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.

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