2015 Download

2015 was a very active year for High Tech Forum because so much went down in Internet and mobile policy, with major developments in all the key policy areas and lots of issues to analyze and explain, so let’s get started with a review.

The topics break down into the pretty tight group: we discussed the nature of the Internet, the technical underpinnings of net neutrality, the future of the Internet, spectrum policy, 5G and the future of wireless, the Internet of  Things, the transitions in telephony and cable TV, and FCC regulations on devices and services and a new miscellaneous things.

The Nature of the Internet

If we don’t do anything else, we hope we can convey a solid understanding of what the Internet is, how it works, how it got the way it is, and what it’s going to be like in the future. For all the discussion about the Internet in policy circles, there’s precious little understanding of what goes on under its hood. When policy makers make miscues like banning “paid prioritization” and demanding magic encryption that only law enforcement can break (this isn’t possible, thanks for asking) they display a poor understand of the opportunities and drawbacks inherent in the design of the Internet.  These three articles addressed this issue.

Internet Versatility: The Internet is a software network, which sets it apart from the telegraph and telephone networks. Its essential piece is the Internet Protocol, which is little more than a data format. IP organizes information into units known as “packets” that consist of a payload – your data – and a sort of envelope known as the IP header that carries addresses and options. IP packets are carried by a variety of networks, such as the wired telephone network, the cable network, the mobile network, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi. So one way to understand the Internet is that it provides “IP over everything”, regardless of what kind of actual network you have at your disposal.

How Interconnection Works: Interconnection is the means by which each of the 40,000 networks that comprise the Internet communicates with the others. When I send you an email, my ISP can deliver it to your ISP because these two ISP networks interconnect. Ultimately, they interconnect through one or more Ethernet switches located in Internet Exchanges or similar private facilities in a dozen major US cities. In the abstract, these switches are similar to the Ethernet switch that’s built-in to your home router; in practice, carrier Ethernet switches are bigger and faster.

The Etiquette of Internet Service Quality: One of the central issues in the development of Internet policy is the matter of priorities. Proponents of network neutrality insist that service providers should not be able to sell “paid prioritization”, for example. While most of the arguments in favor of such a ban are technically incoherent – the fear of “fast lanes” is peculiar in a market where Content Delivery Networks are indispensible – some have endeavored to dig into the technical literature in order to see whether there’s a way to domesticate prioritization in order to makes its sale acceptable. While this has not been done to my satisfaction for the most part, it’s commendable that some proponents of strict broadband regulations have at least given it a try.

Measuring the Internet

We can’t very well regulate or seek to improve the Internet unless we understand it’s current state. Global Internet measurement is now the exclusive province of Akamai and SamKnows since Ookla has shuttered its Netindex service, so it’s easier to track. At the same time, measurements are becoming more sophisticated as regulators are looking at more data than simple download and upload speeds to local measurement servers. As I write this, I have a tab open to the FCC’s latest Measuring Broadband America report, so stay tuned for that.

Does Your Broadband Internet Service Suck?: In the case of Akamai, “Average Connection Speed” doesn’t assess the speed of our broadband connection to the rest of the Internet, it’s a measurement of an internal speed of the software connections between browsers and parts of web pages. Akamai is in the business of speeding up web browsing – it’s not unreasonable to say the company is in the “fast lane” business – so they analyze web browsing performance in detail. A web page consists of several elements – each graphic is an element – and several load at the same time.

State of the Internet, Q1 2015: Wednesday’s Internet events illustrate the importance of the Akamai “State of the Internet” quarterly reports. Because of failures at the New York Stock Exchange, United Airlines, the Wall Street Journal and false reports of an attack on St. Louis Missouri, there was a lot of buzz early in the day about some sort of Chinese assault on America’s Internet infrastructure. Salon suggested that claims by Anonymous that they’d taken down the stock market were believable, but they turned out to be baloney; NYSE simply rolled out some buggy software Tuesday night, United had a router go down, and the Journal messed up some HTML that affected desktop browsers only.

Assessing Minimum Quality of Service: hus, Singapore has adopted a strategy that is likely to be adopted by the European Union shortly, per a proposal by Latvia. The Singapore plan is also consistent with the approach suggested by the U. S. FCC in its May 2014 Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) “In the Matter of Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet.” The U. S. did not proceed to adopt a similar plan because of corporate influence, populist pressure and political considerations; instead it reverted to a slightly relaxed version of the telephone network regulatory framework, Title II of the Communications Act, and a pre-emptive ban on “paid prioritization” services that would enable real-time applications to succeed over the Internet.

Technical Underpinnings of Net Neutrality

We covered the amicus briefs filed in the challenge to the FCC’s net neutrality order (and filed one as well). Hence, the briefs around the oral arguments got a lot of attention. We examined the question of priorities in Internet service, a prominent issue in the FCC’s pre-emptive ban on the non-existent “paid prioritization” service, and we checked out global responses to the FCC’s order. TL/DR: other nations aren’t following.

My Amicus Brief in the Open Internet Challenge: Without even looking too deeply into the structures of the Internet and the Communications Act, it’s starkly obvious that the Internet lives in the Information Service space. The Internet is a virtual, software-based network, not simply a physical network designed to support a single application as the telephone network is. While there is a transmission function in the Internet – as there is in any network – this function is not uniform, has never been uniform, and should never be uniform.

Open Internet Goes to Europe: It turns out that a number of people are questioning open access these days because it demonstrably depresses investment, which accounts in large part for the lower average broadband speeds in Europe than in the US as well as the lower overall rate of fiber installation. This is just to say that to the extent that open access is one way to discipline the ISP market and net neutrality is another, the combination of the two is “belt-and-suspenders”, not a path that makes much sense. But everybody’s doing net neutrality these days and the European Parliament doesn’t want to be left out.

Fact-Checking Internet Association’s Amicus Brief: IA also touts the importance of business broadband, but there’s no evidence that businesses are unable to get the kind of Internet connections they need. Business web sites are not located in homes or even in offices, they’re housed in hosting centers far away from business premises and these centers are awash with bandwidth. So IA tries the multi-user scenario to make its case.

FCC’s Factual Errors in Oral Argument: Part 1, DNS: FCC chief counsel Jon Sallet asserted that the DNS is the Internet’s routing function at least twice in his oral argument, doubling down on the claim in the FCC’s reply brief to the challengers’ petition to vacate the regulations. He offered no evidence in the arguments, just as the reply brief simply asserts this proposition without evidence. The judges didn’t challenge this claim, and in fact promptly moved the discussion along to more legally interesting questions.

So let’s see what the Internet’s own factual record has to say about the role of DNS with respect to routing. There are about 250 RFCs that deal with DNS, starting with RFC 799 in September 1981 and going up to RFC 7673 in October 2015.

The Future of the Internet

Despite regulatory attempts to lock in the current state of the Internet, one way or another innovators will find a way to work around the roadblocks, either in the US or elsewhere. Trying to predict what comes next for the Internet is dicey, but any tech blog worth its salt has to weigh in. So we did.

BITAG Report on Traffic Differentiation: The end goal of traffic management practices (including adding super bandwidth in gigabit networks) is to improve overall Quality of Experience as perceived by users of diverse applications. Simply adding capacity does not prevent streams from fighting each other, as streaming does to VoIP, it simply reduces the number of perceived VoIP failures by a small amount. Pacing is much more effective, even though there are good reasons to increase capacity as well.

The major insight in this report is the need to judge management practices by their subjective effect on end-users running Internet applications. There was very little thought given in the development of Internet standards and practices to how things like TCP congestion control affects other applications, hence reconciling TCP’s peculiar operation with the needs of VoIP users falls on ISPs.

Networks on Demand: The Promise of Software-Defined Networking: Underneath the explosion of users, applications, and devices, we’re also witnessing a comparable explosion of network technology: US Internet service providers are installing fiber optic cable even faster than they did during the infamous “fiber bubble” of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s that left us with a “fiber glut” and a slew of bankruptcies because the demand didn’t exist (yet) for that radical increase in network capacity. Other nations are installing LTE mobile networks, following the US’s lead and increasing the ability of app developers to tap new potential. Wi-Fi is transitioning from 100 Mbps to the gigabit (1000 Mps) range, unlocking the power of gigabit home broadband connections.

Adding Enhanced Services to the Internet: The 43rd edition of TPRC, the world’s premier conference on Internet policy, took place in Arlington last week, from Sept. 24-27th.  While this is mainly a policy conference that stresses law and economics, a few techies manage to find places on the program every year. I’m going to highlight the outstanding papers with substantial technical content over the course of the next year, both in the blog and in the podcasts. It’s fascinating to see technology informing Internet policy discourse, even if it’s a bit depressing to realize how rare this is.

Spectrum Policy

Spectrum policy has two hot buttons and a number of smaller detailed issues. The big questions concern spectrum licenses and the balance between licensed and unlicensed spectrum. In 2015 a new issue entered the fray, a heated controversy between the Wi-Fi Alliance and a small group of upstarts who’ve built a better mousetrap than Wi-Fi, LTE Unlicensed (LTE-U). The LTE-U hassle highlights a poor understanding of radio interference by folks who should understand it better. So we helped.

How LTE Unlicensed Actually Works: The issue of LTE Unlicensed is a hot topic in spectrum policy circles, but there’s a lot of confusion about the pros and cons of LTE-U technology. So High Tech Forum has put together a graphic that we hope will help explain what LTE-U is, how it works, and how it interacts with the spectrum around it.

A Snake in the Briar Patch: Radio Interference: Right off the bat, the LTE-U is asked to prove a negative: they have to show that they don’t generate “destructive interference” regardless of how well designed or constructed the incumbent Wi-Fi system is. Leaving aside the fact that there aren’t incumbent Wi-Fi users in the 3.5 GHz band (try to make your Wi-Fi access point use it and you’ll find it’s not on the menu), what would the test procedure need to show?

5G and the Future of Wireless

Of all the issues in the networking space today – and there are a lot of them – nothing is more important than the definition and rollout of 5G mobile networks. If these networks come anywhere close to the hype, we can say goodbye to a huge number of the constraints on today’s networks; with any luck we’ll have 4 – 6 suppliers of gigabit mobile services everywhere we go. That means, among other things, that regulators will have fewer problems to deal with and all the incentives in the world to step back and let competitors fight it out.

5G: A Revolution in Networking: The most forward-looking vision for 5G – and one that not everyone was willing to endorse – came from Tom Anderson of Cisco, who see 5G as a chance to make some overdue and well-needed changes in the nature of the Internet. The Cisco vision (see the presentation here) would make the Internet a more name- and content-oriented network than the server-centric, numbered, firewalled system it always has been.

Why LTE Unlicensed Outperforms Wi-Fi: The hottest issue in unlicensed wireless spectrum policy is the conflict between Wi-Fi and LTE Unlicensed (“LTE-U”). Some advocates are pressing for restrictions on LTE-U, even going to far as to claim that LTE-U is a “land-grab” intended to take spectrum away from W-Fi-based home networks. It’s worthwhile to put these issues into the technical context so we can separate the attention-grabbing headlines from the technical issues.

Internet of  Things

The IoT is arising just slightly ahead of 5G; in fact parts of it are here now. Along with IoT we have robots and artificial intelligence. These are interesting times.

Internet of Things Series: There’s not much doubt that we’re on the way to more connected devices than we even imagined ten years ago. Not only can we install smart thermostats like Nest to keep the home at the right temperature, we can use these smart devices to monitor for fires, carbon monoxide, break-ins, and whatever else is happening around the way while we’re away. With the right options, thermostats can shut off heating and cooling to rooms we’re not using,control lighting, and save a bundle. You can even remotely operate your garage door, which you may want to do for a variety of reasons, such as allowing a delivery man to drop off a package when you’re away in a secure location without getting access to your house. And then there’s all that home entertainment stuff, not to mentionBluetooth toothbrushes and pressure cookers and water-saving lawn and garden irrigation systems.

Robot Explosion: The bright side for fraud victims is that today’s robots are very sophisticated. IEEE Spectrum just published an intriguing story on the prediction that we’re on the cusp of a “Cambrian Explosion” in robots as a number of technical elements come together to increase the power, utility, and affordability of actual hardware-based robots. The real Cambrian Explosion was a period in evolutionary history that witnessed an unprecedented explosion in species diversity that had something to do with a planetary atmosphere friendly to the development of multi-cell organisms and the development of vision systems that aided mate selection.

Is AI Held Back by the Profit Motive? The first and most important problem for AI, as for any field of computer science, is the question of goals. Do we want AI to create computers that do all the things that humans do (only better,) or do we want computers to get better at doing the things that computers do? I would suggest the latter is the more productive path, because there’s a more comprehensive goal: improving quality of life over both the short term and the long term. This is to say that the goals of any field of technology research should be bound to human welfare in a broad sense. We don’t improve human life, for example, by destroying the environment, wiping out all of our plant and animal companions, or exploiting huge swaths of humanity so that a few can live ridiculously well. I’m making a utilitarian argument that technology’s job is to produce “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” a formulation of one Francis Hutcheson (in his 1975 Inquiry concerning Moral Good and Evil) that is commonly misattributed to Jeremy Bentham.

Transitions in Telephony and Cable TV

Are we cutting the cord or aren’t we? Apparently we are, but very slowly. Until we have 5G it’s more like skinny bundles than no bundles at all.

The Cord-Cutting Myth in the Golden Age of TV: It’s worthwhile to fact-check the assumptions to see whether video streaming is a replacement for cable instead of supplement. Leichtman Research is a favorite source for claims that people are cutting the cable plan cord in favor of streaming because they’ve chronicled slight declines in cable subs for several years; as recently as March of this year, Leichtman reported that cable TV (and equivalents from satellite and phone companies) lost 125,000 subscribers in 2014.

FCC Regulations on Devices and Services

The FCC gets involved in a lot of small things; one issue that garnered a lot of attention was the need for better policing of Wi-Fi power limits.

FCC Clarifies the Ask for Wi-Fi Routers: While my previous blog post described one way of securing the power levels, there are others. The code that controls the radio can be contained in a not-easy-to-modify flash memory, and it could enforce power limits. That code could also do some geo-sensing to ensure the country code matches the locale in which the router is placed. There could also be some application code that checks the programmed power levels and reports modifications that take the device out of compliance, and potentially even notices if an external antenna has been changed.

Connected Life

Our Connected Life series is an occasional thing about the ways network are changing daily life.

This Connected Life: Black Friday Goes Online: e-Commerce is a better experience than in-store shopping, even if you buy online and then go to the store for pickup. No pushy sales clerks, no lines, and limited chaos. All of this translates into people spending more money for a more satisfying experience; that’s why the holiday shopping binge is “projected to bring in between $70 billion – $95 billion in e-commerce sales.” For contrast, Google’s quarterly revenues are around $18 billion.

So there you have it, a year in High Tech Forum.