Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/09/02/bennett_fcc/
Why the US faces broadband price hikes
Comment Peer-to-peer file sharing just got a lot more expensive in the US. The FCC has ordered Comcast to refrain from capping P2P traffic, endorsing a volume-based pricing scheme that would “charge the most aggressive users overage fees” instead. BitTorrent, Inc. reacted to the ruling by laying-off 15 per cent of its workforce, while network neutrality buffs declared victory and phone companies quietly celebrated. Former FCC Chairman Bill Kennard says the legal basis of the order is “murky.”
Comcast will probably challenge on grounds that Congress never actually told the regulator to micro-manage the Internet. In the absence of authority to regulate Internet access, the Commission has never had a need to develop rules to distinguish sound from unsound management practice. The order twists itself into a pretzel in a Kafka-esque attempt to justify sanctions in the absence of such rules.
Technically speaking, they're very confused
The FCC's technical analysis is puzzling, to say the least.
The order describes an all-powerful IP envelope, seeking to evoke an emotional response to Deep Packet Inspection. The order claims the DPI bugaboo places ISPs on the same moral plane as authoritarian regimes that force under-aged athletes into involuntary servitude. But this is both uninformed and misleading. Network packets actually contain several "envelopes", one for each protocol layer, nested inside one another like Russian dolls. Network management systems examine all envelopes that are relevant, and always have, because there’s great utility in identifying protocols.
Internet routers, for example, implement congestion management by discarding packets whose loss will reduce congestion, but not those like TCP ACKs and UDP that won’t. These systems also try to randomize packet discard across TCP streams to prevent cycling and maximize effective throughput. These standard practices would be impossible if network management didn’t look inside the IP "envelope".
The order substantially errs in asserting that early-morning hours are periods of low utilization on ISP networks, when it’s well known they’re actually peak times for P2P seeding. Pure P2P seeding is an unattended activity that commences after downloading completes, and it serves a world-wide set of downloaders. When it’s 3:00 AM in Portland, it’s prime time on Beijing, so it’s perfectly understandable that a system that caps seeding bandwidth would trigger when most Americans are sleeping.
The FCC also makes wild mistakes in trying to confine congestion management to a reactive mode. Mildly pro-active systems such as Random Early Detection are standard and widely deployed. Strangely, the order also faults Comcast for "the flaw of being underinclusive" because it doesn’t clamp down on BitTorrent downloading. Clearly, there’s no way to make our regulators happy.
The Commission failed to conduct an independent examination of the Comcast network, relying instead on the testimony of partisans, and technically inaccurate media reports..
Wrong on the Law
The Commission argues that the Comcast system limits the amount of P2P upload traffic that each neighborhood node will pass at any given time, which has the effect of sending some P2P downloaders to other networks:
“When Comcast interferes with its users’ ability to upload content, the computer attempting to download that content will look for another source. In some cases, that other source will be a computer connected to a common carrier’s network, such as a computer of a DSL customer.”
Internet access isn’t a common carrier service, but the FCC claims it can be regulated if it impacts one.
This argument doesn't hold water because the FCC stripped DSL of common carrier status in 2002, reclassifying it an “Information Service” distinct from the wires that carry it. More importantly, this scenario actually negates the FCC’s most legitimate reason for taking an interest in the first place, the protection of the consumer’s right to access the content of his choice according to the previous "Four Freedoms" enumerated by former FCC chief Michael Powell. If consumers are able to access the content they want from DSL networks, Comcast hasn’t violated their rights, no matter how unfriendly they may be to the DSL providers. And it’s quite likely that Comcast serves more bytes of P2P than any other network provider for the simple reason that its upstream data rate is faster than DSL even after throttling.
Comcast's most vocal critics – including Larry Lessig, Susan Crawford (and until July 23, Robb Topolski) – remain Comcast customers for this very reason.
Even if the FCC's Comcast order had been based on sound legal and technical footing, its implementation would require extra-human powers of perception since the Commission couldn't be bothered to lay out precisely which features of the Comcast system it finds objectionable. The order criticizes the use of TCP Reset packets to prune the thousands of connections a P2P application can create in a day’s time, but doesn’t ban the technique. That's fortunate, because home gateways also use Resets to clean up NAT tables.
The order objects to the application of bandwidth quotas to classes of applications, but its signatories have issued press statements endorsing priority boosting to benefit other classes of application, such as VoIP.
The only management techniques the order says an ISP can apply that clearly won't run afoul of future whole-cloth enforcement actions are the most heavy-handed. An ISP may apply volume-based billing, the worst possible method for P2P companies, or it can "throttle back the connection speeds of high-capacity users," the worst possible scenario for home network users.
The flat-rate pricing model we’re all used to only works when users consume roughly equal amounts of bandwidth, but the adoption of P2P for non-stop use by a small number of people blows it out the window.
Comcast has adopted a bandwidth cap of 250GB to prevent just one per cent of its customers from consuming half its download capacity. Japan's NTT has adopted 900 GB monthly upload caps on its fiber, Time-Warner is experimenting with metered pricing, and Frontier Communications has adopted a full-scale metering regime that prices downloads at $4 per gigabyte.
When ISPs are forbidden from de-prioritizing P2P streams, management-by-pricing is inevitable.
The only sensible method of traffic management that's ever been proposed for home networks is a two-stage system that does the following:
Firstly, it divides it bandwidth equitably among users at a given service tier; and then, secondly, it allocates delays among the streams to and from each user account according to application needs.
This approach is necessary because internet users do more than one thing at a time. When someone in the house is using VoIP, someone else is surfing the web and both may be downloading files using P2P. Under the FCC's new system, this sort of mixed-use scenario qualifies the entire account for connection speed downgrading, which can only be overcome by purchasing a higher service tier.
Save the Internet is already complaining about the price increases their petitions have wrought.
"It is a false choice to suggest that since Internet service providers cannot arbitrarily block online content, they will be forced to meter. There are a whole host of other non-discriminatory options available to providers that are more effective at managing congestion," the group says in a statement.
Unfortunately, there are no management approaches for mixed-use scenarios that don’t involve just enough discrimination to identify application needs, and the FCC has just banned that practice.
Thanks a lot, folks.®
Richard Bennett is a network architect and occasional activist in Silicon Valley. He wrote the first standard for Ethernet over twisted-pair wiring and contributed to the standards for WiFi and the Ultra-Wideband wireless networks. His eleven-year old blog is at bennett.com.