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June 5, 2008 9:45 AM

VidChat: Exploring the Challenges of Bandwidth Hogs with Michael Johnston

On the latest edition of App-Rising.com's VidChat, you're in for a real treat as I sat down to chat with Michael Johnston, VP of IT for Jackson Energy Authority (JEA), to discuss the challenges network operators face dealing with so-called bandwidth hogs.

What's interesting is that while JEA is a municipal utility in Jackson, TN that's deployed a full fiber network, they're facing the same issues as the multi-billion dollar for-profit enterprises we normally hear from on these issues. Additionally, Michael is a dynamic speaker who in addition to understanding the technology also recently got his MBA so he can speak to the business challenges just as eloquently. Plus he's one of the nicest guys I've met.

So enjoy!

Now for the followup notes:

- Here's a link to JEA's website.

- "PON" stands for Passive Optical Network, which describes the kind of technology used in their full fiber deployment.

- He makes the good point that there are many different types of systems that aren't designed to handle the traffic of everyone showing up at the same time. If everyone picks up their phone at the same time, the system will crash. If everyone drives to work at the same time, you'll have massive traffic jams. If everyone turned on their appliances at the same time, it'll overwhelm the grid. All analogous to broadband networks, for which assumptions were made initially that not everyone would be using it fully at the same time.

- When talking about high-bandwidth users, he cuts through the clouds and firmly states that it's not gamers or YouTube that's causing strain on these networks, it's purely P2P as those apps are overwhelming the assumptions that not everyone will be using their connections all of the way all of the time.

- But he also clearly asserts that what those users are doing isn't wrong, it's just that P2P apps are at odds with the business models of network operators.

- When Michael mentioned an article of mine coming from left field, he's referring to my riff on tiered pricing from earlier this week.

- He shares the simple fact that the big for-profit service providers are dealing with the same challenges he is as a smaller non-profit entity.

- He then goes on to say that the network they've built is capable of delivering 100Mbps symmetrical to every home, but that he can't afford to deliver those speeds because of the cost of backhaul bandwidth and the fact that P2P users upset the economics of a shared network.

- I was really glad to hear him make the point that the cost of bandwidth within their access network is essentially free, but as soon as you upload a video to YouTube or participate in a global peer-to-peer network they have to pay to support delivering that traffic outside of their network.

- He also makes an interesting point when he admitted that today their only answer to these problems is to squeeze margins, which is especially painful given that they're trying to pay off the massive investment they made in building a full fiber infrastructure.

- One thought I haven't heard much before is that to start metering bandwidth requires yet another large investment and adds a lot of complexity to a system that's normally only interested in moving information through a router as quickly as possible. This makes it a challenge for smaller operators. Plus there are issues surrounding how you prove to users that they owe more money when you send them the bill. Those weren't arguments he seemed eager to get into. And even if the model's successful, it's not like they can turn this up overnight.

- I loved his reaction to my point that everyone's trying to figure out how to get people to pay for things online, which was, "Heck yeah, the network operators are trying to figure it out too."

- He went on to highlight the disparity in investment between network operators and applications developers, citing that while an application developer can put a few million into R&D; and then go after a nationwide audience, JEA has had to put in $50 million to only reach 30,000 customers. While he's trying to foster innovation by providing capacity, the reality is he has a lot more invested per customer and they need to get that money paid back. And again, Michael's not talking about this through the lens of trying to drive a profit; he just wants to pay for the network.

- Paxio is a small deployer of FTTH to greenfield developments in the San Francisco area. They're a really interesting provider who I'll be trying to get onto another VidChat soon.

- In talking about net neutrality, Michael voiced strong support for letting the market decide what should happen. He pointed to the fact that the market already seems to be working in instances like the Comcast case as he's seen reports that have shown their subscriber count took a hit following the news breaking that they were interfering with P2P traffic. He's also terrified of what's going to happen once anyone tries to turn this into a law as then it'll be left up to the lawyers and the legal system to determine what the law really means, which is often a messy, expensive, drawn out process.

- You can look forward to many more conversations with Michael as I really appreciate his perspectives on these issues as someone who's in the trenches in a smaller community with a full fiber network that provides new insight into the challenges network operators face that's free from the question of how much profit motives are driving the decisions he makes and positions he takes.

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Comments (1)

Great interview! Easily the best on this topic that I've seen.

A comment and a question.

Comment: I'm sympathetic with Michael's "market" position on net neutrality--but think he needs to think it through a bit more. He and other small networks will never have the sort of "weight" that a Charter or a Comcast has to implement various questionable but effective ways to monetize what is a semi-monopoly situation through most of Charter's network. If Charter decides to go the route of "spying" on your content in order to push ads targeted to your reading styles or medical queries they can probably get away with it if they are willing to lose a few customers. (And they will be happy to dump a few P2P customers!) But an organization like JEA which actually has to be responsive to their owners desires not to be spyed on by "the government" will simply never have the practical ability to make money that way. (Or, as he points out the research/development capacity to implement it for such a small place even if the city council allowed it.)

What he and munis across the country should be praying for -- and advocating in Congress -- is a clear net neutrality law that makes all folks large or small, public or private play by the same strong rules. Otherwise, it will always be the little guys who most respect their customers that will be hurt first and most.

The big Question is about minimizing access costs. ---Micheal is focused on P2P and uploading data to spots out of the local network. What about p4p protocols that some companies, like Comcast, have been working on; could those tactics help small companies? For video--which by some accounts is a bigger problem--doe REA use on-system caches? Is there a way to get cheaper backhaul out of the city? This is surely a place where the federal government, directly or through regulation,could help.

Posted by John on June 6, 2008 8:24 PM

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