Vint Cerf calls for Internet speed limits

One of the fathers of the Internet, Vint Cerf, offers suggestions for controlling network congestion on broadband networks in the wake of the FCC's ruling against Comcast.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Internet papa Vint Cerf said broadband speed limits rather than broadband data caps would be more useful in managing congested networks.

Vint Cerf, Google chief Internet evangelist Google

Cerf, who is Google's chief Internet evangelist, on Monday wrote a post on the company's public policy blog blasting the idea of applying data caps and metered rate plans. Instead he proposed a plan that limits network speeds.

His comments come just days after the Federal Communications Commission's symbolic ruling against Comcast for violating the agency's Net neutrality principles. The FCC came down hard on the cable operator for blocking access to peer-to-peer file-sharing protocols such as BitTorrent.

Comcast has argued that it was only targeting protocols such as BitTorrent in order to manage its network, which has been flooded with P2P traffic. This is a common complaint among Internet service providers, particularly cable operators, whose networks were originally built for one-way communication and also share capacity at the neighborhood level.

In response to the controversy, some ISPs are looking into consumption-based billing or putting volume caps on the amount of data that subscribers can use. Time Warner Cable started testing such a metered bandwidth service in Texas. The way it works is that customers pay for a certain amount of data capacity per month that can be either uploaded or downloaded using their broadband connection. And if they go over the cap in a given month, subscribers are charged $1 per megabyte.

Cerf, who helped create the TCP/IP protocol used as the foundation of the Internet, says that he doesn't think applying a "volume cap" is very "useful." He also said that metered pricing instead of the flat fee plans "could end up creating the wrong incentives for consumers to scale back their use of Internet applications over broadband networks."

That said, Cerf acknowledges that ISPs, such as Comcast, need to be able to manage their networks. But instead of using volume caps, he thinks ISPs should introduce transmission caps. These would allow users to purchase access to the Internet at a given minimum data rate, which would be guaranteed even during times of congestion. Subscribers could download or upload data of any size, anytime they want, at the guaranteed rate. When the network isn't congested, like in the middle of the night, users could get faster speeds. But during times of congestion, the broadband pipe would be limited to the minimum guaranteed rate.

This might mean that at peak times, it could take much longer to upload or download content. If subscribers get frustrated with the slower speeds, they could upgrade to a higher tier of service with a faster minimum speed. Or ISPs could offer a service that allows users to pay for short bursts of speedier connections.

The technology to create such a service has existed for some time. And network operators have been offering corporate customers data connections with minimum data rates spelled out for years.

The problem is that carriers don't want to sell consumer broadband services this way for a couple of reasons. For one, broadband providers prefer to advertise peak speed connections rather than minimums. A service that offers up to 10Mbps sounds a lot sexier than one that guarantees a 1Mbps download.

But network operators typically oversubscribe their networks to squeeze more profit out of their customers. The idea is that all subscribers don't use the network at the same time, typically leaving enough capacity so that when they do use the network, most users can get close to the maximum capacity offered. Selling services with minimum bandwidth guarantees means that operators wouldn't be able to oversubscribe the network as much, because during times of heavy congestion they might not be able to deliver the minimum data rates. It would also force these providers to enter into strict service level agreements with individual customers, which could potentially cost them a lot of money if they can't deliver the minimum guaranteed speeds.

It's difficult to say whether broadband providers will heed Cerf's recommendations, especially since the cable operators, due to how their networks are designed, are the ones in greater need of help. The phone companies, which have always had networks built for two-way communication, have also been aggressively upgrading their networks with fiber, which offers greater capacity.

Verizon Communications has been building a fiber-to-the-home network, which will allow the company to continually upgrade capacity by simply changing some of the hardware on the network. And AT&T has been upgrading its network, pushing fiber deeper into neighborhoods to provide more capacity over shorter loops of its last mile copper networks.

That said, Cerf writes in his blog that he's encouraged by the talks he has had thus far with Comcast.

"I've been pleased so far with the tone and substance of these conversations, which have helped me to better understand the underlying motivation and rationale for the network management decisions facing Comcast, and the unique characteristics of cable broadband architecture," he said. "And as we said a few weeks ago, their commitment to a protocol-agnostic approach to network management is a step in the right direction."