Bandwidth, Storewidth, and Net Neutrality

by on December 16, 2008 · 14 comments

Very happy to see the discussion over The Wall Street Journal‘s Google/net neutrality story. Always good to see holes poked and the truth set free.

But let’s not allow the eruptions, backlashes, recriminations, and “debunkings” — This topic has been debunked. End of story. Over. Sit down! – obscure the still-fundamental issues. This is a terrific starting point for debate, not an end.

Content delivery networks (CDNs) and caching have always been a part of my analysis of the net neutrality debate. Here was testimony that George Gilder and I prepared for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing almost five years ago, in April 2004, where we predicted that a somewhat obscure new MCI “network layers” proposal, as it was then called, would be the next big communications policy issue. (At about the same time, my now-colleague Adam Thierer was also identifying this as an emerging issue/threat.)

Gilder and I tried to make the point that this “layers” — or network neutrality — proposal would, even if attractive in theory, be very difficult to define or implement. Networks are a dynamic realm of ever-shifting bottlenecks, where bandwidth, storage, caching, and peering, in the core, edge, and access, in the data center, on end-user devices, from the heavens and under the seas, constantly require new architectures, upgrades, and investments, thus triggering further cascades of hardware, software, and protocol changes elsewhere in this growing global web. It seemed to us at the time, ill-defined as it was, that this new policy proposal was probably a weapon for one group of Internet companies, with one type of business model, to bludgeon another set of Internet companies with a different business model. 

We wrote extensively about storage, caching, and content delivery networks in the pages of the Gilder Technology Report, first laying out the big conceptual issues in a 1999 article, “The Antediluvian Paradigm.” [Correction: "The Post-Diluvian Paradigm"] Gilder coined a word for this nexus of storage and bandwidth: Storewidth. Gilder and I even hosted a conference, also dubbed “Storewidth,” dedicated to these storage, memory, and content delivery network technologies. See, for instance, this press release for the 2001 conference with all the big players in the field, including Akamai, EMC, Network Appliance, Mirror Image, and one Eric Schmidt, chief executive officer of . . . Novell. In 2002, Google’s Larry Page spoke, as did Jay Adelson, founder of the big data-center-network-peering company Equinix, Yahoo!, and many of the big network and content companies.

This interplay between bandwidth, storage, and latency, caching, content, and conduit, was the very point of the conference. What are the technical and economic trade-offs? Where will the Net be modular? And where will it be integrated? Where will content be stored, and who will pay? In many ways, the conference was ahead of its time. And my humble view is that Schmidt and Page may have even adopted some of the key insights of these conferences and turned them into some of Google’s most successful applications and architectures. A talk by Yale computer scientist David Gelernter in particular, I remember, seemed to have a profound impact on the way attendees visualized this coming “cloud” that would enable the death of the desktop. Remember, at the time, Google was still just a search engine company that hosted its then-thousands of servers in the data centers of Equinix and a few other hosting companies. Today, Google, with its global cloud platform and desktop killing apps, has become the supreme storewidth company.

I offer this background because some of us have been thinking about these topics for a (relatively) long time. When we first began analyzing this new “network layers” and then “network neutrality” policy concept five or more years ago, we did so with these profound architectural questions in mind. The Net, and the bits and applications traversing it, moves so fast, that we need all these technical solutions — routing, switching, QoS, CDNs, etc. — to make it work, let alone make it fast and robust.  

So yesterday’s Wall Street Journal story was not noteworthy for exposing some brand new network technology or architectural scheme. No, it seemed noteworthy (again, pending the accuracy of the reporting and the follow-on assertions) because (1) it highlighted the reality of this already existing architecture — something a few of us have been trying for years to expose and highlight as a shortcoming of the neutrality concept — and (2) suggested Google and others were softening their stance on the net neutrality policy issue. 

Now it’s perfectly possible the article is mistaken, that no one is softening on the push for net neutrality regulation. Let’s have the truth, indeed. But it is a good thing that we are getting deeper into the technology and architecture of the Net because a clearer understanding will expose net neutrality’s big flaws. As Gilder and I surmised five years ago, net neutrality, as ill-defined as it still is after all this time, seems one group’s attempt to get the upper hand on competitors using the heavy hand of government. My networks, good; your networks, bad. My content delivery bandwidth-saving latency-reducing fix, good; your content-delivery bandwidth-saving latency-reducing method, “evil.”

More to come. . . .

Correction: The issue of the Gilder Technology Report I referred to was of course titled “The Post-Diluvian Paradigm.” The meaning of this title was that after the flood of bandwidth — or capacity — was deployed, we would still need latency- and hop-reducing and other performance-enhancing technologies and architectures to make the cloud function robustly.

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  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I agree that anyone who says the WSJ story was “debunked” either didn't read it or didn't understand it. The important point the story made is that the views of notable NN advocates have in fact evolved over the course of this debate, which is a good thing given how destructive their programs as of two or three years ago would have been to the evolution of the Internet and network-based services generally. Lessig is now saying he's OK with access tiering, but a couple of years ago he wasn't ( http://www.jedreport.com/2008/12/lessigs-defens… ). Ben Scott told the FCC in Feb that he's OK with some forms of prioritizing, but previously he wasn't. You can go right down the list and see advocate after advocate modifying or softening extreme views as they learn more about the issue and absorb criticism.

    And similarly, anti-neuts have softened their views as well, in an effort to reach some sort of common ground. It's normal for views to evolve over time on issues like this that combine law and technology, it shouldn't come as a big surprise to anyone when that happens, and it makes perfect sense to periodically assess the state of play and see where we are.

  • Ryan Radia

    The WSJ story did have some interesting and revealing details about the arrangements that Google is after, but the story's initial claim that “the celebrated openness of the Internet is quietly losing powerful defenders” and also the headline that “Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web” have both been debunked, as I stated in my earlier post. Google hasn't amended its stance on net neutrality regulation. And unless I'm missing something (which is entirely possible) Google doesn't want a “fast track” on the Web. Or, at least, that's not quite what they want, technically speaking.

    This story is indeed a good starting point for a debate over the relatively desirability of content-delivery networks and actual Internet “fast lanes” and whether any of these competing methods of pushing content should be subject to government regulation.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    It is a fact that the NN coalition has lost some powerful members as Yahoo and Microsoft, among others, have peeled off.

    And it's also a fact that prominent NN supporters have modified and softened their views, Lessig among them.

    And it's also a fact that the caching system Google wants will accelerate their traffic relative to other services non-accelerated traffic.

    So where's the bunk? Google's business and technology people are doing their job, making the service work better for their customers, and this is what they're supposed to do. Their public policy people seem to be a step behind.

  • http://bretswanson.com Bret Swanson

    Thanks for reminding me of these very real backtracks. I guess I'm not crazy. I saw one vivid instance in person fully two years ago when Lessig massively retreated in the face of brutally incisive questioning from Peter Huber at a Telecosm conference debate.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    in his testimony George Gilder wrote:
    “Asian broadband also proves there was no Internet “bubble.” Today, Korea runs over the net between a three and five times larger share of its economy than we do. Riding the bus to work, Koreans watch television news and exchange video mail over their mobile phones. They enjoy full-motion video education and entertainment in their homes. Many of the dot-coms that failed in America due to the lack of robust broadband links are thriving in Korea. Consider that by this time next year Verizon Wireless’s 38 million customers will enjoy faster Internet access via their mobile phones than through their Verizon DSL connections to their homes. Only the most severe disincentives to invest could have yielded such a result, which defies the laws of physics. The American Internet “bubble” was actually a crisis of policy.”

    I have a question, Why do these countries have better internet then we do?

    To me the deployment of a known technology reflects the free-will of the corporation not the drag of regulation. So if the technology is not deployed, it is the result of a purposeful management decision by the corporate leaders. The auto industry for example swore it could not meet emission standards, the Japanese just did it. Now the American auto industry is on the verge of bankruptcy begging for a handout at taxpayer expense. So is the corporate whining on network neutrality regulation simply rehash of the auto industry's failed prostrations?

    The lesson is clear, if the Asian internet is superior we need to look at what they are doing correctly and then we need to adapt their model for here. Whining about regulation gets us nowhere.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    in his testimony George Gilder wrote:
    “Asian broadband also proves there was no Internet “bubble.” Today, Korea runs over the net between a three and five times larger share of its economy than we do. Riding the bus to work, Koreans watch television news and exchange video mail over their mobile phones. They enjoy full-motion video education and entertainment in their homes. Many of the dot-coms that failed in America due to the lack of robust broadband links are thriving in Korea. Consider that by this time next year Verizon Wireless’s 38 million customers will enjoy faster Internet access via their mobile phones than through their Verizon DSL connections to their homes. Only the most severe disincentives to invest could have yielded such a result, which defies the laws of physics. The American Internet “bubble” was actually a crisis of policy.”

    I have a question, Why do these countries have better internet then we do?

    To me the deployment of a known technology reflects the free-will of the corporation not the drag of regulation. So if the technology is not deployed, it is the result of a purposeful management decision by the corporate leaders. The auto industry for example swore it could not meet emission standards, the Japanese just did it. Now the American auto industry is on the verge of bankruptcy begging for a handout at taxpayer expense. George Gilder, in the quote above, fails to make a logical connection to demonstrate how our regulatory environment hinders the internet in the US when compared to the Asian internet. So is the corporate whining on network neutrality regulation simply rehash of the auto industry's failed prostrations?

    The lesson is clear, if the Asian internet is superior we need to look at what they are doing correctly and then we need to adapt their model for here. Whining about regulation gets us nowhere.

  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    in his testimony George Gilder wrote:
    “Asian broadband also proves there was no Internet “bubble.” Today, Korea runs over the net between a three and five times larger share of its economy than we do. Riding the bus to work, Koreans watch television news and exchange video mail over their mobile phones. They enjoy full-motion video education and entertainment in their homes. Many of the dot-coms that failed in America due to the lack of robust broadband links are thriving in Korea. Consider that by this time next year Verizon Wireless’s 38 million customers will enjoy faster Internet access via their mobile phones than through their Verizon DSL connections to their homes. Only the most severe disincentives to invest could have yielded such a result, which defies the laws of physics. The American Internet “bubble” was actually a crisis of policy.”

    I have a question, Why do these countries have better internet then we do?

    To me the deployment of a known technology reflects the free-will of the corporation not the drag of regulation. So if the technology is not deployed, it is the result of a purposeful management decision by the corporate leaders. The auto industry for example swore it could not meet emission standards, the Japanese just did it. Now the American auto industry is on the verge of bankruptcy begging for a handout at taxpayer expense. George Gilder, in the quote above, fails to make a logical connection to demonstrate how our regulatory environment hinders the internet in the US when compared to the Asian internet. So is the corporate whining on network neutrality regulation simply rehash of the auto industry's failed prostrations?

    The lesson is clear, if the Asian internet is superior we need to look at what they are doing correctly and then we need to adapt their model for here. Whining about regulation gets us nowhere.

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