Impact of Regulations on Internet Traffic Management

shaneThe Internet is a wonderful and complex system, but it’s often poorly understood by regulators. The wrong regulations can prevent it from working reliably and from serving society’s communication needs.

In this interview, High Tech Forum’s Richard Bennett and Shane Tews of the American Enterprise Institute and Vrge Communications discuss traffic engineering and the  impact of regulations on the Internet’s basic operations.  They also discuss the different approaches taken by the U.S. and the European Union toward regulating net neutrality.

For the typical Internet viewer, these issues go to the heart of an enjoyable experience.  Shane offers a common example: Imagine a household with one person streaming Netflix while another places a Skype call.  The Skype call sends one packet at a time, waits 25 milliseconds and sends another packet. Every packet must be delivered within 100 milliseconds to ensure a good user experience. The Netflix session delivers load of information in chunks, and is silent between chunks.

The Netflix server saturates the network each time it sends a chunk, which degrades the Skype call. Left unmanaged, the result is a bad consumer experience for the Skype user people.  As Richard puts it, “That’s because VoIP has a different concept of congestion than video streaming does. Just like there is a different concept of success for a real-time app like VoIP than there is for a file transfer.”

The solution involves an Internet system that is “flexible enough and… smart enough to consider how to match the needs of the running applications with the available resources.” This is what Tews calls “the ethics of traffic management.”

The problem today is that unlike Europe, which recently approved “pretty sensible” rules on Internet traffic, U.S. regulators have adopted rules that are spectacularly ill-suited to today’s technology.

For example, take the concept of online congestion. Richard and Shane both agree, different applications have considerably different standards for online congestion.  Netflix, as Richard points out, sees congestion as a situation where it “can’t deliver a clump of packets before it has another clump of packets ready to go.”

But that is not at all the standard of congestion for other applications, including voice and gaming.

Given these differences, the two experts ask, what is the definition of online “congestion”?  And when should an ISP take action to reduce congestion?  Should the ISP take preemptive action to avoid a problem?  Or should it wait until a problem develops and try to bail water?

Most important, how do new federal “neutrality” rules impact this decision?

This is a fascinating discussion between two highly knowledgeable Internet experts on the Internet’s future.