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Plumbing Neutrality

John Levine

I've been having arguments about Network Neutrality with a lawyer. My position is that you can't adequately regulate ISPs to be neutral, because there's no agreement what "neutral" means in practice. He points out that the courts aren't interested in technical details like what packets are dropped, it's that all traffic has to be treated the same, and ISPs should just figure out how to do that.

So I contemplated a city with Plumbing Neutrality with the simple rule that all people must be treated the same.

Well, OK, I'm in the commercial real estate business. I build my building on strictly neutral principles with rest rooms with the same number of fixtures on each of the ten floors for men and women. All set.

Then someone complains that after lunch, she has to wait in line while guys don't. A court interprets the Plumbing Neutrality law and decides from first principles that neutral has always meant equal waits, not equal numbers of fixtures, it's no big deal, just move some walls. Huh? How am I suppose to pay for that?

I talk to a plumbing engineer who tells me that the rule of thumb, based on the last 300 years or so of plumbing engineering, is that you need a 3:2 ratio of fixtures to equalize the lines. Since there are five fixtures in each rest room, you need to move the wall to make six in the women's room and four in the men's room. Easy.

But I can't do that, plumbing is heavy so we put the rest rooms on the opposite sides of the building so they'd be next to the structural walls. Hmmn.

"I've got it," says the engineer. "You have 20 rest rooms, two on each floor, so you need 12 women's and 8 men's for that 3:2 ratio. So just change the men's rooms on the 3rd and 7th floors to women's rooms. You'll have to swap the urinals for something women can use but I can do that." So I spent more money to replumb and change the signs, all neutral again.

Except there's a guy on the 7th floor with limited mobility, who complains that the women can just go down the hall, while he has to wait for the elevator, which takes a while, and that's a problem. OK, now what? Swap 6th and 7th? What if he gets a promotion and moves upstairs?

My point here is that legal principles are fine, but their implementation in technology is rarely simple, and the financial risk of guessing wrong is substantial. Net Neutrality is even worse, since if you treat all packets the same, your network will collapse, and ISPs will face endless legal battles about stuff like how much spam filtering is consistent with being neutral.

So you either need a regulator with the technical skill to write workable rules, which nobody has, or you need to get the desired result a different way, such as separating the transport part of the connection (the DSL or the cable) from the ISP transporting the packets, as they've done in Europe.

(By the way, the urge to use the phrase "bladder bloat" was nearly irresistible.)

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker. More blog posts from John Levine can also be read here.

Related topics: Access Providers, Broadband, Law, Net Neutrality, Policy & Regulation

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I think that your example is a Todd Knarr  –  Sep 12, 2013 4:19 PM PDT

I think that your example is a demonstration of network non-neutrality and why it's a problem. You can see from your example that you're looking not at the plumbing but at the use it's being put to. You're basing everything on what people are using the plumbing for, not just on the plumbing provided.

Most of us, when we think of network neutrality, think in terms of the building owner saying that each floor comes with plumbing for 20 restroom fixtures on each floor. When someone moves in, they can say how those 20 fixtures get split up between the men's and the women's restroom, how many handicap stalls there are and so on. As the owner you don't care how the occupant wants them divided, as long as it's no more than 20 fixtures. If after they move in they want them changed around, all they have to do is pay the cost of the construction. If they want more fixtures, the cost is proportional to the number they want. If they want 30, they pay 1.5x what people are paying for 20. If they want 40, they pay 2x. You don't charge one occupant one price per fixture per month and another one twice that rate. You don't charge different rates for fixtures in the men's room vs. the women's, or for handicap stalls vs. regular fixtures. You don't charge different rates for the construction depending on which occupant wants things rearranged, the only differences in the charges are based on how much work they want done. As the plumbing provider you don't care what they're using the fixtures for, only how much water and sewage your plumbing is going to have to carry. Your only concern comes when what the occupants are asking for exceeds the physical capacity of the main water and sewer lines for the building, and in that case any limits or additional costs for upgraded service are going to be applied even-handedly. Note that that doesn't mean equally: if it's one occupant wanting 200 fixtures and everybody else is satisfied with the standard 20 then that one occupant's going to have to bear the cost of upgrades, whereas if it's the majority of occupants asking for an additional 5-10 fixtures above what they currently have then all of them are going to have to pay in proportion to the number of fixtures they have (so their share of the cost of the upgrade is in proportion to their share of the sewage load they're creating).

But that's how the Internet works John Levine  –  Sep 12, 2013 4:33 PM PDT

Your only concern comes when what the occupants are asking for exceeds the physical capacity of the main water and sewer lines for the building,

Consumer Internet connections are hugely overcommitted.  Any random PC on a cable modem could suck down the entire available bandwidth for the neighborhood if the ISP allowed.  TCP and other protocols are designed to adjust the data rates based on what gets through at the upstream, but there are some, with bittorrent the best known, that don't play nice so the ISP has to apply countermeasures to keep other users from being locked out. ISPs also block a lot of malicious traffic that has no analogy in the plumbing model, and I can assure you from experience that if the senders of the malicious traffic thought they could bamboozle a court into ruling that the blocking was un-neutral, they would do so.

This response is a good example of why "network neutrality" is hopeless: people think they understand the issues, but they don't at a very fundamental level.

Yes, but again here it seems like Todd Knarr  –  Sep 12, 2013 5:05 PM PDT

Yes, but again here it seems like the issue isn't what the bandwidth is being used for, it's the amount of bandwidth being used. None of the network-neutrality advocates I know of would have any problem with an ISP saying "You want to try and use a gigabit a second of bandwidth? Either pay for dedicated bandwidth or we'll throttle your connection down to advertised speed.". Their objection comes from the ISP throttling someone trying to stream HD video from NetFlix 24/7 while not throttling someone streaming the same HD video 24/7, using exactly the same amount of bandwidth, from Hulu. As far as UDP-based protocols not playing nice with congestion, I've never had a problem with traffic-shaping UDP in general. It only gets complicated when you start caring about what UDP traffic gets shaped, and in general if what I care about is bandwidth usage I don't care what UDP traffic is eating up the bandwidth.

As for over-commit, as a customer I say "Not my problem, man.". I care what the ISP claims to be selling me (based on their own literature that they have control over). If they can't provide what they've said they're selling, I have exactly as much sympathy for them as I have for any other merchant who takes my money for 8 of an item and then says "Sorry, we don't have 8 in stock, we can only give you 4.". Minding their inventory and making sure they can deliver what they sell is their problem, not mine.

Stop digging John Levine  –  Sep 12, 2013 5:42 PM PDT

You just keep proving my point, e.g., bittorrent is not a UDP-based protocol, that's not the issue, real UDP based protocols like VoIP and SIP have latency issues, not bandwidth issues, and all actual Internet usage is bursty so throttling can never be as simple as just capping at some rate.  (Any ISP who did that would have a lot of unhappy customers, and a lot of underused bandwidth.)

I think you may mis-characterize the nature of regulation in EU George Michaelson  –  Sep 12, 2013 6:10 PM PDT

John, I am really unsure I would characterise the european telecoms/internet regulatory regime as

"separating the transport part of the connection (the DSL or the cable) from the ISP transporting the packets, as they've done in Europe."

I would agree its an entirely different regulatory regime to the US/Canada, although I also note a significant volume of mobile in continental USA is, or was owned by European telcos for a while.

The important qualitative difference I see, is that they have some cojones and are willing to try and obligate carriers to stop doing mutual-chargeback (which earns everyone huge revenue at customer expense) and instead do least-cost differencing or normalized cost data: same as home rate, roaming.

The net neutrality debate in Europe reflects European issues and pressure groups like ETNO. It reflects the systemic financial issues plaguing different sub-regions of Europe differently. I am told that Telecom Italia (particularly vociferous opponents of net neutrality) invested heavily in a domestic CDN framework of their own building, and face issues around (over)capitalizing a resource which is not used by CDN players who are in their own colo, hooking up to telecom italia customers. Thats using the net-neutrality debate to tackle a point-issue for them, not because of a general philosophical difference of opinion. Other positions in ETNO may well reflect other point-issues for former national carriers.

writing in a personal capacity as always

Structural separation John Levine  –  Sep 12, 2013 6:14 PM PDT

I was specifically thinking about Openreach in the UK.  That sure seems separate from the many ISPs who offer service over it.

...exists but is not the ubiquitous model George Michaelson  –  Sep 12, 2013 6:25 PM PDT

yes, its layer-2 functional separation and the NBN here in Australia has qualities which are similar, as does UFB in New Zealand -however we call it structural separation here in OZ because unlike in the UK its not a sub-arm of the former monopoly telco, but a new independent company. the attempts to require the structural separation of Telstra into two halves failed politically.. I think its a good model. But its pretty specific in a case-by-case sense to each economy in Europe, not a pan-europe thing.

KPN were almost taken there by the dutch regulator, but they stepped back from the brink over fears it wouldnt work well for a new fibre deployment (rough parse of what I read) and Telecom Italia (surprise!) kindof sortof went there.

I don't think its big in other economies. France doesn't have it. I don't think its big in Germany.

Plumbing Doesn't make Sense. Roads Do. Marvin Price  –  Sep 15, 2013 1:46 PM PDT

The Internet is more like roads than like plumbing. In that sense, we are in a situation in which we have no free market choice over which road to take when we drive to and from our house. We're stuck with what's there.

Continuing with the analogy, there's nothing to prevent corporate enforced "diamond" or car pool lanes. There's nothing to prevent them from not setting speed limits on certain roads and not others, and if I am dissatisfied, there's no where for me to go because we're only talking about one or two of four companies that I might have access to.

Another way to look at situation is that bandwidth is a commodity like oil. Without net neutrality we can wind up with an oligarchy like OPEC determining the price and availability of bandwidth through such means as artificial scarcity. I.e. Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, and AT&T;are the OPEC of bandwidth.

The thing to keep in mind here is that the Internet is not the infrastructure, anymore than the water is the plumbing in your example. However if the owner of the plumbing is not at least guided to attempt to achieve some kind of fair distribution of water, he's left to make his own decisions, and chances are he's going to distribute water in a way that best suits his profit rather than the needs of the consumers. "We have hot and cold running water bundles 24 x 7 for this price! We have cold 24 x 7 but only hot during these times for this price. We provide this amount of water pressure during these times and that amount during those times for different amounts. Also if you sign our filtered water deal instead of buying bottled water, we lower the cost of your cold water… and on and on."

Basically cable TV all over again.

The only way to prevent this is by forcing him to be neutral.

Therein lies the rub. The only way to force him to be neutral is via the government and that opens a whole different can of worms. You cannot trust the government under any circumstances. There is nothing to prevent the FCC from trying to become the de facto Internet Police, in which case net neutrality is defeated again.

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