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Computing At Chaos Manor:
October 23, 2007

The User's Column, October 2007
Column 327, part 2
Jerry Pournelle jerryp@jerrypournelle.com
www.jerrypournelle.com
Copyright 2007 Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.


I knew I would be on TWIT (http://www.twit.tv/) this week, and when I saw that the net neutrality issue was resurfacing (Yahoo News link) , I asked the advisors conference to comment on it. That started an interesting exchange that's worth showing here. It started with Robert Bruce Thompson, author of the Building the Perfect PC series.

Welcome to the non-neutral net.

There are two primary reasons for ISPs to shape traffic, bandwidth and competitive advantage. This appears to be an example of the first, but we're already starting to see examples of the second.

Reasonable arguments can be made that ISPs should be permitted to protect the majority of their users by throttling bandwidth to the 0.1% or 0.01% of their users that are bandwidth hogs. But my attitude is that if an ISP advertises and charges for "unlimited" service, then they should not be permitted to do any throttling at all. If the ISP imposes limits of any kind, they should be explicit so that customers can make informed decisions about what level of service to sign up for.

The second type of throttling is more malignant. An ISP who offers its own VoIP service, for example, may intentionally throttle VoIP packets from competing providers (or give its own packets preferential handling, which amounts to the same thing.) All services should be on a level playing field.

If my ISP is Time-Warner, which offers its own VoIP service, it should not be permitted to discriminate against me if I choose to use Vonage VoIP service.

Conversely, if the ISP wants to provision preferential service for VoIP packets and charge extra for that service, that's fine, so long as the charge applies equally to its own service and competing services. For example, T-W could offer its VoIP service at a base price that gives no preference to its VoIP packets. Customers who were willing to pay an additional $5/month (or whatever) could have the TW VoIP service with preferential packet handling.

But if that's an option for TW VoiP packets, then I should be able to pay the same $5/month and get preferential handling for my Vonage packets.

Robert Bruce Thompson

That brought in Dan Spisak:

The biggest problem with this kind of network tampering is that it is not publicly disclosed anywhere that an end-user would be able to find. They have to discover this through first-hand experience. Then they would have to call into customer support and find out about the new policy *provided the customer support reps have been informed*.

That last part is pretty crucial in my book. If the CSR's don't know or don't understand what is going on then there is no dissemination of information to the customer. Customer stays in the dark and has a poor experience.

It is also probably worth mentioning that the bulk majority of internet users are not sophisticated enough to understand when their network applications are being actively hampered from normal functioning, only "The Internet is Slow(tm)" is what the CSR's will hear typically.

While it is fully within the companies rights to do with traffic on their pipes as they please I think its about time there was some kind of mandatory detailed full disclosure on what network practices an ISP does that could affect a users usage of their DSL or Cable line. I.E. "We throttle Bittorrent protocol, we give lower priority to VoIP providers then ourself" etc type stuff. Yeah it would be an annoying regulation but frankly I think its time has come, especially if whenever I want to move I need to consult DSLreports.com to see which providers in my soon to be new home dont "tamper" with my Internet connection and just deliver to me a unmodified bit-pipe.

When Robert and I agree on something I think that must be a sign. As someone who worked for both a cable ISP and a DSL based ISP I can tell you that in both cases neither network did any packet shaping, but did restrict certain inbound ports (SQL Slammer worm, etc) to better protect the users from malicious traffic out there.

As far as traffic shaping for service enhancement or degradation of off-network services I never saw that happen. Then again I worked for Cox, not Comcast, so perhaps this is a corporate culture mindset kind of thing in motion here. What good is having an Internet connection when it is artificially restricted from its full potential uses? I don't want "Comcast Internet", I want THE Internet.

-Dan S.

Rich Heimlich chimed in, too.

Exactly. I'm a Comcast customer and it's infuriating. We're told "unlimited" and we're also told the speeds. Now we understand that the speeds are not "guaranteed" but we take that to mean that they're impacted by usage of other customers and other physical issues. What we don't accept is that these speeds are impacted by the provider purposely limiting them behind our backs.

The problem is that the service is so complex and involved that Comcast and others are able to do a myriad of things that mask as "goodwill" while still being anything but. They offered a service in PLAIN terms. I pay my bill, in an equally plain way. If they can legally do what they do, I should be able to legally change my payments, behind their back and then point them to some nefarious small print on my check to point out that they changed their service so I changed my payment.

To find out now, in the age of growing online content that the service I pay a PREMIUM for is anything but unlimited is simply unacceptable. I'm a gamer. I play games online. I download (lossless) music. My TV provider offers video on-demand via broadband. My son plays on Xbox Live. I have two VoIP phone lines. Work just insisted I install an IP phone in my office that ties into their system.

If Comcast is unable to provide for all this, cleanly and above-board, they need to say so and get out of the business. They said nothing about these items causing them trouble at any point in our relationship.

I now find I have to play cat-and-mouse with them with my VoIP phones. I have to use encryption to download any torrents and change ports. I worry about hitting the invisible wall of usage only to find my account turned off one morning with no quick counter-solution.

This sort of "customer service" needs to be confronted and defeated as soon as possible, especially when the playing field is not fairly open to the real free market system.

Rich Heimlich

And Peter Glaskowsky added

I generally agree with the other comments here. It's fraudulent to use words like "unlimited" to describe limited services. Even in the absence of such a claim, it's arguably misleading to impose hidden restrictions on some services but not others.

And when you come right down to it, the Uniform Commercial Code says that unless both parties understand the terms of a contract, there isn't a contract at all.

That said--

All we have right now is some vague hand-waving about what Comcast is doing. Hard numbers wouldn't be hard to generate, but nobody's done it yet. Are people actually seeing the inevitable variations associated with cable modems shared over large neighborhoods? We don't know.

ISPs and most of their customers have a legitimate interest in limiting certain services. If it's true that peer-to-peer services consume 50% to 90% of the bandwidth of the Internet, constraining these services could significantly improve performance for other customers. Disclosing the nature of such constraints and the resulting benefits could actually attract more customers to an ISP.

There is an inherent problem with detailed disclosures and contractual commitments, however. If an ISP promises to limit only certain kinds of traffic, the peer-to-peer networks will evolve to emulate the kinds of traffic that aren't limited.

If Comcast announced that it will limit BitTorrent uploads but not Google Picasa Web Album uploads, I would expect to see a new version of BitTorrent that works like Picasa. Or if VPN tunnels are unrestricted, BitTorrent could implement VPN tunnelling.

Keeping usage restrictions secret is both easier and more effective, but I still don't think it's legitimate. The rules should be simpler and fairer. To me, the correct model would be limits on instantaneous and sustained bandwidth, for example:

6 Mbps down and 512 Kbps up on an instantaneous basis
4 Mbps down and 512 Kbps up averaged over one hour (i.e. 1.8 GB down, 230 MB up per hour)
1 Mbps down and 128 Kbps up averaged over one day (10.8 GB down, 1.4 GB up per day)
512 Kbps down and 64 Kbps up averaged over one month (162 GB down, 20.7 GB up per month)

If a threshold is exceeded, bandwidth could be smoothly throttled down to the next lower level.

I don't know if Comcast's traffic-management equipment can implement policies this complex; for the most part, bandwidth limiting is instantaneous rather than history-based. Maybe Comcast has no choice but to apply simpler restrictions today.

Whatever the situation, it ought to say what it's doing. The arms-race problem is secondary to contractual transparency.

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This is probably not the end of the Net Neutrality story. I remain opposed to Congressional intervention in a free market, because once the government gets involved it will sic a bureaucracy on it, and the bureaucracy will be eternal. Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy insures that the bureaucracy will be more concerned with insuring its existence than with promoting actual net neutrality. On the other hand, it doesn't take much new legislation to require truth in advertising. Comcast is notorious for having arcane and hidden schemes for limiting the bandwidth actually delivered to customers. Making them disclose just what they are doing will be a good start.

Make them tell the truth, and competition will do the rest.

Lower the Hammer

Customer service in general, and Comcast's in particular does not always generate customer loyalty. One former Comcast client decided to do something about it. Her story rapidly became legend... Obviously I do not say go thou and do likewise, but I may write a story in which everyone does...

Plantronics USB DSP Headset

If you listen to our TWIT broadcast, you will find out two things: I sound pretty good, and I had problems with Vista. TWIT is done by telephone: by SKYPE to be exact. Leo Laporte hosts the show and records it on his big Mac. The rest of us call in, and when it's all working, it works very well.

Alas, Vista twice blew things up for me. First, it dropped me and flashed a message saying it was all Skype's fault. When I got reconnected, it suddenly popped up a message that my microphone was muted. I could find no setting whatever to un-mute that microphone. Eventually I shut down Vista and restarted, and this time everything worked just fine. I find Vista has this similarity to some of the older versions of Windows: when in doubt, reboot. It often helps.

The voice quality is due to my Plantronics DSP USB headset (link). It has a volume control, muting button, and it's very comfortable. I had no trouble getting it working with Skype, and whatever interaction problems Vista and Skype had, none of them were caused by the Plantronics DSP phones. This headset Just Works. Highly recommended.

Fuel Cells

Medis Tech table
Power It Anywhere: Consumer fuel cells for computers and cell phones.

Marty Winston held an exhibition in the Century Plaza Hotel the other day. There were a number of items shown, and I'll talk about some others next time. One wasn't out quite yet: it's a consumer package fuel cell, environmentally kind because it's more benign for disposal than batteries. Medis Technologies is the firm.

I'll have more on these when I have one to test. It looks like a great idea, but there are devils in the details.

We're all looking for clean, portable, and safe power storage. I predict that one important accessory for the iPhone will be a supplementary rechargeable battery pack for use on long trips. My guess is that will be a battery, not a fuel cell, but I'm willing to be convinced. More when I've seen them in action.

Westinghouse Monitors

Another exhibit that impressed me at Winston's show was the 22" Westinghouse monitor (link) which can serve as both a monitor - 1680 x 1050 resolution, 5 ms response time - and a HD TV screen. Put this monitor on a system with a really good processor - a fast Core 2 Duo, or even better a Quad - and the Hauppauge WinTV or Plextor TV tuner, and if HD TV is broadcast in your area, you can watch that. Meanwhile you will have an excellent monitor at a reasonable price. The Westinghouse 22" will probably be my next monitor in my campaign to replace the various bottles in my house.

Falcon UPS

All the computers here are now powered through Falcon UPS systems. In addition, there are two Falcon UPS in the cable room. One is standard and powers computers. The other resides in the server room and has an extra battery and powers the cable modem, the D-Link Gaming router, and the Belkin 24-port Ethernet switch that connects everything. In addition, another UPS powers the Belkin Pre-N wireless router.

Falcon VIPs drafted
Mike Stout and Ron Seredian installing equipment in the cable/server room.

The result is that in any power failure I should have at least an hour of communications, and if I'm careful about what I leave on, several hours. I intend to transfer all vital files to a laptop, then turn off everything but that laptop which will go into hibernation. That's about the best I can do.

At right you can see Mike Stout, Falcon VP of Engineering, and Ron Seredian, Falcon PR manager installing equipment in the cable/server room at Chaos Manor. You probably won't get this level of technical support, unless you're Hershey.

The Falcon UPS systems have their own network addresses, and all of them can be managed from one console; the Hershey company has thousands of Falcon UPS systems, and the administrator can examine their status from one central station.

I've often said that if your work is at all valuable, it should be protected by an Uninterruptible Power Supply; and if it's worth protecting, it's worth protecting with the most reliable equipment. I've been using Falcon UPS systems for decades, and I have yet to lose any data due to power problems.

ECO LED Flashlight

The gadget of the month is the ECO LED Flashlight Pull-To-Charge, from Alexander Innovation Wizard (link). This flashlight has rechargeable batteries: you can plug it into your car cigar lighter, or use a wall adapter - but you can also charge it by pulling a string that recedes into the hilt of the flash. A dozen pulls puts on a charge that runs the flash about 25 times as long as you were pulling - that is, a minute of charging by hand will run the flashlight for 20 - 25 minutes. The charge holds, too: turn off the flash and it will still be charged after a couple of days.

Finally there is a series of tip adapters that allow you to peel off some of the power and use that to charge your cell phone. All told this is a pretty powerful thing to have around for emergency use. Recommended.

I wrote this before the fire outbreak in Southern California. The fires are everywhere, and with the high Santa Ana winds houses far from the fire area are vulnerable to windborne burning debris. Everyone is putting together their "get out now!" kits. My Coleman hand-crank radio and this ECO LED flashlight are part of it.

Tornado

Tornado display table
The Tornado table.

I've mentioned The Tornado File Transfer Tool (link) before: it's a small cable reel that connects two PC's through USB ports. All the software for managing file transfers is in the cable and box; plug it in and It Just Works. You don't need to load any software at all.

I understand there are other ways for transferring files from one computer to another, but this is the simplest and easiest method I know. Last time I was down at the beach house I needed to move some large files from one laptop to the other - and I discovered that I had left my Tornado back at Chaos Manor. I'll never do that again.

I managed the file transfer by using a Seagate 100 GB "book sized" USB external hard drive (link). That meant I had to transfer the files twice. Of course that does make a backup copy, but it sure is easier just to use the Tornado.

If you travel much, get one of these and put it in your away kit. There will come a time when you need it.