There was a story recently in the newspaper concerning a perceived need to ‘invent a new Internet’. It explained that the increasing use of music and video content was threatening to fill up our Internet connections, potentially bringing the whole system grinding to a halt. There’s been a lot of buzz about this recently, most of it deriving from telecommunications carriers and media companies in the US and elsewhere.
On the face of it, the arguments being presented are fairly straightforward. We’re changing the way we use the Internet, that much is true. We don’t rely nearly so much as we did on plain text spiced up with a few images. These days, Internet-based services provide tons of animation, music, videos, games, etc. All of this is designed to make information more compelling, more accessible to everyone.
Even as recently as last year, we in Vanuatu could only dream about downloading a TV show and watching it at our leisure, or listening live to a sporting event through Internet radio. For most of the population, this is still a dream, but it’s undeniable that our Internet services have improved vastly in a fairly short period of time. With the advent of affordable computers and Internet services on the horizon, the future holds a great deal of promise.
For those of us who know a thing or two about computers, this prospect presents some challenges. Handling bandwidth efficiently requires that we use complex tools and techniques to provide what’s called Quality of Service on our lines.
Quality of Service (commonly shortened to QoS) has a special meaning for network administrators. It refers to the need to ensure that each different service is provided as efficiently as possible, but without working to the detriment of other services.
Imagine the Internet is an immense store, with a little bit of everything on offer. You can wander around it, picking up a little of this and that, but before you’re done, you need to check it out through the cashier. Now imagine that there is only a single cashier in this huge store, serving one customer at a time. The line up quickly becomes very long. If you spend too much time waiting in line, you will be sorely tempted to leave behind whatever it was that you wanted to check out and go home empty-handed.
Queues happen all the time on the Internet, though you might not always be aware of them. There are a number of ways to handle them. The simplest way is to increase the number of cashiers. Big stores like Au Bon Marché handle their line-ups just like that. They have a number of check-out counters. They’re not staffed all the time, but when things get busy, they can simply add another cashier to handle the additional flow. This means that nobody has to wait for very long.
The way we do that on the Internet is by increasing our bandwidth – that is, the amount of data that can pass through a connection at a given time. It’s a simple solution, but it’s a costly one too, especially when we’re paying for traffic over a satellite connection, which is all that’s currently available in Vanuatu. If we had a fibre-optic connection, our bandwidth (the number of available cashiers) would cease to be a problem for quite some time. If our leaders continue building Vanuatu’s investment in communications, this might just happen sooner than later.
But regardless of how much bandwidth we have available, we still need to use other measures to manage the traffic that crosses our networks. Let’s go back to that the store for another minute, and imagine that all the shoppers are so thrilled by the sudden increase in the number of cashiers that they start buying huge heaps of items, sometimes hundreds or even thousands at once. Even if there’s only one person lined up at each cashier, there will still be significant delays.
Large files have exactly this effect. When we download videos or music, we download files that are thousands of times bigger than the typical email message. The file gets sliced up into an immense number of individual ‘packets’, each of which gets checked out individually by the cashier. As you can imagine, this takes time.
But imagine that the cashier could handle two customers at once. Imagine if he took one packet from customer A, then one from customer B, and so on. If you stood back and watched, you’d notice something interesting. Even though each customer gets served a little more slowly, the amount of time each customer waits would be reduced. So in the end, everyone benefits.
Let’s not leave the store yet. We can see that a large number of cashiers, each handling multiple customers, has made our shopping more efficient. Now imagine that they checked out ice cream, cold drinks and hot food before they checked out dry goods and other non-perishable stock. The things that we want to use immediately – especially the ones that won’t be any good to us if we have to wait – get priority service. So we get to eat our ice cream cold, and our fried chicken hot, exactly as we’re supposed to.
That is exactly how QoS works. By balancing the needs of the community at large, we can actually make everyone’s Internet run more smoothly and with fewer obvious delays. Most importantly, we can ensure that important traffic gets through before the less important stuff.
Our store is running smoothly now, but imagine what would happen if the cashier decided who got served based only on whether the customer is a friend or not. No matter how long or short the line, you would never get good service unless the cashier liked you. That might be fine if you’re tight with the staff, but if you’re not, you’re out of luck. So from the community’s perspective, this can only be a bad thing.
Who gets to decide what’s important and what’s not? Who sets these priorities? That question lies at the heart of an important practice called Network Neutrality. Network Neutrality is more or less what it sounds like; it’s the principle that the person who owns the network does not get the last word on how traffic runs across it. The network owner can set whatever traffic management rules it likes, but he does not get to play favourites.
And yet, this is exactly what a number of telecommunication companies around the world are proposing right now. They want to make certain customers pay extra to be treated in the same way as their competitors. They want to make it harder, for example, for a customer to use a VOIP service other than the one they provide.
Simply put, that’s just not fair. The network provider is taking advantage of their position. They’re saying, in effect, ‘You can buy any ice cream you like, but if you choose ice cream X, it will be melted by the time we check it out.’
The biggest problem, though, is that the customers won’t see it that way. They don’t know that the cashier is intentionally processing ice cream X more slowly than their preferred ice cream. All they know is that the preferred one – which may or may not be as good or as cheap as ice cream X – doesn’t melt before it’s checked out. Therefore, from the customer’s perspective, the provider can make their preferred product look ‘better’. But they’re doing so by degrading the other product, not by improving their own.
Vanuatu is building a new Internet ‘store’ right now, so it’s timely and appropriate to consider issues like Network Neutrality very carefully. Telecommunications companies the world over are trying to chip away at this fundamental bulwark of a fair and useful Internet. Let’s make sure they don’t do so here.
P.S. This column was composed at and submitted from Ranwadi Secondary School on Pentecost Island. I believe it may be a strong contender for ‘IT Column Submitted From the Most Remote Location in the World’ – though I have no idea how one would verify that datum.
(A friend of mine suggested that ‘Remote’ be defined as distance from the nearest Apple Genius Bar.)