Saturday, September 26, 2009

The need for QOS versus Net Neutrality

In 2003, I made a VOIP call from home while downloading a large email attachment. The DSL line saturated and my audio quality became horrible while VOIP packets (and email packets) were being dropped. Doubling the bandwidth to my home would not have solved this problem. The email download would simply have been faster, but the VOIP call would still have suffered packet loss.
The solution to this problem is 'quality of service' (QOS). Some applications, particularly realtime interactive applications, are sensitive to packet loss. Other applications, particularly bulk data traffic (including email, ftp, backups, software update downloads) are not time sensitive and can have their traffic delayed in favor of the realtime traffic. QOS is the network function where certain applications and traffic are prioritized over others that are deemed less urgent.
The creators of the Internet Protocol version 4 understood that quality of service was a requirement. They included the 'type of service' field in the IPv4 header when it was specified in 1981. When developing IPv6, they cleaned up unnecessary header fields, but still they kept the 'class of service' field in the base IPv6 header. Every Internet Protocol packet sent on the Internet since 1983 (when IPv4 went live) included this service field in the header to enable QOS functionality.
In September 2009, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the FCC commissioners, proposed two new 'network neutrality' principles. Among them was the "principle of nondiscrimination." This proposed principle states 'broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications.' While there is a valid concern that ISP's may choose to impede applications or content from competitors, the current proposal as stated seems to restrict ISP's from using QOS to prioritize traffic for realtime applications, and deprioritize traffic for bulk data applications.
Due to the apparent attempt to ignore a fundamental building block of the Internet, I oppose the proposed 'principle of nondiscrimination' as written. ISP's need to prioritize realtime applications, while deprioritizing non-realtime bulk-data-transfer applications. In addition, ISP's need the freedom to block applications which do not 'play nicely' in a bandwidth constrained environment. Network engineers know that sometimes particular applications need to be blocked to allow the majority of the network (and the majority of customers) to enjoy adequate performance.

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