Wednesday, March 15, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

A Technologist's Take on "Net Neutrality"

While law & econ types, end-to-end devotees and antitrusters wandering in the regulatory wilderness dominate the "net neutrality" debate, technologists are only rarely heard from. This may because they are too busy actually doing something productive for the economy, but I've at least drawn one out into the policy open. I reprint the e-mail he sent a few of us with permission:

The research community is thinking about what the next generation of the internet should look like. It is well accepted that the internet doesn't work as well as we would like it to work. It lacks security, robustness and host of other attributes. The NSF is about to engage in a substantial effort to fund researchers to think about how the network needs to evolve. Of course, the various segments of industry are also thinking about how the network should evolve. The last thing that we need is to have laws that might conflict with this evolution. And while the laws might have good intentions, they could create serious restrictions on how the network could or should evolve.

Network neutrality could develop to mean that all traffic is treated the same (e.g., best effort) or it could develop to mean that an access network must share its ability to differentiate traffic with competitors. My biggest concern with network neutrality (based on which definition you select) is that it could retard the development of new classes of services in a way that ultimately would hurt the consumer. Indeed, it could retard the development of the Internet by restricting the differentiation of service offerings. This ability to differentiate is important when we think about reliability and robustness of services such as voice. It is clear that one needs this ability to differentiate to acquire highly reliable services (I know that folks debate this issue but I have tested these things in my lab).

The other thing that is important to point out is that the internet is interconnected by market based business agreements. This includes everything from the tier one providers down through the ISPs to the customer. This is quite different from the PSTN where interconnection has been driven by regulation. If we see legislation that obligates a carrier to provide differentiation to competitors (like an ONA obligation), we will get back to a regulatory interconnection model. I would much prefer to see the market wrestle with pricing the differentiation (if it is needed or desired) and then have a process to address anticompetitive issues as they arise.

In the best possible future world, the network continues to grow in a way where innovation can still occur at the ends of the network AND services can be offered in a reliable and secure way. This will require the continued investment in the access network so that the pipe continues to grow in bandwidth. It also requires mechanisms where certain services can have a high guaranty of being delivered.

posted by Ray Gifford @ 3:35 PM | Net Neutrality