The Subtlety of Paid Prioritization

Perhaps the saddest thing about the perpetual net neutrality debate is the damage it has done to the public’s understanding of the Internet. Subtle distinctions made with the scalpel of reason become gaping chasms when processed by the political spin machine, and value-neutral technical terms like “traffic discrimination” morph into free speech and human rights disasters.

The Internet is actually a distributed federation of independent systems (including home networks), but in Washington-speak it becomes something like AOL that’s far away from its users. The Internet plays host to diverse applications such as Skype, Netflix, telerobotics, and the IoT, but we pretend it’s nothing but the web in common discourse.

Net neutrality itself is meant to promote competition and innovation by treating new entrants fairly, but more often than not we see it defined as “treating all traffic the same.” The Internet allows the world’s richest companies – mega-giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon – to create shadow Internets that don’t share with anyone, but we pretend it’s a level playing field for haves and have-nots.

Prioritization is a Pretty Good Idea

The most glaring spin is the treatment of prioritization in general and paid prioritization in particular. Prioritization is one of several means to matchup the needs of particular applications with network resources. Real-time applications serve a constantly changing stream of data directly to the eyes and ears.

In contrast, the web is an on again, off again system in which transmission is distinct from consumption. Real-time measures time in microseconds while the web’s metronome beats in seconds.

A video conference carries pairs of bi-directional streams of audio and video that need to be synced up at the receiving end for the viewer to concentrate on what’s being said. If the speaker’s lips are out of phase with the words the viewer hears, it takes monumental concentration for the brain to realign them.

The Internet is Full of Challenges

But the design of the Internet makes it difficult for high-density information to pass through network boundaries without delay. It’s a statistical system that’s meant to work well most of the time, but which can’t be made to work seamlessly all the time unless we all pay 100 times more than we do today.

There are too many players, too many applications, and too many coordination requirements to handle constant maintenance while the system is in use 24 hours a day. Consequently, networks need to make subtle accommodations.

Someone has to do sophisticated network management, and someone needs to pay for it. It can only be done by Internet Service Providers because they’re in the key position. It can only be paid for by consumers because we’re the only ones bringing money to the game.

The Consumer Always Pays

The cost of sophisticated traffic management might be buried in our ISP bill, it might be an add-on of a dollar or two an hour for real-time sessions, or it might be covered by a provider of applications. In the latter case, the provider will cover the cost by billing consumers for the use of their service.

This calculus is only complicated by advertising, the magic wand that provides us with free services. As we’ve learned from the recent Facebook debacle, advertising is more like a short-term loan that provides services that we ultimately pay for by surrendering personal information and purchasing advertised products.

So the distinction between free network management and paid prioritization is more subtle than we’ve been led to believe. Similarly, the effects of active management are often less dramatic than the difference between paved superhighways and dirt roads.

This is a Realistic Picture of Paid Prioritization

The High Tech Forum team has put together a realistic simulation contrasting a managed video conference to an unmanaged one.  At first, you need to look very carefully to detect the difference.

We made this by introducing packet loss and delay within the range that we typically see on consumer grade ISPs. This causes visual artifacts to appear in the stream from packet loss and lags to appear because of delay. As the video progresses, the impact becomes more dramatic.

These effects don’t make the conference useless unless the intent is to have an ultra-realistic “telepresence” experience with a big screen that makes it feel like you’re in the same room with your conference partner.

The Bottom Line

What you should get from this is that the enhancements to be gained from managing real-time streams are not of the nature that either makes or breaks the Internet for these kinds of applications. This is just way of enhancing the Internet so that certain classes of application get the kind of service they need to make the user experience as good as it can be without breaking the bank.

We should never stop making the Internet better. It takes an almost religious zeal to insist that there’s anything wrong with the subtle improvement represented by this video.

And it takes a very unrealistic theory of economics to maintain that there is any rationale for placing arbitrary limits on where the payment for such enhancements comes from. It’s our Internet and we should be able to use it in any lawful way we want.