Edge-Caching vs. Preferential Treatment

by on December 16, 2008 · 28 comments

Claims that Google has abandoned its stance on network neutrality have been thoroughly debunked, as Cord and Adam note below. Over at Broadband Reports, Karl Bode explains that Google is seeking edge-caching agreements, not preferential treatment. Edge-caching involves Google housing its content on servers located inside consumer ISP networks, cutting bandwidth costs by allowing users to access Google content located just a few hops away.

Even though edge-caching doesn’t violate network neutrality as defined by Google, it’s still one of the many advantages that big players have over new entrants. Edge-caching isn’t a “fast track,” as the WSJ imprecisely terms it, but rather a short track—functionally, there’s a lot of similarity between the two. As Richard Bennett has explained time and time again, being close to end users is quite advantageous even without preferential treatment, as it eliminates the need to push vast amounts of data across the congestion-prone core of the public Internet.

We’ve heard about how edge-caching enables content providers and ISPs to cut their bandwidth bills and make more efficient use of finite network resources. Both of these are true, but there’s more—edge caching makes it much less likely that users will experience long load times or buffering hiccups while watching streaming video online. That high-def YouTube clip might take a few extra seconds to buffer if it has to make its way through congested central network exchanges—not so, however, if that video is housed just a few hops away, within your ISP’s network.

Of course, as Larry Lessig points out, there’s nothing stopping anybody from negotiating edge-caching arrangements with ISPs directly or with content delivery networks like Akamai. Like many network enhancing-technologies, though, edge caching costs money. But what’s wrong with that? A blog post over at NYTimes.com quips that Google has a “Treat All Rich Companies the Same” vision of net neutrality. The post goes on to point out that:

The reality today is that rich companies already get first class service, and most network neutrality proposals aren’t going to change that. Big sites buy faster Internet connections and get better service from their providers. Moreover, those with money can buy services content delivery networks like Akamai, or in the case of the superrich, they can set up their own networks, as Google is trying to do.

Neutrality supporters’ refrain—that the Internet must remain open to all, free from any arrangements that grant a leg up to established players at the expense of the little guy—would seem to go against edge-caching. This apparent disconnect between how net neutrality regulation is argued and how it’s actually defined is quite revealing, as ArsTechnica points out.

Wayne Crews argues on OpenMarket that arrangements such as those sought by Google benefit the Internet by making it a more valuable network than it would otherwise be:

Special deals like Google’s, as well as future proprietary services that use Internet technology, but may or may not ride the same pipes as the “capital-I” Internet, increase the Net’s overall functionality. Policy should not discourage the possible emergence of such a “Splinternet” by catering to the old-school model of infrastructure socialism and sleepy-headed “openness.”

And as Cord correctly states, efficient agreements that harness the Internet’s power to deliver rich content and give us greater access to information should welcomed, not shunned.

  • MikeRT

    It also helps too that in cases like this, it makes it that much harder to argue that big content providers are hogging bandwidth, when they are paying to be closer to their users.

  • Small Webmaster

    Google's edge caching *is* preferential treatment. Of the worst kind. To see this, you just have to take off the doctrinaire glasses of the “network neutrality” activists, who are myopically focused on the pipes and on bashing and regulating ISPs (and are also mostly funded by Google).

    Think about it. It's obvious that Google will be able to place an edge cache at the site of any ISP it wants, probably for free. Why? Because YouTube and its related services consume SO much bandwidth that the ISP would be crazy to say no. The ISP would surely save big on its backbone connection. Terabytes per month on YouTube alone. That's money in the bank right there. And service would be faster, too.

    But would an ISP allow just any content provider to put a cache at its sites, for free or even for money? Doubtful. Caches take up space and power and require access for maintenance. The ISP needs to be strongly motivated, by big bandwidth savings, even to consider it. And only big companies like Google have that to offer. If a small Internet startup were to call your local cable company and ask for “co-location space,” the person there would probably say, “That’s not a product we sell to the public.” That is, if the person who answered the phone at the cable company even knew what it was.

    And of course, would-be competitors of Google won’t be able to buy space on Google’s private edge caches.

    So, in what way is this neutral? Google can get its servers into places where CoolNewInternetGarageStartup.com can’t, and can make its services more responsive than the startup's. Therefore, Google is indeed getting preferential access to infrastructure. It’s just that the infrastructure happens to be co-location space instead of pipes. And it has a big advantage there, because co-location is much more difficult to obtain than bandwidth. You can get any Internet carrier to sell you a pipe. But co-location space at ISPs, which is more cost-effective than buying pipes, isn’t necessarily even available to you unless you’re Google. So this is really, really anticompetitive. And how could anyone say it was “neutral?”

  • http://felter.org/ Wes Felter

    If you're too small to justify owning your own edge caches, you can rent caching service from Akamai. As expensive as Akamai is, it's cheaper than building your own CDN unless you are really large.

  • DB

    Here’s the real question: If you operate a CDN, does that make you a “broadband service provider”?

    In the Dorgan NN bill, “broadband service provider” is defined as “a person or entity that controls, operates, or resells and controls any facility used to provide broadband service to the public, whether provided for a fee or for free.”

    If these servers are co-located within the ISP networks, aren’t they facilities used to provide broadband service?

    Even if Google did not violate NN, doesn’t edge-caching now make them subject to any NN legislation? Therefore, don’t they have to offer non-discriminatory edge-caching on their co-located servers to any business on the Web? Therefore, if these edge-caching servers serve exclusively Google content, isn’t that a violation of NN?

  • http://bretswanson.com Bret Swanson

    Good analysis, Ryan.

  • Small Webmaster

    The trouble is, Akamai will let you serve up a small number of pages very expensively but Google is putting *entire applications* on their servers. This is something that is not practical to do with Akamai. Also, a little guy has to pay Akamai, handsomely, but Google will not have to pay anyone. The ISPs will gladly host their servers for free. So the big guy gets for free what the little guys can barely afford.

  • http://felter.org/ Wes Felter

    I think it's misleading to say that Google won't have to pay for its edge caches. They have to buy the hardware, which could amount to over $1M.

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    Excellent, entertaining, useful reading, Thanks !!

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