Sunday, April 09, 2006

Eli Noam and Network Integrity

When I ran my Network Integrity idea past Chuck Cosson, he mentioned a remarkably prescient article by Eli Noam written back in 1994. Prof. Noam wrote:

“This article argues that the institution of common carriage, historically the foundation of the way telecommunications are delivered, will not survive. To clarify: "common carriers" (the misnomer often used to refer to telephone companies) will continue to exist, but the status under which they operate -- offering service on a non-discriminatory basis, neutral as to use and user -- will not.”

Noam came to this conclusion by considering the rise of private networks cobbled together out of common carriage components – exactly what we’re seeing cable doing.

I’ve argued that network integrity is the key Internet attribute that can and should be protected as regulation evolves. I proposed that the lack of effective competition in wireline Internet access justifies the imposition of three requirements on providers: no blocking of access to 3rd party sites, inter-connection with other networks, and transparency in disclosing terms and conditions of service.

Noam’s policy recommendation of a dozen years ago is remarkably close to my proposal. He concluded that the negative consequences of the demise of common carriage on information diversity and flow could be addressed as follows:

“A carrier can elect to be private by running its own self-contained infrastructure, and having full control over its content, use and access. But if it interconnects into other networks and accepts transmission traffic from them, it cannot pick some bits over other bits. This means that while a private carrier can be selective in its direct customers, whether they are end-users or content providers, it cannot be selective in what it accepts from another interconnected carrier.”

In other words, Noam applied the non-blocking requirement to inter-connection with other networks. He didn’t consider prioritization (ie networks delivering some streams faster than others if their source pay extra), as far as I could see. It might not have been so pertinent at that time, since deep packet inspection and traffic shaping wasn’t as cheap as it is now. I wonder how he would’ve responded... My (reluctant) conclusion has been that prioritization is OK, since it’s a continuum – bad behavior can’t be defined a priori. As long as the packets make it across the net, fast and slow lanes are a matter for the market.

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