In my last big article, I explored the technology that makes the Internet different from the telephone network, packet-switching. This time I want to explore one of the major implications of packet-switching, statistical behavior. The short version of this piece is that the telephone network oriented a generation of regulators and policy geeks toward certain expectations about network behavior that are no longer valid, and the tension between the old view of networks and the new view is the source of a lot of conflict.
Measuring the performance of non-deterministic, packet-switched networks such as those comprising the Internet is much more difficult challenge than is generally appreciated, but it’s necessary – or viewed as necessary – by a host of consumer-oriented policies. As currently operated, the Internet provides no performance guarantees, relying on a “best-effort” system of packet transfer across facilities shared by a large number of users – some 500 million systems are attached to the Internet presently – operating under wildly different loading scenarios. Many advocates argue that this “best-effort” system represents an ideal state of affairs, and are offended by the notion that network operators might supplement basic service with a more deterministic, for-fee system with bounded performance guarantees. Bob Frankston, for example, believes that the Internet represents a “paradigm shift” in network construction because it radically separates transport from applications. How radical this shift is from a historical perspective is debatable, as the wheel pretty much accomplished the same thing. But I digress.