There is fractious division among network engineers on whether prioritizing certain time-sensitive traffic would actually improve network performance. Introducing intelligence into the Internet also introduces complexity, and that can reduce how well the network works. Indeed, one of the main reasons scientists first espoused the end-to-end principle is to make networks efficient; it seemed obvious that analyzing each packet that passes over the Internet would add some computational demands to the system. Gary Bachula, vice president for external affairs of Internet2, a nonprofit project by universities and corporations to build an extremely fast and large network, argues that managing online traffic just doesn’t work very well. At the February Senate hearing, he testified that when Internet2 began setting up its large network, called Abilene, “our engineers started with the assumption that we should find technical ways of prioritizing certain kinds of bits, such as streaming video, or video conferencing, in order to assure that they arrive without delay. As it developed, though, all of our research and practical experience supported the conclusion that it was far more cost effective to simply provide more bandwidth. With enough bandwidth in the network, there is no congestion and video bits do not need preferential treatment.”
Today, Bachula continued, “our Abilene network does not give preferential treatment to anyone’s bits, but our users routinely experiment with streaming HDTV, hold thousands of high-quality two-way videoconferences simultaneously, and transfer huge files of scientific data around the globe without loss of packets.” Not only is adding intelligence to a network not very useful, Bachula pointed out, it’s not very cheap. A system that splits data into various lanes of traffic requires expensive equipment, both within the network and at people’s homes. Right now, broadband companies are spending a great deal on things like set-top boxes, phone routers and other equipment for their advanced services. “Simple is cheaper,” Bachula said. “Complex is costly”–a cost that may well be passed on to customers.
I think the people arguing for network prioritization mistakenly believe that this is a new issue. In fact, this is an issue that network engineers have been arguing about for decades, and people have been predicting the imminent collapse of the Internet due to congestion problems for years. I think it’s safe to say that the doomsayers of the 1990s were wrong; introducing congestion pricing wasn’t necessary and probably wouldn’t have been helpful a decade ago. It’s not obvious why today is any different.