Sunday, June 04, 2006

Net Neutrality and Skype

If you have had your head buried in the techy web sites of late you may have come across the latest "in" internet debate over network neutrality. Although in my opinion it would be better to refer to it as 'network preferancing'.

What is it? Well, everything that happens on the internet is sent in little packets of data. When you look at a web site the information is sent to your computer in a series of packets. In some ways you can think of the internet being like a huge train, each carriage having its own destination, and your computer being a branch line of the railway. When a carriage needs to go to your station (because it has your address on it) the points switch, and it is routed to you.

This is fine as long as there is room on the mail line for all of the carriages, the designers of the internet were aware that they had to come up with a scheme for scheduling traffic at peek times. Their solution was to penalize unimportant carriages thereby making room on the track for more important information.

This can get very technical, but at its most simplistic, an important carriage is one that a human is actively waiting for, an example would be a piece of webpage. An unimportant carriage would be one containing a piece of email. It does not matter if the email gets held up for a little while, the recipient is not (well not generally) sat in front of their computer waiting for the email.

I do not think that anyone would have any problems with this scheduling system. Indeed this is the system that has been in use for more than 20 years.

Let us add another complexity to our railway, let us say that the railway is not owned by one single company, but is broken up into many companies each owning a geographic area, California, Texas, Alberta, etc. Because of some government regulations each railway company must accept the rail cars coming from other areas, even if all they are doing is passing though on route to another area. In the telecommunications world this is known as being a 'Common Carrier'.

Well for the common good all of the railway companies they have an agreement to honor all carriages regardless of where the carriages come from or go to. And that is to their mutual benefit.

unfortunately the railway companies seem to be wanting to change the way they work. The really misnamed "network neutrality" is all about making the internet into a tiered system, and your data travels, first , bushiness or economy class depending on who you are and what you pay.

This goes against the very grain of what the Internet is. Basically the railway companies want to pick and choose what carriages they will carry and at what speed.

OK, lets convert all of this into the real world. The railway companies are really the Telco's, the baby bells, that we all know and love. They were the only people that had the infrastructure to carry internet data, and so are the de facto owners of the internet. Their mission in life is to maximize their profits, or as I like to say 'wring that last dollar out of that 20 year old copper wire coming into your house'.

The telco's are grumpy because they can see their profit base being eroded by the internet.

A good example is Skype, which thankfully is now part of the 800lb gorilla E-Bay. Skype is a technology that allows you to make phone calls over the internet. Better still it allows for free long distance anywhere in Canada and the US. From a consumers point of view, why would I want to pay Telus (my telco) 10 cents a minute when I can get it for free?

Telus obviously has a bit of an axe to grind with Skype, if everyone used Skype then Telus would lose all of long distance revenue, even worse, it is losing revenue and carrying the traffic on its internet infrastructure, a double whammy.

This is where 'Network neutrality' comes into play. I am not saying that Telus is doing this, but it would not take a great leap of faith to imaging the Telus railway from wanting to penalize any carriages that have the Skype name associated with them.

As a matter of fact I have noticed an increase in dropped calls on Skype, so my money is on the fact that they are already doing this.

My vote is, we keep the net nuetral!

Further reading:

This LA Free press article mentions both Telus and Shaw Cable
This web page goes into a lot of detail

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