Thursday, 5 August 2010

Paying For Faster Access a Myth

Via Chris, I learn about this.

Google and Verizon, two leading players in Internet service and content, are nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.

I hate this kind of reporting, because it is very misleading. You cannot pay any sum of money to "speed up" content on the Internet. All traffic on the Internet travels at the same speed, damn near the speed of light. We misuse the term speed when we talk about networks.  When we talk about speed, we talk about how big the pipe is, and how much traffic you can shove through it at the same time. Think of two highways, one two-lane and one four lane. Both with a mandatory speed of 100 km/hr. The 4 lane highway can handle more cars, but all cars travel the same speed. The 4 lane highway will get more cars to their final destination faster as the 2 lane highway will get congested, or backed up at the on-ramps. But once on the highway, all cars can travel 100 kms in one hour, regardless of the highway they are on.  This is a very crucial point.  (If this sounds familiar, well it is. If not, go read that link and come back. I'm not rewriting it all again.)  When we call the 4 lane highway faster we are talking about the probability of not having to wait to get on it.   Same thing with a network.  Speed refers to the probability that it can accommodate the volume of traffic you want.

What this Verizon deal will entail is guaranteeing priority of service to Google.  There's two ways to do that.  One, when links get congested, allow Google traffic through first.  Most times, people won't even notice.  A congested link is bad for everybody all at the same time.  It actually makes sense to allow the stuff people are more likely to use to go through first, making the big companies pay for this privilege can be a win.  It provides a revenue stream that can be used to improve the link and reduce congestion, which everyone will benefit from.

That's method number 1, and if properly manged is not that big of a deal.  Really.  The network has to be really congested for the priority to kick in.  Remember a congested network kills all traffic.  You tend to notice that kind of thing.  If there are 60 million cars trying to get on the highway, and you let more red cars than green cars on, it gets kind of moot when only 1 million of those cars are red.  Yes, it is not fair, but odds are you are one of the 59 million other cars sitting and waiting.  Congestion is a bad state of affairs for an ISP.  If it starts happening frequently and they don't resolve it, they're going to go out of business.

Method number 2 would be mind-numbingly stupid.   This involves restricting all other traffic (forcing congestion) and leaving Google congestion free.  Remember you cannot speed up or slow down the actual bits of traffic on the Internet.  You can only allow them or deny them.  To give the appearance of faster service for Google, you have to stop everything else.  You have to create a permanent state of artificial congestion.  That would be disastrous.  I'm going to borrow the example I used before:

If Rogers charged Yahoo to guarantee it was faster (and Bell did the same with Microsoft) to act on those guarantees, you have to restrict the competitor traffic. This is where things get fun. If I'm a Bell customer accessing Yahoo, I'll be restricted by Bell's policy. Even though Yahoo is paying Rogers for priority on its network I still get slow service. The reverse would be true for Rogers customers accessing Microsoft MSN. Extend this to any competitive field. As a Bell customer I can only get the Goodyear website, but not Bridgestone. Or I can only surf Home Depot, but not Rona. It would be chaos. Utter chaos.

I'm evil enough that I hope Verizon is actually implementing method 2.  The entertainment value of the escalating battle of ISPs will be messy, violent and more importantly, very short.  It will not be a stable affair.  Crashing the Internet is one of things that gets undue attention.  Think Sarah Palin as President with Rush Limbaugh as her Secretary of Defense.   Hey, I said method 2 was an asinine way to do things!

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