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Computing At Chaos Manor: October 23, 2006

The User's Column, October, 2006
Column 315, part 4
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2006 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.

Continued from last week.

One of the advantages of being my own publisher is that I can slip my deadlines at need; there's nothing set in stone about the number of new words I have to put up every Monday, nor is there any real requirement that I wait until Monday to add new materials. Monday is a convenient day for me, and having a regular day to look for a new column is convenient for you; but it is a convenience, not an absolute deadline.

In other news, we're getting subscribers, but the rate has fallen off. The amount of effort I can put into this place is pretty directly connected to the number of people willing to pay for it (http://www.jerrypournelle.com/paying.html) But you knew that.

The Week

Three things happened last week. One was that I discovered that writing about the net neutrality issue is more difficult than I had supposed. A second was that Roberta received about 10,000 "returned" emails a day: system administrator notices of rejected email purportedly sent from her domain to half the universe. Of course, she hadn't sent any such things; her address was faked as the return address of this spam. It took hours on the telephone to make Earthlink aware of the problem, and it is taking even more time to get them to do something about it: that stuff ought to be intercepted before it ever gets here, but so far it hasn't been.

I had to devise a set of rules to go through tens of thousands of these messages to find her genuine mail, which includes orders for her software, and credit card payments for subscriptions to this web site. I think I managed to do that properly, but if you recently subscribed to either Chaos Manor Reviews or my home web site www.jerrypournelle.com (a subscription to either is a subscription to both) by using a credit card, it would be well to send me an email to that effect so I can check to see we properly enrolled it.

Dealing with this Denial of Service attack - that's certainly what it amounted to, and there's a name for it, a 'Joe-Job' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_jobs ), although this one wasn't deliberate (backscatter) - coping ate a good bit of time; net neutrality ate more; and finally, I got enthralled by my own book. I've been going great guns on the sequel to Niven and Pournelle's Inferno, and when I'm hard at work on fiction I fall behind on non-fiction. So it goes.

Net Neutrality

I am finding the net neutrality issue more complicated than I had supposed. It's actually not so much complex as confused: a lot of people have pious intentions, but they seem to have sold out some important principles in hopes of achieving them. Now if you start with the premise that "that government governs best which governs least" - not a bad starting point for design of a Constitution - you will very soon discover that things get complex fast. It's not just enough to keep people from being beastly to each other, prevent fraud and deception, settle disputes, and provide for the common defense. There are enterprises needful for the general welfare, and that's a hole you can drive pork-filled trucks through.

It's the same for "net neutrality." It's all very well to wish for "end to end neutrality" and "non-discrimination." It's quite another to devise laws and regulations to assure those results. For example: if you insist that all packets be treated equally, what does this mean? Does this mean that Internet Service Providers will be forbidden to provide extra services unless they are given to every subscriber? The result of that will be more services and higher prices for all, including those who have no need for the added services, or no new services will be offered. What will be the effect on research and development if new premium services can't be sold at premium prices?

Last week John Dvorak said that if we don't get some kind of Internet neutrality laws, we will find ourselves "getting your Google access at 2400 Baud." No one wants that; but is an expansion of government power necessary to prevent it?

How did we get into this debate, anyway?

Whitacre's Pipes

As near as I can tell, net neutrality wasn't thought an important issue until November, 2005, when Edward Whitacre, then CEO of SBC back before SBC merged with AT&T and BellSouth to reconstitute Ma Bell, participated in a Business Week interview. Part of that interview produced this exchange:

How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG ), MSN, Vonage, and others?

How do you think they're going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain't going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there's going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?

(Source: BusinessWeek)

That started a firestorm, which is not yet contained. Before it was over, millions would be spent on lobbyist efforts and TV spots, and the "net neutrality" issue was born. It's still going.

What is Net Neutrality?

Given the storms of publicity on the subject, you would think it easy to get a concise statement on just what the proponents of "net neutrality" want, but in fact it's hard to do so. First, a definition. This one is from Wikipedia.

The phrase Network Neutrality describes networks that don't favor some destinations over others, or classes of application (for example the World Wide Web) over others (such as online gaming or Voice over IP). Whilst the term is new, the basic concept originated in the age of the telegram in 1860 or even earlier, telegrams were routed 'equally' without attempting to discern their contents and adjusting for one application or another. Such networks are "end-to-end neutral." (link)

At first glance this seems simple enough, but on examination there are questions. If my ISP doesn't deliver enough bandwidth to let me play World of Warcraft on line, does "net neutrality" mean that I can't ask for a premier service and pay more for it? It isn't obvious that while Aunt Minnie does only email and once in a while gets pictures and the occasional video clip of the grandchildren, but the goon down the street spends twenty hours a day downloading porn, they should pay the same monthly fees. It isn't obvious that if I want to set up conference calls to a dozen of my Guild Wars confreres in 9 states and three nations, and run that conference call ten hours a day, I should pay the same fees as the customer who uses Skype to call his grandmother in Bognor Regis once a month.

Yet that statement is a model of clarity compared to this:


Last summer, the FCC and Courts removed consumer protections on speedy Internet service and handed the phone companies and cable TV a blank check to create preferred service for favored clients. If Congress does not put these protections back soon, it could be a lot harder to reach your church or school, your local business or online communities you care about.


That, incidentally, is the entire argument. There are buttons you can punch to send your sentiments to Congress, or donate money, but you'll have to dig to find out why anyone wants to make it harder for you to reach your church or school or local business, or what they propose to do about it. IT'S OUR NET is supported by a large coalition that includes Adobe, Amazon, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and Yahoo, and paid for by many of them. It's not precisely underfinanced. Alas, my search of IT'S OUR NET hasn't revealed what, precisely, the highly paid Microsoft lobbyists are asking for, or why the interests of Microsoft and Adobe and Amazon are congruent with my interests. Perhaps they are, but it's not self-evident.

I kept digging, looking for specific proposals, and found Professor Lawrence Lessig, who says

The answer is not a massive programme of regulation. It is instead a very thin rule for broadband providers that forbids business models that favour scarcity over abundance. That is the aim of the very best "network neutrality" legislation. Network owners would be free to compete in all the ways that push deployment and drive down prices. They would be blocked from models where more profit for them means less broadband for us. (Source: Financial Times)

That sounds encouraging but it's awfully vague. Worse, the premises Professor Lessig cites in support of the need for Congressional intervention in the Internet include "in the US, at least, broadband competition is dying." I cannot think that anyone paying the slightest attention to what's going on can believe that. A couple of years ago I couldn't get broadband at all. In desperation I turned to Ricochet wireless, and when that went away, to direct satellite connection. Now I have my choice of at least three brands of DSL including Leo LaPorte's favorite DSL Extreme; I have cable modem, which is what I use; and I am told that wide area wireless is coming to the Studio City area.

I even have a D-Link Wireless Router I could connect to my, or my neighbor's, high speed connection and use that to let me share - or I can connect it to my own and share with my neighbor. Far from dying, broadband competition is alive and thriving.

How the Internet Works

My son Richard was once the President of an Internet company. He described the Internet as "A bunch of basements full of Cisco routers connected to each other." That was in the 1990's, and things have changed a bit, but it's not all that bad a description even today. The Internet consists of a lot of routers, most located in low rent facilities. In each of those facilities, some of the routers connect to cables, mostly fiber optics, which go across the country to other such facilities. Others connect to local networks that spread across the city or town where they are located. Inside the facility the routers are connected to each other. Data flows all over the place.

That's the physical description, but it doesn't explain what's going on.

The Internet is like a layer cake. At the top level are the big boys like AT&T and SPRINT and British Telecom, who own the routers connected by fiber strung across the country. Note that no one of these companies has connectivity to everywhere else. That's not important, because these networks are connected to each other, but it could be; we'll get back to that in a minute. These ISPs are generally called 'transit ISPs'; they sell bandwidth and network transit to business and to other types of ISPs

The bottom layer of the Internet consist of Internet Service Providers usually called 'access ISPs'. These can be fairly large, like Earthlink and Time Warner Cable and Cingular Wireless, or quite small and local. The access ISPs connect to your house and office, to schools and hotels. Some access ISPs are very large. Some are part of a telephone company. T-Mobile, part of Deutsche Telekom, has 95 million telephone subscribers; it also serves as an access ISP by operating wireless hotspots in airline terminals and coffee houses, and a transit ISP by providing high-speed Internet service to businesses and to smaller ISPs (called 'downstreams'), which may be access ISPs, or hosting ISPs, or collocation ISPs. A few years ago there were many small ISP's: people who bought a high speed Internet connection, then resold part of their bandwidth. When we couldn't get high speed Internet here at Chaos Manor, I momentarily contemplated starting a small ISP of my own by putting a router in an office near an Internet connection hub in line of sight; connecting directly to the net would give me more bandwidth than I needed, but I could sell part of it. Fortunately I came to my senses.

Most of the big consumer access ISPs offer one-price all you can eat connectivity. Some of them don't actually deliver that - see for example the letter by Rich Heimlich in today's mail bag - but that's what they offer, and their customers pay one price for service. As an aside, I suspect that business model, which was used to get initial subscribers, was a terrible idea, and won't last; but that's another argument.

In between the consumer ISPs and the big backbone transit companies like AT&T are a bunch of small/medium business connection firms which operate like the company I contemplated but didn't start. They buy a DS-3 or OC-3 line and sell Internet connectivity to smaller businesses - they're referred to as transit wholesalers. Unlike the better known consumer access ISPs, they don't even pretend to flat-rate service, in many cases. You buy a certain amount of connectivity, and if you use more bandwidth than that, you pay more. This has been going on for years, and no one complains - or didn't, until recently.

Note that the large transit ISPs such as AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Qwest, etc. sell connectivity directly to companies, and they often offer other services such as Web site hosting, colcocation, etc. These are generally separate business units within a larger organization, and are often run as almost entirely siloed businesses, with the caveat that they share the same DBA name as the parent transit ISP and 'buy' most or all of their transit connectivity from the parent.

Why did Whitacre say it?

Not long after his "I ain't going to let them use my pipes" pronouncement, Whitacre began backpedaling. Apparently his advisors were horrified, and with good reason. But why had he said it in the first place?

No one knows, but I have some guesses. They involve Google. In August, 2005, Google paid AOL a pot full of money to have AOL use Google as its default search engine. Meanwhile, Google was connected to the Internet via QWEST and SPRINT, and paying handsomely for it. Of course QWEST and SPRINT don't connect to all the people who want to use Google. Some of that traffic has to go through SBC (and AT&T and BellSouth before they all became AT&T) - and Google wasn't paying AT&T a cent for that.

That's the way the Internet operates. While smaller outfits pay the big boys for connectivity, the big boys generally have "settlement-free peering" agreements. Packets flow from QWEST routers to AT&T routers and vice versa, but money doesn't change hands. In theory it might: if QWEST sends AT&T far more traffic than AT&T sends QWEST, some financial compensation might be in order.


Todd Underwood of Renesys, a firm which sells routing reachability monitoring services to ISPs, points out that during this whole controversy, and indeed to this day, the SBC broadband access network has been interconnected with Google's network via a settlement-free peering agreement.

Peering generally implies a rough equivalent of traffic flow between peers, enforced by monitored bandwidth ratios; however, several smaller access providers such as the former SBC (who provide broadband DSL and Metro Ethernet access) determined it to be in their best interests to accept lopsided traffic ratios with Google, Yahoo, and other popular ASPs/content providers so as to provide an optimal user experience for their subscribers. This interconnection may well go away once the AT&T and SBC networks are fully merged, but it is instructive to note that broadband access ISPs such as SBC - and, presumably, the newly-acquired DSL and Metro Ethernet broadband access divisions of the amalgamated AT&T/SBC/BellSouth - will continue to take this view.

Large corporations are usually not monoliths; each division or business unit generally has its own mandated business objectives, and simply because the former SBC and, soon BellSouth will have been re-incorporated into AT&T, there is no reason to believe that their calculations in these matters will be substantially altered just because their letterhead has (once again) changed - indeed, as typical consumers and SOHO users become increasingly dependent on hosted applications such as Google Mail, Writely, Microsoft Live!, and so forth, the less tolerant they will become of any restrictions of their access to ASP and content- provider network.

Whitacre wasn't thinking about any of this. Google paid QWEST for connectivity, and AOL for access to AOL subscribers. Many of those AOL subscribers were connected to the Internet through AT&T. They were using AT&T pipes, but AT&T wasn't getting paid directly for it (although AT&T does in fact peer with AOL, with no money exchanging hands, by mutual agreement). That set Whitacre's teeth on edge.

What Ed Whitacre forgot was that his AT&T subscribers were already paying AT&T, and what they were paying for included access to Google, and YouTube, and MySpace, Microsoft Live!, and a lot of other content providers, enterprise tool works, and entertainment sources. Some of those sources were also paying AT&T for access. Some weren't, but AT&T's customers who got their Google fix through AT&T pipes certainly were. It's my guess that Whitacre was reminded of this not long after his pipes remarks. I note he hasn't repeated it, and I suspect he wishes he'd never said it.

But he had said it, and the villagers heard it, and they turned out in the public square with pitchforks and torches to go slay the monster.

Do We Need New Laws?

Mrs. Pournelle has a principle: before you make new laws, enforce the ones you already have. If we apply that principle to "net neutrality" it is very likely that we won't need any new laws.

We had considerable discussion among the Chaos Manor gang about the 'net neutrality' issue. About halfway through, Eric said:

On the Net Neutrality issue, is there any pertinent litigation before we propose legislation? So far, it seems like politicos are investing a lot of time in wrangling over laws to prevent something that hasn't happened, and may not be terribly feasible even if the entities to be regulated decided to take a stab at it.

If an online service company believed a big network operator was knowingly downgrading traffic between the service and customers on the operators network, there is an assemblage of legal attacks dogs ready to argue the case. Shouldn't we have at least one such case play out before imposing possibly useless regulation?

Eric Pobirs

I agreed entirely, and began looking for such cases. I didn't find any until someone pointed me to Norway, where it appeared that NextGenTel decided to discriminate against Norwegian Public Radio.

The interesting part of that is right up at the top of the story:


It seems like the customers won this battle (link, to Norwegian article). Due to bad publicity and reactions from customers, NextGenTel have removed the limit and NRK is now back on full speed in their network. What should I say? Thanks to the people contacting NextGenTel and to the blogs and media that understand how this was a serious violation to network neutrality.

No legislation needed. The market worked as advertised. And that's a tempest in a teapot, compared to what would happen if any large transit ISP were foolish enough to use Quality-of-Service (QoS) mechanisms to try and drop the priority of traffic from, say, Google or Yahoo to the point that users noticed a difference.

Many proponents of 'network neutrality' argue that the big transit ISPs - and, perhaps, some of the smaller access ISPs - would want to do precisely that in order to force their customers to use Google- or Yahoo- or Amazon-like services owned and operated by the ISPs themselves, for a profit. But the big ISPs have already been down this path - remember Excite.com? - and had their hats handed to them by Google, et. al. They proved conclusively that this kind of thing isn't a core competency of big transit SPs or smaller broadband access ISPs, and I'm pretty sure they're loath to repeat the experience.

Another issue brought up by people who advocate 'network neutrality' of one sort or another is Voice-over-IP, or VoIP - Internet telephony. They believe that ISPs will want to favor their own VoIP offerings over services such as Skype, Vonage, Gizmodo, and so forth. And they're right.

However, this has nothing to do with 'network neutrality', which is about traffic passing from one ISP to another. Anything a broadband access ISP would do in order to ensure the best QoS for its own VoIP offering would be through reserving a certain amount of bandwidth and queueing priority for that offering on the ISP's own network. That sort of thing is perfectly legal, has been taking place for the better part of a decade, and there is in fact a business model based around offering different levels of guaranteed services to businesses who wish to set up Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) in lieu of a more traditional Wide Area Network (WAN).

And while there hasn't been any big outcry about this, services like Skype work pretty darned well. They aren't perfect, but they're certainly Good Enough - I use Skype myself, and think it's pretty cool. Leo LaPorte uses Skype for the TWiT conferences; you hear the results. The secret here is that users want services like Skype, and Google and Amazon and eBay and all the rest, and if their ISP starts degrading their user experience, they'll vote with their feet and go elsewhere for Internet connectivity. That's the American Way.

This "net neutrality" argument has brought together some very strange bedfellows who are definitely not birds of a feather. It has brought us Libertarians asking for an expansion of government power. It has brought us people who used to denounce the notion that bloggers came under McCain Feinberg campaign financing rules; who shouted "Hands off our Internet!" and "Government hands off the blogosphere!" - only now they are asking for Government enforcement powers.

Make no mistake: the power to enforce compliance with "net neutrality" is going to be a big expansion of government power. When it comes to government regulation, be careful what you ask for - to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, you may get it, and get it good and hard.

When it comes to 'network neutrality' we already have it, enforced by the law of the market, as the recent Norwegian example clearly demonstrates. As to false advertising, the FTC already has legal authority to enforce truth in advertising.

My wife said it when I first brought up the subject. "We don't need new laws. We need them to enforce the ones we have."

Think of that.