Sunday, June 15, 2008

Net neutrality: The value of a byte travelling on the Internet

In response to Richard Bannet's article.

Let us say, for simplicity, that most of us are connected to the best-effort, statistically multiplexed, Internet. What does this mean? This means that every byte on the Internet going from point A to point B will, on average, get the same service from the Internet (same probability of loss, same delay, same delay-jitter, etc.) Therefore the Internet has the tendency to treat each byte traversing it as equal because in our simple example of 2 bytes going from A to B, the fraction of service (or utility) that each byte receives from the Internet is equal.

However, most people agree that the importance, or utility, of every byte on the Internet is not equal. For example, it may be more important to quickly transfer a byte from a voip conversation than a byte from a file transfer. Or it may be more important to send bytes that update stock prices than to send bytes to play a You tube video.

Or so I think. But what do you think? What does Skype think? What does Google think? What does Comcast think? What does the government of a country think? And if they think differently, then whose voice matters? Or should anyone's voice matter more than the others?

This is the key point of the Net Neutrality corundum. Everyone agrees that the present design of the best-effort Internet is suboptimal in that it treats every byte as equal and gives equal precedence to equal fractions of content. But the issue with doing away with this Net Neutrality model is that vested interests will decide which particular byte is more important than another byte. Can we trust one single company, or authority, to make the correct decision on this one? As a market believer, I would first say that let the market decide, i.e., let the price per byte, and hence the value attached to that particular byte, be the deciding factor. But the big issue is whether a flexible, effective, and dynamic market of this sort can be set up and quickly integrated with the existing and upcoming Internet protocols. Until this happens, I am more comfortable with time-tested simple statistical multiplexing, the fair but sub-optimal egalitarian algorithm, to do the job.

I am relieved that the question of Net Neutrality does have a technical solution - setup a market to do the job. I am just concerned of whether there is enough political patience to wait for the technology to develop this byte market we will need.

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