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App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

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February 19, 2008 10:46 AM

All Bits Are NOT Created Equal

A core tenant of what most people think of as Net Neutrality is that broadband providers should not be allowed to discriminate between different types of Internet traffic on their networks.

Underpinning this thought is the idea that all bits are created equal and should therefore be treated equally.

But is that really the case? Are all bits born with the same inalienable rights? Should they be?

For one, different applications demand different things from the network. Voice or video calls are very sensitive to latency, while downloading a file isn’t. Watching full-screen video on-demand requires a lot of bandwidth, email doesn’t. Why should they all be treated the same?

For two, some bits should have higher priority than others. Take security. Why shouldn’t video from a community protection solution like the SafetyBlanket get priority during an emergency situation over the kid down the street pirating movies?

For three, prioritization, if done properly, offers the potential for a host of new efficiencies in the network. If there’s more capacity in the network than is available out to the Internet, why shouldn’t an application deployed in-network be able to get more bandwidth than one in the cloud?

With prioritization comes the potential to revitalize the QoS available over the Internet, to introduce a new era of the experiences that can be enabled. The goal isn’t to make things worse; it’s to make things better.

That said, sometimes discrimination can be necessary as well, as I explored with regards to Comcast and the constraints of their shared network last week. Yet there’s a funny thing I often hear when discussing Net Neutrality with people who’ve invested in full fiber networks: it’s a foreign concept to them. They can’t understand the need to slow down traffic as they’ve already got plenty of capacity. So one simple answer to solving the NetNeut dilemma is to get more capacity (aka more fiber) into the network.

My final point is another example where all bits are not created equal. It’s my belief that the bits I send and receive through the Internet are much more important than the bits of my broadband provider. I do not believe that they should be able to slow down what I’m doing to favor their own traffic. In my mind that practice falls nowhere near the classification of “best efforts”. I think the same can be said about degrading traffic through passive neglect as well, where my bits are slowed down because my broadband provider’s gobbling up all the resources on their network not because they’re actively trying to slow me down, though where to draw that line on a shared network isn’t an easy question to answer.

In the end, most NetNeut advocates I know agree with the idea that not all bits are created equal. They understand that there can be benefits to more active network management and they claim that their intent is not to forbid any of the legitimate reasons to prioritize traffic I listed above.

Trust me, I wish we were in a full fiber world with sufficient capacity to render this issue moot, and ultimately its my belief that that’s the world we should be shooting to realize. But until that time, if we let policy get in the way of reality, instead of protecting consumers and preserving openness for applications developers we may end up hurting rather than helping all parties involved.


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Comments (1)

Digital content is what the bits represent, and there is no distinction beyond that, for purposes of discussing net neutrality. Bandwidth is not a scarcity thingy. If the infrastructure is not sufficient, then the infrastructure needs to be improved. Mixing infrastructure with content does nothing to address the bandwidth issues. The corporate media continues to reflect the corporate thugs' idea that the customers they serve need to follow the business plan. Now, if we had a national broadband policy, life would be good. How about a national broadband infrastructure that gives equal access to all? Easy, tell the corporate thugs to build the infrastructure, and stop trying to control content.

Posted by Tom Poe on February 19, 2008 1:49 PM

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