The Driverless Uber of Networking

Network Capacity Isn't Everything

Network Capacity Isn’t Everything

If the future of personal transportation is driverless Uber, it’s probably not a great idea to build a four car garage unless you’re hankering for woodshop. Even if driverless cars are overhyped, it’s prudent to start looking at transitioning away from traditional cars and looking into electrics at some point. They may only be a complement to big, comfy SUVs, but high tech cars have a number of virtues. We don’t look always look at broadband networks with an eye to the future, however.

Network Quality and Cost

Networks are all about quality and cost. Discussions about broadband quality generally devolve to capacity (or “speed” in policy shorthand) pretty quickly. Capacity doesn’t matter as much as reliability, consistency, and security, but it’s the easiest thing to measure. So we can make meaningful distinctions between broadband plans and policies using capacity as a starting point as long as we understand it’s only a proxy for the more subtle characteristics of a broadband connection. Unfortunately, there are different ways to measure speed: there are peaks, valleys, averages, peak-to-average ratios, and all sorts of other ways to look at it. The Internet is a shared resource, statistical system where performance is expected to vary with load, but that’s not really appreciated outside of network engineering circles.

Some advocates, some journalists, and most journalist/advocates continue to make speed comparisons in a misleading manner. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was once the Internet’s privacy hawk, but has since become an advocate for the erosion of copyright. In a recent article on municipal broadband, EFF asserted that the average broadband speed in the US was a mere 9.8 Mbps, a very peculiar number that I’ve not seen for a long time. It’s reasonable to claim US broadband speed averages 55 Mbps – 67 Mbps. The first is the estimate and the latter is the Akamai observation of “Average Peak Connection Speed” of broadband networks.

The Network Freeway

It’s wrong, but understandable, for unskilled journalists to claim the US average is as low as 15.3 Mbps by misinterpreting Akamai’s “Average Connection Speed” as a measure of a broadband pipe that carries multiple connections at the same time. This is like saying I-70 is a 65 MPH freeway because each of its four lanes is limited to that speed. But the freeway capacity is 4 x 65 MPH because its capacity is the sum of the capacities of its lanes.This only matters when people compare the quality of today’s networks to some future goal or standard, such as gigabit networks.

But when skilled advocates like EFF’s Corynne McSherry reach back to some prior era to pull out a tiny number to stand in for today’s networks, there seems to be an intent to deceive; but it could just be sloppiness. An upbeat report by Viavi Solutions says the global average broadband speed is a mere 6.3 Mbps, but that’s not true either. This is Akamai’s “per lane” speed, not their true broadband speed, which is 34.7 Mbps (Akamai State of the Internet Report, Q1 2016, page 3.)

The Rosy Glow of Network Quality

It’s amusing that Viavi used the wrong figure in a report that lights the US with a rosy glow. Unlike the gloom and doom that EFF invoked to justify the takeover of  local networks by city governments, Viavi asserts that 61% of the world’s gigabit deployments are inside the US. While deployments can be either large or small, that’s still an impressive figure that puts us in the gold medal position, well ahead of the pack:

North America has the largest share of announced gigabit deployments, with 61 percent. Europe is second with 24 percent. Asia, Australasia, Middle East, Africa and South America share the remaining 15 percent of deployments.

Gigabit Doesn’t Mean Fiber

Perhaps the most significant news from the Viavi report is the revelation that gigabit networks don’t need to be exclusively fiber optic:

  • Fiber dominates: 85 percent of currently known gigabit deployments are based on optical fiber connectivity. 11 percent are based on Hybrid-fiber coax (HFC), a broadband technology that combines optical fiber and coaxial cable, commonly employed by cable providers.
  • Wireless gigabit is already here: Nearly 3 percent of known gigabit deployments are based on LTE-A, a modified version of LTE which is gigabit-capable.
  • 5G is coming fast: 37 wireless carriers have announced plans for 5G networks.  Five of them plan to have 5G networks built as early as 2017.

So we can reach the magic gigabit threshold in a variety of ways.

Rich Cut the Broadband CordCutting the Cord on Wired Networks

Cord cutting

Cutting the Cord Is Not Just for the Poor

But we don’t really need wired gigabit networks today, as we see from the intriguing Census Bureau data on broadband cord-cutting. The Washington Post’s Brian Fung summarizes the Census Bureau report:

For the most part, America’s Internet-usage trends can be summed up in a few phrases. The Internet is now so common as to be a commodity; the rich have better Internet than the poor; more whites have Internet than do people of color; and, compared with low-income minorities, affluent whites are more likely to have fixed, wired Internet connections to their homes.

But it may be time to put an asterisk on that last point, according to new data on a sample of 53,000 Americans. In fact, Americans as a whole are becoming less likely to have residential broadband, the figures show: They’re abandoning their wired Internet for a mobile-data-only diet — and if the trend continues, it could reflect a huge shift in the way we experience the Web.

Going Forward While Going Backward

So here’s the oddity: The US is leading the world in ultra-high-speed broadband network deployments at a time when the world’s broadband use is shifting from wired networks to wireless ones. This is a global trend that actually started in nations with all-fiber networks such as South Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, some advocates of community broadband still say we aren’t building high capacity wired networks as fast as we should. But others are waking up to the reality that wireless networks have more overall utility than wired ones, and lower costs to build as well:

You can deliver hundreds of megabits, even a gig, through fixed wireless into urban and rural areas. The economics of wireless as well as the ability to deliver a gig makes the case for wireless/wired hybrid infrastructure — and Google is in the game.

Thank You Google

So we can thank Google for carrying this message to the municipal broadband subculture by exploring the wireless option. This came about when Google decided to delay its Silicon Valley fiber project:

Google has told at least two Silicon Valley cities that it is putting plans to provide lightning-fast fiber internet service on hold while the company explores a cheaper alternative.

The news comes nearly three months after San Jose officials approved a major construction plan to bring Google Fiber to the city. Mountain View and Palo Alto also were working with Google to get fiber internet service but said Monday that the company told them the project has been delayed.

“It was a surprise,” said Mountain View public works director Mike Fuller, who added that Google told city officials the company was still committed to providing fiber service in Mountain View. “We didn’t expect it because we were working on what was their plan at the time.”

This is what a major recalibration looks like. Google was extremely enthusiastic about fiber to the home until it wasn’t. And now it isn’t.

It’s the Servers, Stupid

Jeff Hecht, a journalist who have made a career out of covering developments in fiber optic networking, challenges networking companies to lay more fiber and researchers to develop means of making fiber more efficient. While these things are important, they’re not crucial to the realities we face today. Hecht’s argument revolves around the streaming meltdown HBO’s Game of Thrones faced earlier this year:

On 19 June, several hundred thousand US fans of the television drama Game of Thrones went online to watch an eagerly awaited episode — and triggered a partial failure in the channel’s streaming service. Some 15,000 customers were left to rage at blank screens for more than an hour.

The channel, HBO, apologized and promised to avoid a repeat. But the incident was just one particularly public example of an increasingly urgent problem: with global Internet traffic growing by an estimated 22% per year, the demand for bandwidth is fast outstripping providers’ best efforts to supply it.

Sorry, but the GoT meltdown had nothing to do with bandwidth. HBO’s problem was traced back to the video servers at MLB Advanced Media that had the contract to deliver HBO’s video streams. Users of other services were not affected:

Users streaming Game of Thrones on two other OTT outlets — its TV Everywhere component, HBO Go, and its linear channel on Sling TV — did not report streaming issues during the episode.

HBO Now’s periodic outages notwithstanding, spikes in traffic demand are a continued problem with many popular services. Sling TV suffered outages during key March Madness games, sparking similar outrage from sports fans.

The issue was corrected in less than an hour, which proves it didn’t come about from insufficient fiber. MLBAM didn’t go out and lay more fiber optic cable to correct their problem, they turned on more video servers. So this wasn’t so much a dearth of network bandwidth as a shortage of computation resources by the people who bring me my baseball games over the Internet.

While regular upgrades to the Internet’s fiber backbone are necessary, they’re also routine.  And no, the “world wide wait” of the 1990s was not the fault of networks as Hecht claims, it was caused by a bad design choice in the first version of the Web protocol that was corrected in the 1.1 release of HTTP.

Going Faster in the Wrong Direction

As long as policy priorities are set by people who don’t understand user preferences and technical realities, there will be pressures to enact counter-productive policies. Perhaps the most stark example of this trend is the “network compact” idea promoted by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. He reiterated this notion in a closed-door meeting sponsored by the Aspen Institute on Sunday:

“For the past almost eight years, the FCC has sought to confront network change head-on; to harness the network revolution to encourage economic growth, while standing with those who use the network as consumers and innovators,” he said.

Wheeler used his familiar refrain about the “network compact,” which he calls “the responsibilities of those who build and operate networks.” He focused on the need for interconnection, which he characterized as “access on broadband networks” not just “access to” the networks.

“The ability to interconnect networks becomes crucial when the most important network of our day, the Internet, is but a collection of interconnected networks.”

Wheeler’s “network compact” is an attempt to make the terms of the 1913 Kingsbury Commitment a permanent cornerstone of broadband policy, but it doesn’t fit today’s realities.  Kingsbury was a consent agreement that allowed the old AT&T Bell System permission to hold a monopoly over US telephone service in return for some give-backs such as universal phone service. If we adopted this framework to today’s mobile networks there would only be one network, and it would be managed by the FCC in a way to made progress as slow as possible. Instead of looking forward to 5G, we would probably be considering whether we could replace out analog mobile network with a digital one.

Kingsbury also used the monopoly carrot to wring favors from the Bell System that it would not otherwise have offered. Because the FCC has no such carrot today, it needs to look for other incentives, such as cash subsidies, to promote those of its goals that don’t have market support.

Taking Stock

So it’s probably better to take stock of where we are: a nation with multiple mobile networks that are constantly improving to such an extent that they’re actually replacing wired networks for residential broadband service. The fact that wireless networks don’t have as much capacity as fiber doesn’t really matter as long as they have enough to get the job done with room to grow. But we can’t digest that fact until we’re willing to recognize the facts of engineering and consumer preference in today’s reality.

Will Mr. Wheeler listen to what consumers are saying or simply continue to wrap himself up in the comfort of his quaint historical homilies? And if he does wake up to the modern realities of Internet life, can he bring his public interest pals along? We shall see what we shall see, but it looks like the FCC is still pushing us in the direction of four car garages.