Dark Fiber 2.07.2006

Without 'Net neutrality,' will consumers pay twice?
Content that travels over the Internet is chopped into "packets." The Internet is designed so that these packets can travel through multiple paths to get to their destination. Some packets go one way while others go a different way. Then they're reassembled at the end.

While the packets travel through the network, they can face congestion and get slowed down. They can be dropped, forcing the sender to resend them. Sometimes this seemingly haphazard approach causes delays. It's usually not a big deal for most data applications, such as e-mail. But for time-sensitive data, like telephony or video, delays can degrade the user's experience.

As broadband providers, AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon Communications can control the flow of traffic in their network. They can give certain packets priority in the network over other packets, helping guarantee a better user experience.

Broadband providers reject the notion that prioritizing some traffic will inherently hurt the performance of nonprioritized traffic. In fact, they argue the opposite will happen because prioritizing some traffic is like opening an "express lane" on the highway, which ultimately keeps all traffic flowing.

I call bullshit.

And I refer you, dear reader, to the following article: Dark Fiber, which points out that all Telcos have an excess of available bandwidth, including bandwidth that has been laid into the ground and only requires a little bit of (relatively) inexpensive equipment to light up, in order to prevent problems with "congestion" on the backbone of the Internet.

To use the analogy from above, it's as if the Telcos have already poured a 20 lane highway, but they have road cones installed to prevent all but 6 of those lanes from being used. It wouldn't take much to send a road crew out to the site and open up four more lanes--the expense of laying the fiber has already been taken care of. Just remove the road cones (install the signaling equipment on both ends of the fiber), and there will be more capacity than anyone realistically needs right now.

Further, large corporations such as Google and Symantec and others pay a rather huge amount of money for bandwidth. You see, the current cost model that the telcos use to sell service is that they have a huge chunk of backbone bandwidth which they maintain--but charge for the size of the pipe your individual company gets when it connects to the Internet. For example, if you want a one megabit upstream optical pipe from Comcast service, you will pay more ($160/month) than if you want 384kbs up ($60/month). For faster service you need to make special arrangements with the telco--and for someone like Symantec, I know we pay a fortune (add a few zeros after that price per month) for Internet service so we can distribute things like AV definitions and LiveUpdate packages.

So Google already pays through the nose for Internet service. So using the ruse "well, the shortage of bandwidth is because there is congestion because we need to build more highway" is complete bullshit. Between dark fiber and charging companies like Google for their usage already, the pricing model the Telcos want is already in place--and it's not like they need a lot to remove the road cones to open up more bandwidth.

So what gives?

I have two theories. The first is that in the olden days internet service was a side-product to most Telco's primary revenue source: local and long distance telephone service. But in today's "Everything over IP" world, internet service *is* local and long distance telephone service. Further, after the collapse of the Dot Com boom, bandwidth prices have dropped through the floor. Telcos have become a commodity market--and who wants to be a neutral commodity provider of anything?

The money to be made in any market is to be a value-added reseller of services. So by allowing the Telcos to prioritize IP packets, they're not building a separate "fifth lane" for "high speed traffic"; that could be done by lighting up some of the dark fiber but dedicating it to another purpose than the Internet. No; they're trying to get into a "value added" service, where they light up some of that dark fiber, and route certain packets over it.

In a way this makes sense: while everyone looks at Google, I suspect the major target of this are VOIP providers who are going head to head with the phone company. By allowing the phone companies to charge VOIP providers for a percentage of backbone bandwidth--rather than just charging for the "last mile" of bandwidth, and by allowing phone companies to charge for other services (video, music, etc) that gets passed over their wire, it allows them to create, in a sense, "artifical shortages" on the net by dedicating bandwidth which could otherwise be equally shared.

My second theory is that phone companies want to have the regulatory clout to be able to shut down competitors who would otherwise turn the Telco's long-haul cable into a commodity item, and the Telcos into infrastructure monopolies like the electric company. However, if California's deregulation blackouts and sky-high prices are of any indication, allowing the Telcos to essentially play with the bandwidth in the way that the California power companies played with power availability would effectively destroy the promise of the Internet.

I strongly believe the Telcos have to live up to the fact that they are providing a backbone service, like the electric companies--and not a "value added" service.

posted by William Woody at 7:10 PM

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A moderate conservative living in the left coast, surrounded by the sureal, wonders if there is a sane life living amongst those who have lost touch with reality.

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