Network Neutrality: Fantasy or Folly?

Martin Geddes has some pretty clear views on the feasibility of network neutrality. Read his latest explanation here. And we consider the practicalities of operating a ‘neutral’ network, and the significant implications for OSS…

Geddes gets right to the point: “There is only one problem with network ‘neutrality’: it doesn’t technically exist.”

It’s a romantic notion that the Internet should be a level playing field. Many OTT service providers and independent content providers are in support of the notion of network neutrality. Their main concern is that CSPs should not be shaping traffic to throttle one group of content providers while favoring others who, presumably, generate more revenue for the CSP (either by the content provider paying directly or the consumer paying for some premium service level).

The Internet should be a platform open to all, with all consumers and providers treated equally.

But how does that work in practice?

As Geddes puts it: “The underlying political idea is that by offering some form of ‘fair’ packet treatment, a ‘fair’ user experience will result. This is a seductive attempt to apply common carriage principles to broadband. Unfortunately, it is not grounded in technical reality.”

This leads to a number of false assumptions, says Geddes:

  1. It is ‘neutral’ packet treatment that matters.
  2. You can readily measure and thus regulate ‘neutrality’.
  3. That the end result of a ‘neutral’ network is ‘fair’.

Now, if you have a basic understanding of network operations and OSS you probably understand why these are false assumptions. Just substitute ‘fair’ for ‘optimal’ (or any other objective) and familiar problems arise from such simple assumptions:

  • Optimal (or fair…) routing of packets at the device level or local level does not lead to optimal end-to-end performance. Certainly not an overall optimal service level for all customers, and rarely even an optimal route for an individual service.
  • How do you know if your network, or even a small region, is configured for optimal (or fair…) packet routing? This is a big challenge and one that is usually approached with complex statistical analysis and simulation. But even then, all one can do is model a network with some known, assumed states and estimate it’s behavior for a small set of likely traffic demands. There is no simple template for optimal network design or configuration.
  • Where does normal network optimization end, and a risk to network neutrality start? If I see a bunch of traffic from Netflix affecting my other customers, can I fire up my OSS tools to reroute the troublesome traffic or optimize my impacted customers’ traffic flows? Nothing sinister, just tweak my LSPs, my OSPF metrics, my BGP routing… Or is that unfair, because I’m treating traffic from one source differently from others?

Net neutrality raises a lot of questions about how CSPs operate their network. If it should ever be enshrined in law or industry compliance, CSPs will have to ensure they have the OSS applications to model and manage network ‘fairness’, and they risk having to change today’s operational policies that seek to optimize networks in terms of cost and efficiency.

Read Geddes’ views on Network Neutrality here.