So yesterday Netflix came out in defense of its OpenConnect caching infrastructure, actually having to tell the FCC that the program isn’t a fast lane. The question had been posed by the FCC’s Ajit Pai and might seem a bit silly, but it’s a direct consequence of the way the network neutrality debate has veered off-road this year.
When the debate expanded from the last mile itself upstream to congested peering connections earlier this year, it exposed a simple fact. When it comes to networks, we may talk about the core, the edge, and the last mile as different entities, but the flows of data don’t care what our definitions are.
There are lots of ways to get data from content providers to consumers, some faster than others. The term fast lane has generally referred to prioritization in the last mile, but on the backbone we just call it QOS or COS or whatever. And what is a content delivery network except a faster way to get content to customers that you pay more for, whether to a CDN or via your own infrastructure like Netflix has been doing?
Actually, there is a real difference though. Prioritization of traffic is not a problem in the core or the edge because there is competition on the same routes. There is no bottleneck, and thus you can put up a toll booth without it being abusive – people only have to pass through it if they like the road on the other side more than the alternative. Because there are alternatives.
But between content and any particular eyeball there is all too often only one last mile reasonably available at any given time. And thus, fast lanes really can be abused. That is not to say that every last mile operator would do so by default, only that the potential exists. Fast lanes aren’t the issue, market power is.
On the other hand, those decrying Netflix’s alleged use of protocols and url structures to make its content harder for third parties to cache do have a point. Whether Netflix was actually doing this or not is beside the point. The potential exists for any large content provider to do such a thing under the network neutrality rules Netflix wants to see implemented. In order to add pressure for better interconnection terms, deliberately making the fire hose of data being sent harder to handle via other means is not so different from dragging ones feet on peering upgrades.
Like prioritization in the last mile, the effect would to enhance the effectiveness of some paths by flooding others, possibly resulting in economic gain. It just needs a different name, because reusing the ‘fast lane’ moniker doesn’t do the job. It’s more subtle than that. Effective open caching requires quite a bit of cooperation and goodwill, and it doesn’t take much to hobble it. That it could be a pawn in the larger net neutrality battle where that same cooperation and goodwill is already lacking is therefore not all that surprising.
But the quickest way for the internet as we know it to die is neither the implementation of title II nor the permitting of unregulated fast lanes. It is for content, backbone, and last mile operators to stop cooperating in good faith to get the data where it needs to go. That’s what messing around with peering upgrades and caching protocols both put at risk.
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