Monday, August 30, 2010

Net Neutrality: What does it actually mean?

I'm not going to say I get asked this question on a regular basis, but I do see it being asked on a regular basis. Just, exactly, what is Net Neutrality, and more importantly, why should I care about it?

The core concept of Net Neutrality is very simple. It is the idea and concept that data is data. What I mean by this is actually fairly simple. Look at this webpage for a moment. Not any particular part, just the whole page. Now I'm going to ask a few simple questions:
  • What do you see?
  • Do you see Text?
  • Do you see Pictures?
  • Do you see Links?
Well, you probably responded that yes, you did see those items. Now, let me pose another question:
  • If you were a router passing network traffic, and you had to download this page, can you tell the difference between a picture file that is 2mb in size and a text file that is 2mb in size?
The obvious answer is: No, you cannot.

Data is Data. To a computer, be it in file storage, file transfer, or file manipulation, a 2mb file is a 2mb file. It is the software applications, the actual programs that you use on your computer, that determine whether or not a 2mb file has any particular contextual meaning. A text editor such as Notepad, Wordpad, or Kwrite, will not be able to parse and display a picture file. An image manipulator, such as Microsoft Paint, will not be able to parse and display a file saved as a Text File or as an Open Document File. So how does this relate to Net Neutrality?

From a purely technical standpoint the Internet is basically a series of permenant network connections used to transfer data. Your own personal modem is connected to an Internet Service Provider, and your I.S.P. is connected to a larger collective of networked computers referred to as the Internet Backbone. The Internet Backbone systems are largely connected to each other. Here, for example, is a typical setup:

The Black lines indicate data transfer paths. The Green Lines indicate potential pathing, overflow capacity, or backup-lines.

Most Internet Service Providers are linked to at least two backbone providers. Thus, if one backbone provider were to go down, the I.S.P. would still be able to offer connection services. In this configuration the Internet Backbones are largely linked to one another, and the ISP is linked to the Internet Backbones.

When connecting to a server on the other side of the Backbone the configuration basically mirrors itself:

The Green Lines indicate Potential Pathing

Here we can see that the primary modem and computers are connected through a straight data line to the ISP. However, the Server that the user is trying to get to is connected to an I.S.P. that is not directly connected to a backbone provider that is directly connected to the users I.S.P.

Data transferring from the user's modem to the server's modem would have to make a minimum of 5 hops:
  • User's I.S.P.
  • Backbone Provider One
  • Backbone Provider Two
  • Server I.S.P.
  • Server Modem
This is where we start to see the problems of Internet congestion, as data spends more time in transit, or worming it's way through the network, then it should have to. If either of the green lines were active on that configuration, the connection to the user's target server would have less data hops. Less data hops would decrease the amount of time to transfer data, as the data would have to make less hops.

Now, if some backbone providers were actually upgrading their internet hardware instead of buying exclusive rights to promote and sell a smartphone, Internet Congestion wouldn't be a problem. However, several of the major I.S.P.'s, and I'll go ahead and say COX COMMUNICATIONS, COMCAST, and AT&T are not exactly interested in upgrading their networks. I've made no secret of Cox Communications business practices, specifically where the concept replacing and upgrading failing equipment was complete and utter anathema to Cox Communication's management. Cox's sole business model was based on being in markets with no other competitors, so that consumers had no choice but to buy Cox Communication's service. No, I'm not making that up. We were flat out told that by our own management. Cox Communications was not interested in spending money on developing a faster internet connection. Cox Communications was not interested in spending money on upgrading it's network infrastructure.

AT&T is a laughing stock among the technically literate for one of the nations worst 3G networks running. When I say that Apple and AT&T considered 30% of dropped calls to be normal, that is not a joke. It's not exactly a puzzle to figure out why nobody caught the design flaw on the Iphone4. Nobody in Apple could tell a difference between dropped calls caused from casual handling of the phone and dropped calls from AT&T's network. AT&T has basically set a standard for irresponsible spending of corporate monies. My personal opinion is that there is a good class-action lawsuit to be found in AT&T having spent money in every place but where it mattered: THEIR NETWORK INFRASTRUCTURE.

Comcast, often referred to in much less flattering terms, has an even lower opinion of it's users and it's networking options. Comcast has been slapped by both consumers and regulatory agencies for it's bandwidth throttling and invasive network scanning. Comcast contractors have been caught disconnecting competitors connections, then trying to sell consumers on the Comcast network while the competitor was down. If this sounds familiar, it's because I've written about Comcast before.

In fact, this is how Comcast views their Network:

Red Lines indicate PremiumTraffic. Black Lines indicate FilteredTraffic

In this configuration, Comcast actively filters the information that comes from the user's modem. Traffic that Comcast prioritizes has to take less hops to reach the same destination. The filtered traffic has to simply go:
  • Modem
  • I.S.P.
  • Backbone
  • I.S.P.
  • Modem
Network that is de-prioritized has to take this route:
  • Modem
  • I.S.P.
  • Backbone 1
  • Backbone 2
  • Backbone 3
  • I.S.P.
  • Modem
I feel I need to stress the point that this is not conjecture. Comcast has been fined by regulatory agencies for this behavior. They have been called out by consumer agencies for this network filtering. They have done this Network Filtering. They still do this Network Filtering in some markets.

In fact, what Comcast, AT&T, the R.I.A.A., the M.P.A.A., and other's like them want is a network configuration that looks something like this:

Pink, Blue, and Red Lines are Filtered Traffice. Black Lines are non-filtered traffic.

In this configuration the ISP's filter the data traffic that comes out of the user's modem. The I.S.P.'s deem which traffic is important, and fast track that traffic to it's destination, while shunting de-prioritized traffic off onto slower servers and network technologies.

Let's say you are a gamer for a minute, and you play something like City of Heroes or World of Warcraft. Presently your access to the game server looks a bit like... this:

The Game server has multiple game servers spread out across a few regional locations, and you are fairly well networked to all them. Some might be faster than others, but you can get to all servers.

Under a filtered internet, such as the one Comcast would dearly love to implement, you would have a much more, AOL-Style network configuration:

Here, in this network configuration that's been filtered, you don't have any access to one of the servers. You have a lightning fast filtered connection to one of the servers. Then you have a not as fast shunt to the backbone de-prioritized access.

Again, I need to stress, this is not a joke or an exageration. This is what AOL DID. This was AOL's entire business model. Aclosed network infrastructure available only to users who ponied up a subscription fee. What happened to AOL? Well, let me put it this way: When was the last time you saw an AOL disc on a counter?

The AOL style of a filtered and closed network access system was pretty much beat into the ground by competitors who offered a superior product. Which again, was this:

This then, in a nutshell, is whatnet neutrality is all about:
  • Net Neutrality is the conceptual idea that the Internet Service Providers and Internet Backbone Providers should make no difference in the traffic that is transmitted through the I.S.P.'s network.
  • Net Neutrality is the conceptual idea that when a consume pays for certain combination of speed-grade and data amount of Internet Connection, that they recieve that speed-grade and data amount without limitations. For example. If somebody pays for a 12mb download speed with 60gb's data-transfer a day, they get 12mb download's and 60gb's data-transfer a day, reguardless of if they are sending text documents, .ogg vorbis files, or WebM videoes.  
  • Net Neutrality is the conceptual idea that the Internet Service Providers and Internet Backbone Providers should not search the users traffic without an applicable legal warrent from appropriate legal authorities.
  • Net Neutrality is the very real fact that  data is data and that Internet Service Providers and Internet Backbone Providers should spend their money on upgrading the network infrastructure. I.S.P's and I.B.P.'s should not be spending client's money on buying exclusive access to a phone, or outright refusing to deal with hardware issues.
Hopefully this will help explain exactly what Net Neutrality is, and why you should care about it.