• United States

Technology makes it impossible to regulate ‘Net neutrality

Feb 22, 20063 mins

* Technical issues may prevent enforcement of Internet neutrality

As we noted last time, we support the concept of Internet neutrality. But although some suggest regulating neutrality, we’re not so sure that that is a practical solution and today we’ll discuss why technical issues may prevent enforcement.

First, a simplified network view on how the Internet works. End users get their access either through dial-up connections that connect to a remote access server (RAS) or they get their access through a wireline or wireless broadband connection that connects to an aggregation point. Aggregation points are typically packet switches like an ATM switch or a router. The router connects to an IP-core router; core routers constitute the Internet backbone. At the content end, commercial providers are also typically on a broadband connection to a router to one or more servers.

The Internet is substantially oversubscribed. Depending on the connection type (RAS or broadband), the ISP and the server/server farm, oversubscription rates range from 300% to 1000% or greater. The “Internet” also shares some of the same equipment as other data services at both the physical (optical) layer and at the packet layer.

To make sure that services like a carrier’s IP VPN or POTS services, which may share core equipment, meet their service-level agreements, carriers typically use a protocol like MPLS to prioritize traffic, giving these services a statistically greater change of connectivity.

Service providers can also use various protocols to further prioritize traffic at the customer premise. For example, when a user subscribes to both voice and video on the same router, the router can prioritize the voice differently than the data traffic.

Let’s assume that the government does pass a law demanding ‘Net neutrality. The tough part is enforcing neutrality in every piece of equipment on a per-packet basis between the user’s computer and the content provider’s server. Will the law suggest that companies should self-police their enforcement? If so, then the law would be worse than passing a law that makes maintaining car speed limits into an unenforced suggestion.

Should a governmental agency be responsible for enforcement? Then the only way to enforce end-to-end neutrality is to have end-to-end governmental monitoring of packet-level traffic, raising a host of privacy concerns. Perhaps the medicine is worse than the disease in this case.

So we suppose we must leave the final solution to “market forces” to solve the problem. In the face of competition, maybe some users will be sophisticated enough to understand why using a service provider that doesn’t charge content providers is preferred. On the other hand, maybe users won’t really care enough to make a choice in favor of neutrality. And for a company like Google or Vonage to mount a user education campaign on the issue may be more costly than just paying the ISP in the first place.