, but tying such management only to situations vaguely defined as "extraordinary congestion" is a recipe for disaster. Ordinary congestion is a problem, too. Beyond that, who's to decide what constitutes "extraordinary congestion?" And what would constitute management in "a reasonable manner" in such a situation? There's little likelihood that any consensus could be reached on clear and lasting definitions for either of those terms.

To understand the full implications of strictly limiting network management to exceptional situations, we need to take a step back from idealistic rhetoric and consider how networks - and customer usage patterns - evolve. In a perfect world, supply (network capacity) would always exceed demand (the load imposed on the network by its users). The reality is, though, that network capacity isn't organic, and doesn't expand in direct correlation to demand. The expansion of network capacity is capital-intensive and occurs incrementally at periodic intervals in different places at different times. Demand, on the other hand, increases constantly, and grows not just through the addition of more users to the network but also through increased consumption by existing users as a result of the introduction of new functionality or increasing usage of existing services. Sometimes this can be anticipated and accommodated in advance, sometimes it can't. Congestion - extraordinary or otherwise - is a fact of life with any network from time to time and failure to manage it in an appropriate manner does a disservice to the consumer.

Many net neutrality advocates demand that, as was historically the case, all traffic (packets of data) should be treated with equal priority. That's a nice ideal, but we need to realistically recognize that in an environment where demand can exceed supply, that's not always possible. In such situations, priority should be given to time-sensitive content. For instance, only some video content is truly time-sensitive. If the consumer is watching the content as it is delivered, that's important and the delivery of packets should not be degraded lest the experience suffer. If, however, the content is being downloaded for later viewing (as is the case, for example, with most peer-to-peer content) then some additional latency (delay) should be tolerated and considered reasonable if it is done so for the benefit of more time-critical content.

The beauty of a sophisticated network like the internet is that we can prioritize some traffic over other traffic. A dumb network can't do that. Conventional telephone networks are a perfect example of a dumb network that is engineered to meet reasonable peak volumes. However, if too many customers attempt to place a call at the same time, and thus exceed the existing capacity of the network, "extraordinary congestion" will occur. Some will get a dial tone, some won't. The telephone network can't differentiate between the relative importance of the various calls that would be made, and therefore who will get access to the network and who won't becomes a matter of luck and timing. Admittedly, on local telephone networks, this situation seldom arises anymore, but it is illustrative of the difference between what can happen when demand exceeds capacity on a dumb network versus what can be done with an intelligent network.

Don't get me wrong - I strongly agree that we need to combine well-defined public policy with reasonable, transparent and accountable behaviour on the part of the service providers. As well, network management shouldn't be a long-term substitute for on-going capacity expansion to meet demands. Unfortunately, this bill misses the mark. To dictate that we should prohibit network operators from providing a better overall experience through the use of the capabilities inherent in a smart network is just plain dumb.



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This page contains a single entry by Alan Sawyer published on June 1, 2009 8:22 PM.

CTV.ca | CRTC mulls hands-off approach to Internet, cellphones was the previous entry in this blog.

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