[eDebate] Save the internet!!&In-Reply-To=444D8EC4.8070104 at wfu.edu

Gary Larson Gary.N.Larson
Tue Apr 25 10:15:16 CDT 2006

The "save the internet" discussion becomes an interesting metaphor about
the limits of the free market and the locus of constraints on that
On one level I ABSOLUTELY agree with Ross.  The power and money grab by
the telco's and cable companies is unconscionable.  Whenever they cry
about the fact that they are forced to donate the results of billions of
dollars of infrastructure investment to startups who undercut them on
price but neither buy or lease any of the internet resources they use,
I'm compelled to remember that much of that cable or telco
infrastructure investment was HEAVILY subsidized by taxpayers and by
monopoly protections in the first place.
But the alternatives might actually be worse.  The "free and
unfettered" internet is rapidly choking on itself with the rush of new
commercial services that want to profit from the web without paying for
it.  The problem isn't my blog or independent content providers (even
though this non-commercial use is where most of the "save the internet"
energy is focused).  We're just a drop in the ocean.  The problem is the
high bandwidth consumption of video, voice and data services that want
to piggyback on the internet to create competition for traditional
phone, cable or broadcast television (including video on demand) at no
"new" cost.  As a result, the internet will grind to a halt without huge
additional infrastructure investments.  But who will pay for them if the
infrastructure providers can't recoup cost from either end users or the
services that use the pipe.  If we don't permit the latter in the name
of "free and unfettered" use it is perhaps inevitable that end users
will pay for that investment to whomever provides the "last mile"
connection to their computer.  Or we can ask the government to take
charge of the backbone infrastructure, paying the costs and ultimately
regulating the access.  As much as I don't trust the telco's, I trust
big brother even less to be the ultimate gatekeeper for internet access.
 And as soon as we say that access/control should be a government
mandate, why should it be OUR government in a globalized society? 
To be more concrete, let me describe a local variant of the global
problem.  Each of our universities essentially run an ISP.  We have a
fixed and somewhat limited amount of bandwidth that we can make
available to all of our users.  It would be "ideal" if we could operate
a free and unfettered market where all users, all services, all traffic
had absolutely equal access to flow unhindered through the pipe and the
variety of servers and switch gear that support it.  But we can't.  No
matter how much bandwidth we buy, the demand quickly outstrips it.  Most
universities do not monetize access to their services but they do
implement a variety of constraints.  Almost every institution feels
compelled to use some version of a "packet shaper" to ration out our
scarce resource.  Rather than give more access to those who pay more, I
make a number of "big brother" decisions about how my institution will
value each of the competing uses of our bandwidth.  We privilege faculty
users over student users.  During the business day we privilege
administrative users over both.  We explicitly clamp down on some uses,
severely restricting bandwidth availability for P2P services, video
downloads, and to gaming prior to midnight.  The long list of individual
decisions about which services will receive privileged or restricted
access to our bandwidth is a daunting one.
The problems that each university face locally are unfortunately the
same ones that the internet faces globally.  The difference between the
two is that our institution uses bureaucratic rule-making while the
global internet either monetizes the choices (the goal of the telco's),
makes self-serving arbitrary allocations (the practice of search
companies) or simply attempts to operate laissez faire.
The intersection between the local problem and the global problem can
be seen in the meteoric rise of Skype.  One might ask how a company that
advertises that "now the world can talk for free," that operates many of
its services ad free, that has no fiber, very few servers, and
relatively few employees can be worth billions of dollars as a takeover
candidate.  Skype has a novel way to profit off of services they don't
pay for.  Each "member" of Skype agrees to a use and conditions policy
that gives Skype the right to make them a "super node" if they have
available surplus bandwidth which can be used to relay calls from other
users and systems that don't have such bandwidth or which are restricted
by firewall rules.
Simply put, a Skype call uses very little bandwidth (an avg of about
6K).  So Skype shouldn't be a threat to my network.  But if a Skype
connection is left open on my network, Skype will transform that user
connection into a super node that might relay 1000's of calls
simultaneously.  A couple of weeks ago, two open Skype connections
together consumed 80% of ALL of our institutional bandwidth.  As a
result, some universities outlaw Skype, suggesting that students can't
voluntarily sign an agreement to give away something that they don't
own.  We now write packet shaper rules to restrict its bandwidth to a
size that makes our network inhospitable to being used as a super node. 
Unfortunately, that sometimes has the undesirable side effect of
creating less than optimal connections for our students that are using
the service quite legitimately.
Our institutional actions aren't much different from the corporate
decisions made by the telco's (though hopefully our motivation is
different).  I clamp down on Skype to ensure that my network remains
available to academic uses.  ATT might want to clamp down on or charge
Skype to protect its phone business (though they might also argue that
they're just protecting their network bandwidth).  Skype attains a
multi-billion dollar valuation taking advantage of thousands of "free"
internet connections that are costing someone else a lot of money. 
That's the free market taken to its best (or worst) outcome.  I wish it
were otherwise.
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