The Trap of Net Neutrality


The President recently released a video and statement urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to support net neutrality and ensure that there will be no “pay for play” access to websites or punishment for sites that compete against a provider’s interests.  I wholeheartedly support the idea of net neutrality.  However, I do like to stand on my Devil’s Advocate soapbox every once in a while.  Today, I want to show you why a truly neutral Internet may not be in our best interests.

Lawful Neutral

If the FCC mandates a law that the Internet must remain neutral, it will mean that all traffic must be treated equally.  That’s good, right?  It means that a provider can’t slow my Netflix stream or make their own webmail service load faster than Google or Yahoo.  It also means that the provider can’t legally prioritize packets either.

Think about that for a moment.  We, as network and voice engineers, have spent many an hour configuring our networks to be as unfair as possible.  Low-latency queues for voice traffic.  Weighted fair queues for video and critical applications.  Scavenger traffic classes and VLANs for file sharers and other undesirable bulk noise.  These plans take weeks to draw up and even longer to implement properly.  It helps us make sense out of the chaos in the network.

By mandating a truly neutral net, we are saying that those carefully marked packets can’t escape from the local network with their markings intact.  We can’t prioritize voice packets once they escape the edge routers.  And if we move applications to the public cloud, we can’t ensure priority access.  Legally, the providers will be forced to remark all CoS and DSCP values at the edge and wash their hands of the whole thing.

And what about provider MPLS circuits?  If the legally mandated neutral provider is administering your MPLS circuits (as they do in small and medium enterprise), can they copy the DSCP values to the MPLS TE field before forwarding the packet?  Where does the law stand on prioritizing private traffic transiting a semi-public link?

Chaotic Neutral

The idea of net neutrality is that no provider should have the right to decide how your traffic should be handled.  But providers will extend that idea to say they can’t deal with any kind of marking.  They won’t legally be able to offer you differentiated service even if you were wiling to pay for it.  That’s the double-edge sword of neutrality.

You can be sure that the providers will already have found a “solution” to the problem.  Today, quality of service (QoS) only becomes an issue when the link becomes congested.  Packets don’t queue up if there’s bandwidth available to use.  So the provider solution is simple.  If you need differentiated service, you need to buy a bigger pipe.  Over provision your WAN circuits!  We can’t guarantee delivery unless you have more bandwidth than you need!  Who cares what the packets are marked?  Which, of course, leads to a little gem from everyone’s favorite super villain:


Of course, the increased profits from these services will line the pockets of the providers instead of going to build out the infrastructure necessary to support these overbuilt networks.  The only way to force providers to pony up the money to build out networks is to make it so expensive to fail that the alternative is better.  That requires complex negotiation and penalty-laden, iron-clad service level agreements (SLAs).

The solution to the issue of no prioritized traffic is to provide a list of traffic that should be prioritized.  Critical traffic like VoIP should be allowed to be expedited, as the traffic characteristics and protections we afford it make sense.  Additionally, traffic destined for a public cloud site that function as internal traffic of a company should be able to be prioritized across the provider network.  Tunneling or other forms of traffic protection may be necessary to ensure this doesn’t interfere with other users.  Exempt traffic should definitely be the exception, not the rule.  And it should never fall on the providers to determine which traffic should be exempted from neutrality rules.

Tom’s Take

Net neutrality is key to the future of society.  The Internet can’t function properly if someone else with a vested interest in profits decides how we consume content.  It’s like the filter bubble of Google.  A blind blanket policy doesn’t do us any good, either.  Everyone involved in networking knows there are types of traffic that can be prioritized without having a detrimental effect.  We need to make smart decisions about net neutrality and know when to make exceptions.  But that power needs to be in the hands of the users and customers.  They will make decisions in their best interest.  The providers should have the capability to implement the needs of their customers.  Only then will the Internet be truly neutral.


The Alignment of Net Neutrality

Embed from Getty Images

Net neutrality has been getting a lot of press as of late, especially as AT&T and Netflix have been sparring back and forth in the press.  The FCC has already said they are going to take a look at net neutrality to make sure everyone is on a level playing field.  ISPs have already made their position clear.  Where is all of this posturing going to leave the users?

Chaotic Neutral

Broadband service usage has skyrocketed in the past few years.  Ideas that would never have been possible even 5 years ago are now commonplace.  Netflix and Hulu have made it possible to watch television without cable.  Internet voice over IP (VoIP) allows a house to have a phone without a phone line.  Amazon has replaced weekly trips to the local department store for all but the most crucial staple items.  All of this made possible by high speed network connectivity.

But broadband doesn’t just happen.  ISPs must build out their networks to support the growing hunger for faster Internet connectivity.  Web surfing and email aren’t the only game in town.  Now, we have streaming video, online multiplayer, and persistently connected devices all over the home.  The Internet of Things is going to consume a huge amount of bandwidth in an average home as more smart devices are brought online.  ISPs are trying to meet the needs of their subscribers.  But are they going far enough?

ISPs want to build networks their customers will use, and more importantly pay to use.  They want to ensure that complaints are kept to a minimum while providing the services that customers demand.  Those ISP networks cost a hefty sum.  Given the choice between paying to upgrade a network and trying to squeeze another month or two out of existing equipment, you can guarantee the ISPs are going to take the cheaper route.  Coincidentally, that’s one of the reasons why the largest backers of 802.1aq Shortest Path Bridging were ISP-oriented.  SPB doesn’t require new equipment to forward frames (like TRILL).  ISPs can use existing equipment to deliver SPB with no out-of-pocket expenditure on hardware.  That little bit of trivia should give you an idea why ISPs are trying to do away with net neutrality.

True Neutral

ISPs want to keep using their existing equipment as long as possible.  Every dollar they make from this cycle’s capital expenditure means a dollar of profit in their pocket before they have to replace a switch.  If there was a way to charge even more money for existing services, you can better believe they would do it.  Which is why this infographic hits home for most:


Charging for service tiers would suit ISPs just fine.  After all, as the argument goes, you are using more than the average user.  Shouldn’t you shoulder the financial burden of increased network utilization?  That’s fine for corner cases like developers or large consumers of downstream bandwidth.  But with Netflix usage increasing across the board, why should the ISP charge you more on top of a Netflix subscription?  Shouldn’t their network anticipate the growing popularity of streaming video?

The other piece of the tiered offering above that should give pause is the common carrier rules for service providers.  Common carriers get to be absolved of liability for the things they transport because they have to agree to transport everything offered to them.  What do you think would happen if those carriers suddenly decide they want to discriminate about what they send?  If that discrimination revokes their common carrier status, what’s to stop them from acting like a private carrier and start refusing to transport certain applications or content?  Maybe forcing a video service to negotiate a separate peering agreement for every ISP they want to use?  Who would do that?

Neutral Good

Net Neutrality has to exist to ensure that we are free to use the services we want to consume.  Sure, this means that things like Quality of Service (QoS) can’t be applied to packets to ensure they are all being treated equally.  The inverse is to have guaranteed delivery for an additional fee.  And every service you add on to the top would incur more fees.  New multiplayer game launching next week? The ISP will charge you an extra $5 per month to insure you have a low ping time to beat the other guy.  If you don’t buy the package, your multiplayer traffic gets dumped in with Netflix and the rest of the bulk traffic.

This is part of the reason why Google Fiber is such a threat to existing ISPs.  When the only options for local loop delivery are the cable company and the phone company, it’s difficult to have options that aren’t being tiered in the absence of neutrality.  With viable third party fiber buildouts like Google starting to spring up it becomes a bargaining chip to increase speeds to users and upgrade backbones to support heavy usage.  If you don’t believe that, look at what AT&T did immediately after Google announced Google Fiber in Austin, TX.

Tom’s Take

ISPs shouldn’t be able to play favorites with their customers.  End users are paying for a connection.  End users are also paying services to use their offerings.  Why should we have to pay for a service twice if the ISP wants to charge me more in a tiering setup?  That smells of a protection racket in many ways.  I can imagine the ISP techs sitting there in a slick suit saying, “That’s a nice connection you got there.  It would be a shame if something were to happen to it.”  Instead, it’s up to the users to demand ISPs offer free and unrestricted access to all content.  In some cases, that will mean backing alternatives and “voting with your dollar” to make the message be heard loud and clear.  I won’t sign up for services that have data usage caps or metered speed limits past a certain ceiling.  I would drop any ISP that wants me to pay extra just because I decide to start using a video streaming service or a smart thermostat.  It’s time for ISPs to understand that hardware should be an investment in future customer happiness and not a tool that’s used to squeeze another dime out of their user base.