Feb 142008

I read an article today in WSJ on network neutrality, and it got me wondering – what’s the big deal?

Apparently Comcast has admitted to delaying or blocking peer to peer (P2P) traffic on its network, thus allowing more bandwidth for non P2P traffic. On the surface, I thought, so what? A good portion of the traffic on P2P networks is illegal copies of movies, music, and software. Shouldn’t that get less of a priority than “righteous” traffic?

P2P software providers are likely to say they’re being discriminated against, and cite the fact that P2P technology enables the transfer of information in an efficient manner, etc., and who is Comcast to judge what types of traffic deserve prioritization? Good point. Unfortunately for Comcast, the bandwidth available to subscribers depends on the usage levels of their neighbors since the technology is not switched. This is distinctly different than Verizon’s offerings, DSL and Fios, which are both switched technologies (meaning that the bandwidth you pay for is not available to anyone else but yourself). So I would venture to say that Verizon doesn’t have as much of a problem, though certainly they could prioritize traffic on their network backbone if they wanted to.

So what this this all mean? It seems that network providers are in the unique position to affect the financial prospects of many businesses that rely on network connectivity and performance. If I was running a media business whose delivery mechanism primarily used P2P technology that was delayed or even blocked merely because it uses the technology, that could have devastating consequences to my company’s performance. Taking it a step further, if the network provider discriminates based on the technology used, who is to stop them from prioritizing based on content? Maybe Comcast will reduce the priority of traffic to/from specific web sites, which could be anti-competitive.

On the other hand, if I were a Comcast executive, I need to be worried about quality of service. If 15 year olds are degrading service for each of their neighborhoods across the country because they’re downloading movies 24/7, that will lead to defections to Verizon or other competitors. If I’m Comcast, I need to do something to ensure that my customers are satisfied, or my business my lose many customers. Why shouldn’t I be able to preserve quality of service for the masses if I have the ability? It’s my network isn’t it? I own the lines don’t I?

It seems to me that there ought to be a balance between network providers’ ability to manage levels of service on their own networks and openness to policing. Technologies probably would have to be developed to enable accurate identification of content traversing the network, and there would have to be some clear definition of what content can be prioritized across known service levels. Of course, that is easier said than done since there are so many voices in the conversation. I guess my take is that network providers shouldn’t be forced to keep things completely open at the peril of their business.

What are your thoughts?

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