Google launched an open research platform in early 2009 called the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) that raised the bar in the public debate around bandwidth allocation and net neutrality.
The debate is ongoing. Google wants to make sure there is enough bandwidth for consumers to search the Internet, watch YouTube videos, and now make phone calls using Google Voice. Broadband operators want to optimize their infrastructure so that they can profitably serve the most customers with minimal upgrades.
The statistical based nature of Internet traffic means that moments of peak demand can cause congestion, forcing operators to consider slowing down certain traffic. This balancing act is only going to get more challenging. Research firm IDC predicts IP traffic to grow five times in the next four years, and video to grow from 10 percent to 40 percent of the overall traffic.
Last year, the FCC reprimanded Comcast for throttling upstream traffic for peer-to-peer (P2P) applications. But when the dust settled, the big problem was that Comcast never told anyone what it was doing. "Comcast fell down on their customer relations side about not being up front and center with their customer base," said Matt Davis, Director, Consumer Multiplay Services at IDC.
Comcast has since switched to a bandwidth cap of 250 GB per month, a substantial number considering the average consumer only uses about 5.4 GB per month, according to Davis. Comcast also has told consumers that during peak hours, users consuming large quantities of bandwidth would be placed at a lower priority behind less bandwidth intensive traffic.
Cox is likely to bypass regulatory problems with its strategy because the company has been very public, framing the discussion in terms of improved customer experience, particularly for voice over IP (VoIP). Cox has announced it will be managing instances of upstream congestion by distinguishing between latency sensitive and non-latency sensitive traffic.
Google is putting tools for tracking how Internet service providers (ISPs) are managing their traffic into the hands of the consumer. While speed tests and other diagnostics have been available for some time, Google’s M-Lab is intended to provide a platform for testing across 36 servers in 12 locations and to allow consumers and researchers to compare results.
Google chief Internet guru Vinton Cerf described the initiative in nonpartisan terms: "No matter your views on net neutrality and ISP network management practices, everyone can agree that Internet users deserve to be well-informed about what they’re getting."
Providing consumers with information about how their traffic is being throttled promises to keep broadband providers honest. Comcast recently launched its own monitoring service so consumers can track usage.
In the larger scheme, the debate around network neutrality is timely, as one of the stipulations of the universal broadband funding within the stimulus act mandates that traffic must be carried in a non-discriminatory manner.
Google contends that by applying quality of service (QoS) to some traffic, a service provider de-prioritizes all of the other traffic by default. Service providers say providing QoS to all VoIP traffic is not discriminatory.
The trip lines involve preferred treatment. A telecom attempting to prioritize its own video traffic faces traditional cable TV regulatory and franchise requirements. A cable operator deciding to prioritize its own voice service at the expense of others faces Title 2 regulations.
On the flip side of the argument, Scott Cleland, president of Precursor, argues that Google is consuming more than its fair share of bandwidth. He said that Google consumed 16.5 percent of all Internet bandwidth in 2008, but only paid 0.8 percent of the costs.
But Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington telecom and media counsel, responded that this analysis includes numerous errors. Google already pays for its bandwidth at the wholesale levels, and consumers voluntarily choose to connect to Google services.
The arguments are likely to grow increasingly contentious as Google, cable operators and telcos find new business areas in which to compete. Going forward, you can expect to hear lots of talk about deep packet inspection (DPI) and privacy, bandwidth throttling, consumer freedom, and crossing regulatory boundaries.
George Lawton is a free-lance writer.