Thursday, July 26, 2007

Network Neutrality vs Getting What You Pay For

There is a lot of talk these days about Network Neutrality, and all sides of the debate use the term to mean different things. Ars Technica has a great article about Network Neutrality and Deep Packet Inspection, and it has me wondering the same thing I've been wondering each time I hear Network Neutrality brought up.

It seems to me we have three primary players.  One is me, the end user.  Two is the other end of the 'tube', lets pick on Google since they're big and have more money than they probably need.  Three is the network owner, I'll pick on AT&T for this example.

AT&T is in the business of selling bandwidth on this big 'ol network that it owns, or leases, or cobbles together from a bunch of OTHER people who own networks etc, but for my example, I'll deal with the simplified AT&T.  So AT&T owns a network with a certain maximum bandwidth, and it makes money by selling people small slices of bandwidth on its network.  Google is a huge company that is ravenous for bandwidth, and it buys a huge chunk of it from AT&T.  I'm a little guy on an iMac in my living room, and I pay AT&T for a really tiny slice of bandwidth.

Once AT&T sells the bandwidth, why should it care if I talk to Google?  If I hit my bandwidth cap, I get throttled.  I paid for 5Mb lets say, and when I hit 5 that's it.  If I keep requesting more and more connections, either my new connections get refused, or my old connections get throttled back to make space in my little 5Mb slice for the new connections.

Google should be the same way.  Now Google's numbers are huge compared to me, and if too many of Google's connections are being throttled because Google hasn't bought enough bandwidth, then Google's customers might start to get upset with bad performance, and Google will be forced to either buy more bandwidth or deal with unhappy customers.

However, lets say that Google has purchased plenty of bandwidth, and in fact is doing a great job of serving its customers, so much so that Google is making money hand over fist.  I have heard the argument made that 'Google is getting rich on the backs of the networks', AT&T in my example.  Should AT&T be allowed a cyberspace version of a stage coach hold up?   Pay us a percentage of your ungodly profits or we'll throttle your bandwidth?  Google has paid AT&T for a certain bandwidth slice, as long as they don't exceed that limit, why should AT&T have any expectation of getting money out of Google?  Is it just that Google is better at making money with a given allotment of bandwidth than say Yahoo?  Isn't that like saying FedEx is better at making money on highways than UPS, so we should charge FedEx more to use the roads?

In my simple mind, packets are packets.  If I have an agreement with AT&T that they will deliver to and from me a certain rate of packets, then they better live up to their end of the bargain, or we'll be talking to the BBB.  Now if AT&T has oversold their available bandwidth, and too many people are actually using what they agreed to such that AT&T actually CAN'T provide each user with the bandwidth they agreed to, well that's a problem AT&T needs to deal with by either increasing its maximum bandwidth, or by not overselling what they can actually provide as much.  Similarly, if I've paid for a 5Mb connection, I better not get upset when I can't download 10 iTunes movies at the same time, each at 5Mb.  I can buy more bandwidth if I want to.

I know the real situation is much more complex than this, however this seems to be the fundamental question.  People are afraid of AT&T making deals with Yahoo to give Yahoo traffic priority, presumably at the expense of traffic from people who have not signed up special deals.  As long as that doesn't mean depriving Google of the bandwidth that Google has paid for and AT&T has agreed to provide, then I don't see the harm.  Yahoo is getting more and paying more, they're getting what they paid for.  The moment AT&T denies Google the bandwidth they have agreed on, AT&T needs to be taken to court for breach of contract.

I've never known anyone to complain about getting more than what they've paid for.  But I certainly know that customers will not stand by long and put up with not getting what they've paid for.

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