No free lunches on the Net

ISPs should be free to charge for service that guarantees voice and video performance, Ellacoya CEO Gerald Wesel says.

3 min read
The network neutrality debate has generated plenty of emotion and rhetoric. One side argues that the creation of "fast lanes" of Internet traffic constitutes "informational apartheid," while the other calls such views nuts.

The answer lies beyond the rhetoric, requiring an understanding of technology and the networks themselves. This is the approach that should inform Congressional decisions.

One view of network neutrality, also known as Net neutrality, is that Internet service providers, such as telephone and cable companies, should treat equally all types of Internet traffic traveling over their networks. For some, allowing network providers to treat some traffic differently than other traffic evokes visions of big corporations blocking consumer applications and restricting consumer freedoms.

The reality is that traffic must be managed in order to ensure fairness of service quality for all Internet users.

Research conducted by Ellacoya Networks shows that up to 5 percent of broadband subscribers can consume nearly 90 percent of network bandwidth, primarily by using high-bandwidth applications such as streaming media and, especially, file sharing. These demands are more than doubling network capacity requirements each year.

While the U.S. has led the world in establishing business models in technology markets, such is not the case with the broadband Internet.

By contrast, up to 90 percent of broadband subscribers consume less than 10 percent of network bandwidth. They most often check their e-mail, browse the Web and send instant messages. The problem--and the unfairness--occurs during times of peak congestion, when the activity of the 5 percent of heavy-use subscribers slows things down for the 90 percent using far less bandwidth-intensive applications.

In addition, the issue goes beyond convenience: How will a service provider guarantee that a 911 call will get through a congested network if the provider is forbidden from prioritizing real-time traffic?

To solve the problem, some suggest simply building more capacity. But that won't work, for the same reason that crowded suburbs cannot shorten commute times by simply building more roads. Without planning for what kind of traffic is coming and where it will occur, those extra roads will just fill up and jam again in no time.

Directing traffic
The good news is that technology now exists that allows service providers to fix overcrowding. In addition to allowing content providers to split out their "big bandwidth" applications, today's technology can associate network traffic with application types and subscribers. This makes smart traffic management possible and, where it has been tried, it has resulted in better performance and increased customer satisfaction.

But without bandwidth management, a majority of users will continue to be harmed by a minority who consume the lion's share of bandwidth.

Internet service providers should be able to offer classes of service so that they and other content and application providers can offer voice and video services with performance guarantees. This would not prevent any service provider from offering--or customers from using--voice and video applications as they do now. It would simply mean that those companies wishing to deliver a certain quality of voice or video service, and willing to pay more for performance guarantees, will be able to do so.

Many industries already offer consumers and providers the choice of different levels of service, and this has proven a successful business model for both service providers and consumers.

While the U.S. has led the world in establishing business models in technology markets, such is not the case with the broadband Internet. As the U.S. debates this matter, much of the rest of the world sees an opportunity, improving service by offering more choices and different service or pricing plans.

For instance, PlusNet, a leading Internet service provider in the United Kingdom, offers its customers three different service plans based on applications, speed, usage and time of day. After introducing choice, PlusNet saw its subscriber base spike by as much as 15 percent and revenue increase by as much as 20 percent. Even many existing customers decided to upgrade their service.

Networks need traffic management. We need a solution that reflects experience and facts, not rhetoric. The result will be better and faster Internet service for everyone.