Friday, April 13, 2007

Big Lobbying Money + Complicated Subject + Stupid Tech Writer = Gigantic Mess

Subtitle: Robert X Cringely is a bloody idiot.

The job of a tech writer is to explain the universe of high technology to laymen in terms they can understand. To clarify confusing topics, to illuminate, to inform. So why does PBS's Robert X Cringely insist on writing on topics about which he so obviously does not have even a wisp of understanding? This week he writes about net neutrality, a topic inspired, apparently, by his suspicion that his broadband provider may be messing with his faxes over his VOIP service. He goes on to discuss how ISP's already implement quality of service prioritization (QoS), which he refers to as tiered service, which means that we have, in fact, never had network neutrality. It also, he says, means the internet is not a "best efforts" network as all the pundits say it is. All of this is, of course, wrong. That's not unusual for Cringely. What irritates me is that this is an important issue, and the wrong characterization that Cringely just published is exactly the line of bullshit that the lobbyists for incumbent networks are trying to sell. This makes Joe unhappy. So I'm going to take time out of my day to do Cringely's job for him.

It's easiest first to define net neutrality by what it is not:

Net neutrality is not an effort to prohibit QoS prioritization or traffic shaping. If you want to (as Cringely says in the article) give top priority to VOIP, then routing tables, then commercial broadband service, then consumer broadband service, there is absolutely no problem with that. Knock yourself out. If you want to dial down bandwidth on popular filesharing ports because the bittorrent users are clogging your network, again no problem. This is not what net neutrality is about (with one caveat I'll get to below). (And in case anyone cares, traffic prioritization is not, as Cringely believes, mutually exclusive with being a "best efforts" network (which the internet by and large is).)

Net neutrality also does not prohibit tiered service offers. If you want to give you end users a choice between a $20/mo 2mb service, a $40/mo 10mb service, and an $80 100mb service, there's no problem with that.

And here is what net neutrality is:

Net neutrality prohibits discrimination based on source. All data of the same type gets the same treatment regardless of who it comes from. So you can discriminate as much as want between different types of data, as long all packets within each class get the same treatment. The point of this is that a service provider is not allowed to favor its own websites, email, VOIP system, streaming video service, etc. over a competitor's. If you want to give your VOIP system high priority service, then Vonage gets that service too. Similarly, service providers not allowed to preference third-party services who pay them a fee. So charging Vonage for special priority carriage then turfing other VOIP providers isn't allowed either. That's net neutrality.

Where this gets tricky is where a service provider doesn't offer VOIP or streaming video over the internet, but offers an analogous non-internet-based service over the same line (phone service for DSL, cable TV for cable modems). In that case, prioritization by type acts as a proxy for prioritization by source. If you throttle down all VOIP service equally, that still gives preference to your non-internet phone service. To that extent, and only to that extent, net neutrality may have something to say about type-based prioritization.

The cable and phone incumbents have spent boatloads of lobbying money to promote the misconceptions about net neutrality that Cringely put on display in his column. Traffic shaping based on packet type is highly useful, and generally accepted as a desirably practice. Likewise tiered service offers to end users serves an important purpose in the market. If the incumbents can get everyone to believe that these things would be trashed by net neutrality, it makes their job much easier in arguing against it. This lobbying effort has been quite effective, and I see these misconceptions all over the place. It always bothers me, but much more so when I see it from a perceived authority figure like Cringely. Tech writers have a duty to clarify this issue, not to muddy it further.

And, by the way, Cringely, the reason your fax doesn't work over VOIP has nothing to do with net neutrality. VOIP uses lossy compression tuned to work with human voices, not the blips, bleeps, and squawks of a fax modem. Your fax machine doesn't work over VOIP because the fax transmission is being garbled by that compression. Buy yourself a scanner and toss the fax machine, it's obsolete.

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