I’ve been pretty fortunate over the years, to have very good connectivity to the Internet. When I was in University, I had the very first Ethernet-connected dorm room, while my friends continued to dial-up using their 28.8k or 56.6k modems. When I moved to my first apartment on McLean street in Halifax, I was one of the early adopters of ADSL technology with their MT&T MpoweredPC roll-out. At one point in time, my house had two DS-1 lines from both Allegiant and Qwest so that I could serve up web sites for a few personal customers, back when hosting plans were off-the-chart expensive, and didn’t afford nearly enough control of your environment.
What is the point of this discussion, you might ask? I’ve been thinking about the state of network neutrality as of late, and am not particularly pleased with the direction it’s going. The Internet as we know it today, the rich breeding ground for new and innovative companies, is dying a slow death. The FCC chairman recently suggested that it would be good for the future to have “Internet fast lanes”. What this means, is that companies could pay the carriers extra money to deliver content to you, the consumer. As the consumer, you’re also paying for access to the Internet, so that you can receive content of interest to you. This is a way for the carriers to generate a new revenue stream, at the cost of a level playing field for all new start-ups and innovating technology companies.
the network must remain an open and well-connected mesh
For innovation to continue at the pace it has, the network must remain an open and well-connected mesh so everyone can be afforded the same opportunity to join and connect. Recently, you’ve read about deals between Netflix and Comcast, where Netflix will pay additional money to deliver content to Comcast customers. This was the result of Comcast’s customers complaining that their Netflix video was not streaming very well, and from all accounts I’ve read involved Comcast’s unwillingness to increase the port bandwidth peering with Level3 Networks (the main carrier for Nextflix).
As someone responsible for building a content delivery platform, especially for video, you would usually work to architect a solution that ensures that the back-end can handle load placed on it. In this particular instance, the Netflix content delivery network is well provisioned (maybe because it runs FreeBSD, my favorite operating system), but the sheer volume of video streams being requested by Comcast customers is increasing the network bandwidth usage between Comcast and their peering partners, like Level3.
Traditionally, settlement-free peering agreements were put in place, because it’s cheaper for network providers to hand-off IP traffic when there may be a shorter path to the final destination through another company’s backbone. In the past, I’ve seen traffic from my house in North Seattle travel through downtown, onwards to Tukwila and then to San Jose, only to return to Seattle on another provider’s backbone until it landed at my destination – in downtown Seattle where I connected to the XO network backbone.
Peering agreements are typically established, so network service providers don’t have to route traffic outside of the geographical region on their own backbone, only to return to the region on another provider’s backbone. NSPs realized that it’s easier to keep traffic local, and began peering with each other inside metropolitan areas so as to hand off traffic to another provider in a mutually beneficial way. This benefited everyone, because traffic would reach their destination with fewer hops, had less likelihood of traveling longer distances and wasting long-haul network links, and ultimately cooperation leads to more efficient use of network resources. Because of this, many agreements did not involve the exchange of money, but provided access to each other in “meet me” rooms. I’ve been fortunate to visit the Westin Building in downtown Seattle, and can tell you that I was impressed with the vast amount of fibre in the meet me rooms there. If my memory serves me, I believe there was an elevator shaft full of fibre optics.
Before the popularity of large-bandwith users like Netflix, the traffic patterns within a peering centre were mostly symmetric — meaning the inbound traffic to one provider would be roughly the same with the outbound traffic from the other.
The popularity of streaming service Netflix changed the balance of packets, and Comcast found themselves receiving more inbound traffic than outbound from Level3. In 2013, Comcast and Level3 had conflict over peering and eventually worked out a solution, “to mutual benefit”. Meanwhile, many of Comcast’s customers have continued to complain about the quality of their Netflix experience. The sheer number of Comcast customers availing themselves of the Netflix service was causing performance issues for Comcast’s customers.
Netflix was relying on Level3, a peering partner with Comcast, to deliver those bits to the residential broadband provider. Whether the peering capacity between Level3 and Comcast was requiring an upgrade to a larger pipe, or whether Comcast was deliberately degrading the transmissions remains a mystery. In the meantime, Netflix started a program called “Open Connect” where they offer to place content delivery servers in the broadband provider’s points of presence, so as to keep the network traffic contained within their own network. In return for this, they offer free peering. Some providers have agreed, so as to provide higher quality services to their customers. Comcast, Verizon AT&T and Time Warner did not agree, and continued to have degraded performance.
In the case of Comcast, they are (in my opinion) a monopoly on home broadband access, and now with the merger with NBC are also in the content development and delivery business. It’s not in their best interest to work out agreements with other content providers who directly compete with them for video streaming business. Maybe if their customers get frustrated with the poor delivery of Netflix content, they might choose another service like Hulu, which helps Comcast’s bottom line. This could all be the realm of conspiracy theories, but it seems to me that Comcast should be responsible and try to provide the best service to all content available on the Internet to their customers. They have a responsibility to people who pay them a monthly fee to access the Internet.
That brings me to current-day events, where Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for the ability to serve up content directly to their network. If a service gets popular, and is in demand by the majority of your customers (possibly because you’re a really large broadband provider and have a monopoly), I understand that this is the United States, and a capitalistic society. I understand that companies are looking to their bottom line, and need to make money. This should not be an opportunity to cash in, it should be an opportunity to benefit your customers. Without them, they would not be where they are today.
Coming back to network neutrality — I support services and infrastructure for about 215 people, and they rely on a VPN service to gain access to various internal resources. This is a pretty routine service. Recently, we’ve been hearing more and more complaints that the services do not work. Upon further research, almost every complaint is directly related to a policy enacted by Comcast to block IP protocol 41 (GRE tunneling) that supports PPTP traffic.
Our staff relies on our IT team for support, and when they cannot connect to the VPN service at work, they usually ask our team why that’s the case. Our research shows that users who chose the “triple-play” service are given a Modem/WiFi/Phone gateway, and that particular device disallows the GRE protocol. When our users contact Comcast, they’re told that VPN is something they could do by paying extra per month for a “business-class” service.
This, to me, seems like another money-making scheme. I, for one, prefer to use a carrier who doesn’t inspect my traffic, or gives me grief because I want to use port 3389 instead of port 22. What’s next, Comcast? Are you going to say that my SSH connections to work servers require a “business-class” service? I suspect not, because I am not a Comcast customer, and am extremely happy with my 55/5Mbps broadband connection. I pay for access to the Internet. I don’t want to start paying for access to each protocol I attempt to use.
Network neutrality is something we all should be fighting for. In the next few years, do you want to pay extra to your broadband provider so you can access to specific sites? Soon, we might live in a world where everything costs extra — that Youtube video, VPN service, or maybe even accessing e-mail. It’s a slippery slope, and I hope we don’t ever get there.
I encourage you to contact the FCC:
To Contact the Commissioners via E-mail
Chairman Tom Wheeler: [email protected]
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn: [email protected]
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel: [email protected]
Commissioner Ajit Pai: [email protected]
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly: Mike.O’[email protected]
You can also link to http://www.fcc.gov/page/fcc-establishes-new-inbox-open-internet-comments