Award Winning Blog

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Consequences of Opt-in Better Than Best Efforts Internet Routing

While attending the International Telecommunications Society’s 17th bi-annual conference I attended yet another network neutrality session. Economists predominated at this conference and their collective read on network neutrality emphasizes the need for ISPs to “extract value” from content providers primarily by converting zero cost peering with ISPs into specific payments from individual content sources.

I have no problem with offers of non-neutral, “better than best efforts” routing options to content providers who voluntarily opt in, particularly if the offer is made transparently and anyone can opt in. What troubles me is the impact of opt-in on content providers that opt out.

In the satellite industry, an opt-in/opt-out dichotomy exists: content providers seeking better than best efforts can secure what is known as “protected” transponder capacity—a commitment by the satellite operator to prioritize service and to replace transmission capacity should it become defective. Unprotected transponder lessees get no expedited access to replacement capacity, but they suffer no additional punishments for refusing to pay the premium rate.

I am not confident ISPs will follow the satellite capacity model as opposed to applying the Enron model where traders quickly learned that they could make more money creating bottlenecks and spot capacity shortages where no lack of grid distribution, or electricity capacity existed. If the smart folks at Enron could learn how to manipulate the flow of electrons what prevents smart ISP operators from similarly manipulating the flow of packets similarly requiring “urgent” real time delivery?

Put another way will ISPs retaliate against opt-out content providers with the creation of artificial congestion, by dropping packets, inserting traffic resend commands and partitioning bandwidth with an eye toward forcing migration to premium service even as the division guarantees inferior service that breaches contractual QOS commitments?

The opt in/opt out dichotomy does not necessary cleave between deep pocketed content providers who can afford to pay for premium service and providers lacking such financial resources. One paper at the ITS conference suggested that unknown content providers might have the most to gain from premium access. What presents a problem, not addressed by the economists at ITS or elsewhere is the impact of practices that exceed necessary price and QOS discrimination.

The FCC has imposed a number of behavioral regulations on cable television ventures based on their ability and incentive to engage in unreasonable discrimination by favoring corporate affiliates vis a vis competitors. In the cable context discrimination applies to the availability and price of “must have/must see” video content. Arguably ISPs have a similar ability to create a bottleneck or boycott.