matt's weblog . . .

  matt's weblog . . .: March 2006

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

It's a serious problem . . .

The Net Neutrality/Tiered Interent problem is so serious, in fact, that, believe this or not, the below post is only number 49 when entering the following fairly specific search string into Google: "'Net Neutrality' 'tiered internet' vonage". Granted, my page rank is 4, but that tells you that A LOT of people are writing about this very issue.

Do a google search for "'corey haim' hobbit 'sean astin' 24" though and you can see that although a greater number of people are writing about the bizzare resemblance of Corey Haim to the actor who has recently played both a doddling hobbit and a whiz-bang CTU agent, I am evidently their champion.

P.S. My TiVo HDD took a crap late last week leaving my wife and I puzzled by the challenges of operating that big grey box in our living room without the little TiVo guy to help us. Thanks to the fine folks at Weaknees for restoring a sense of normalcy and order to our lives.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Net Neutrality, the Tiered Internet, and Vonage

This is probably going to be a very dry post for most of my regular or semi-regular readership, but it is such an important topic that I feel compelled to at least explain the basic issue. Please note that this is by no means supposed to be a manifesto on the issue, and individuals with far more technological expertise and savvy (see, generally, are weighing in all around the country. This is designed as an "everyday man's" introduction to the issue.

1. Your Broadband Connection

You, as a broadband internet user, pay your ISP (for convenience, let's universally assume your ISP is Comcast, both because I believe they're the nation's largest broadband ISP and because they happen to be my ISP) for a capped access (in Comcast's case, that's usually around 6Mbps download speed and 375Kbps upload speed - known as an asymmetrical connection; the reason for asymmetrical connections is that (a) it's more costly to Comcast to provide higher upload speeds than it is to provide higher download speeds, and (b) your average joe does not typically utilize the upload end of the connection nearly as heavily as the download end of the connection) directly to their network, and in turn, to the internet through their "pipes" (a colloquial term used for its ability to describe the way this all works).

2. How it Works

In order to understand this issue, you need to have a rudimentary understanding of how data is transmitted from a particular site "on the internet" over the Comcast pipes to your computer and vice-versa. This means "ports" and "packets". Computers connect to one another through "ports"; certain services and/or computers use the same port or range of ports for the same task (e.g. almost without exception, your computer connects to the internet through Port 8080). It is through these ports that data is transmitted to/from your computer, through the Comcast pipes, and to the internet; but data isn't just willy-nilly shoved off through ports; before it goes, it's broken up into little bits called "packets" and shoved off through the port, onto the Comcast network, then to "the internet" (lovingly referred to as the "internet cloud"), and ultimately to its intended destination; at their point of origination, the packets are told where to go, but not necessarily how to get there; if operating as intended, the packets then are supposed to go out and dynamically find the quickest and most efficient way of getting from Point A to Point B (bear in mind that this all happens in a matter of milliseconds); the way a packet chose to get from Point A to Point B is known as its "route" (one can tell how a packet got from Point A, navigated its way through the Comcast network and the internet cloud, and arrived at Point B by performing a simple diagnostic called a traceroute). Sometimes packets get "lost", but a certain attrition rate (usually not more than 5%) is expected and built into the system; this is known as packet loss; also, the amount of time a packet takes to get from Point A to Point B is known as latency.

So, for example, when you navigate to the Google webpage, you are essentially asking the Google server to send its webpage to you. The Google server complies with your request by breaking its webpage up into little packets and telling those packets to go to Your Computer, Port 8080; those little packets then dutifully depart at roughly the same time, dynamically determine the best way to get from Google to Your Computer, Port 8080, probably take mildly different routes through the internet cloud, get into the Comcast pipes, and are routed to Your Computer, Port 8080. Once they arrive at Your Computer, Port 8080, they are reconfigured so you are looking at the Google homepage. Simple, no? This all works together in a chaotic symphony that gives you the internet.

There are all sorts of terms and issues involved here, including the difference between UDP and TCP traffic, throughput, bandwidth, and -- most importantly -- QoS, which are critical to a complete understanding of the way in which this works and the ways in which it can be manipulated, but most of that is beyond the scope of this post, and this rudimentary explanation should be enough to get us started.

3. Net Neutrality & The Tiered Internet

This is where the technology meets policy. As of right now, Net Neutrality isn't an ideal, it's federally-mandated policy "enforced" by the FCC (there are limited exceptions to this, but we'll ignore those for simplicity's sake). The idea is simple. Because the Comcast pipes (which you pay to use as a broadband subscriber) sit between you and the internet cloud, Comcast has the ability (and in some cases, as will be seen below, the incentive) to "prefer" certain types of traffic over others and/or to "dis-prefer" certain other types of traffic. Comcast can do this by identifying certain types of packets and/or ports and manipulating the flow of those packets to/from those ports.

The "techniques" which would be employed to accomplish this include, among others, port blocking (blocking certain ports that are used exclusively by certain dis-preferred types of traffic or a certain dis-preferred service from using those ports on its pipes), packet shaping (preventing certain types of packets from finding the quickest and most efficient route between Point A and Point B by directing the route certain types of identified packets use over the Comcast pipes, resulting in increased packet loss and latency for the singled-out packet type), packet preference (overtly preferring certain types of packet traffic over others and vice-versa), etc.

Fortunately for us, Comcast is regulated by the FCC and is not supposed to be engaging in this type of behavior. Indeed, the FCC has come out and issued a policy statement clearly endorsing the Net Neutrality concept, the principles of which are as follows:

(1) consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
(2) consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
(3) consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
(4) consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

Although a far cry from actual FCC rules, these principles clearly forbid the type of techniques described above for preferring certain types of traffic over others. The idea is that as a broadband internet subscriber, you've purchased the right to access the internet for whatever legal purposes and/or services you desire and Comcast cannot interfere with that right.

Comcast, however, has every incentive in the world to "undo" Net Neutrality in favor of what is sometimes called the Tiered Internet. The Tiered Internet is a world in which Comcast is able to employ the above techniques to prefer certain types of traffic over others. The incentive to do this is clear. Comcast can "sell" preferred service to both end-users and service providers and/or launch services which compete with existing internet services and dis-prefer their competitor's traffic because, after all, they own the pipes. Right now, today, as I write this, Comcast is lobbying in Washington for just that and, as will be seen in a minute, the ramifications could be significant. If they are successful, you can say goodbye to the internet as you know it. Comcast would, in effect, be in a position to control speech, access, and services on the internet. This, in my humble opinion, would render them the single most powerful corporate entity in America, far eclipsing the combined "power" of Microsoft, network television, and all other forms of media because as the public continues its shift from conventional access to information to internet-based access to information, Comcast will be endowed with the power to single-handedly regulate that access (upon which those other entities and the public) depend. The importance of this issue cannot be overstated.

5. Comcast vs. Vonage - A Case Study

Without getting too deep into the nuance of VoIP, suffice it to say that Vonage is a VoIP provider, which means, in essence, that they provide an alternative telephone service that shuttles voice traffic over the internet rather than plain old telephone lines. Vonage voice packets are readily identifiable by existing and currently-employed technologies used by Comcast. Moreover, Vonage uses known ports for deploying its service. These facts make Vonage particularly susceptible to the network interruption techniques which could be employed by Comcast to disrupt Vonage traffic. Further exacerbating Vonage's potential "exposure" here is the fact that unlike typical network traffic in which occasionally high packet loss and/or latency is not really a big deal because the packets will just get re-sent, voice communications happen in real time; consequently, lost packets and high latency (the consequences of the above-described network interruption techniques) have real time immediate impact on the quality of the Vonage service experienced by Vonage users.

To put it simply, Vonage must have Net Neutrality in order to function properly or, if Net Neutrality goes by the wayside, they must be willing to pay Comcast to prefer (or at least, not dis-prefer) their traffic (a cost which will, invariably, be passed to the consumer). Further complicating this matter is the fact that Comcast is in the process of rolling out its own VoIP service to compete with Vonage. The temptation to disrupt Vonage service (an ability that Comcast has at the flip of a switch despite FCC policy statements to the contrary) is enormous. Indeed, there is some indication that Comcast had succumbed to this temptation over the past couple of weeks in the upper Midwest.

6. Conclusion

The problem is simple, the policies involved and the solution are not. This debate is raging all over the internet and for good reason. The outcome here will determine the future of the internet. While new technologies and new implementations of old technologies are emerging all over the place to make the internet "better" and more user-friendly, while Google (for better or worse) continues in its techno-hegemony of the internet, and while "Web 2.0" (whatever that term ultimately comes to mean) becomes a greater and greater reality, it is important to be mindful of the fact that all of this is built on a backbone owned and operated by a small handful of for-profit entities who are, as they should be, looking to maximize their cash flow and find new ways of creating profit centers. If the techno-renaissance I think we are entering now is to thrive, however, the Comcasts of the world must be tightly regulated and Net Neutrality must be made not merely a policy statement, but the rule of law.

7. Epilogue (Sort of . . .)

Well, my Vonage service is still suffering from what I have characterized as the battle raging between Comcast and Vonage, so I'm not updating this to give you good news (indeed, it looks like it's time to file my complaint with the FCC as my complaint with the Michigan AG's office does not appear to have "taken hold"), but rather, to give you some handy links to other places on the web where this is being discussed. Here VoIP news talks about this issue in a mildly different context (with the Telephone/DSL provider substituted in for Comcast). Here Om Malik details the "battle raging in Washington". Here Common Cause explains the policy issue in somewhat more detail. Ahh, forget it, I was going to post a bunch of these, but instead, click here to get the Google results for "'Net Neturality 'Tiered Internet' Vonage" to read all of these yourself.