The Internet is not a railroad, or is it?

Andrew Odlyzko is at it again. He keeps putting out tenaciously researched papers that make it very clear that one "common wisdom" or another is fundamentally flawed. His latest target is the telephone industry assumptions about what types of technology to invest in.

While Odlyzko is at it, he describes a significant conflict between the architectural assumptions that brought us the Internet of today and the ability for the ISPs to make a living.

His most recent paper, Pricing and architecture of the Internet: Historical perspectives from telecommunications and transportation, was published last December. The paper combines a history of transportation pricing with an exploration of which lessons from that history might apply to the Internet.

Odlyzko says the Internet might be an anomaly in the transport business because the cost does not currently depend on what is being transported. Many other transportation systems, including railroads and freight haulers, charge different rates for carrying different types of goods. ISP pricing does not take into account what is in the packets transported over the network. Surfing the Web, downloading music or watching a NASA telecast of the Mars landing all cost the same.

The Internet's basic architectural design assumed that ISPs just carried packets. ISPs didn't know what was in those packets and didn't care. But, as Odlyzko notes, there are now a number of reasons to think about changing this architectural assumption. These issues are more fully explored in a 2002 paper by MIT researchers Dave Clark, John Wroclawski and Karen Sollins, along with USC researcher Bob Braden, called Tussle in Cyberspace: Defining Tomorrow's Internet. Some reasons that it might become important that ISPs begin to know more about what is going on over their networks include economic issues (for example, ISPs need to figure out a way to benefit from high-value traffic to improve their ability to be profitable) and regulatory issues (for example, law enforcement agencies feel they need to be able to wiretap Internet-based communications). Odlyzko and Clark et al. see significant conflicts going forward over these issues. These conflicts might result in an Internet far less open for innovation than the historical one.

One part of Odlyzko's paper that has gotten the most attention, at least on slash dot, is his observation that "essentially all major networking initiatives of the last decade, such as ATM, [quality of service], [Resource Reservation Protocol], multicasting, congestion pricing, active networks and 3G, have turned out to be duds." This might be a bit overstated. He is quite right that none of these technologies have turned out to be successful carrier-based customer services, but many of them (not including congestion pricing, active networks or 3G) have turned out to be quite successful within enterprise networks.

Odlyzko's papers tend to be clear, thought-provoking and annoying. Annoying in that they tend to poke holes in too many of my not-well-thought-through assumptions. Sometimes annoying is the right thing to be.

Disclaimer: The words "annoying" and "Harvard" do seem to show up in the same sentence rather often, but the above positive view of annoyance is my own.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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