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Net neutrality also called Network neutrality is ideally meant to be the lack of any interference, alteration, management or prioritization of Internet traffic by any Internet provider, such as Comcast, Verizon or any other DSL or internet service provider.

Net neutrality has come under debate recently, however, due to alleged interference of peer to peer traffic by Comcast. Comcast apparently identifies certain types of internet traffic and attempts to alter the speed with which this traffic reaches its destination. Sometimes, apparently, the traffic does not even reach the destination. Worse, connections are sometimes outright dropped.

Quality of Service vs Interference[]

To net neutrality advocates, this alteration in the way the traffic flows within or outside of the network is considered non-neutral interference of traffic. To ISPs, this is considered traffic shaping and, they claim, helps all customers receive a better quality of service. The question, how much is too much interference?

The answer to this question is not easy. ISPs have an obligation to provide an equivalent quality of service to all of its users. But, in order to provide this level of service, they have to monitor the network and alter traffic patterns to ensure that all traffic is consistent. This is part of the agreement to provide service to customers.

On the other hand, net neutrality advocates believe that there should be no interference at all. Traffic should not be shaped or altered and all traffic should have equal priority.

ISP Perspective[]

As an ISP, there is a substantial outlay of cash required to purchase all of the necessary equipment, lines and network cross connects to set up an internet backbone. Couple that outlay with the cash necessary to handle the customer facing equipment such as connectivity to the DSL and cable modems. For future upgrades, each progressive step to faster bandwidth requires more cash outlay for new equipment to manage these faster connections.

From here, the ISP managers do the math to determine optimal usage for an optimal load. This ends up being a guessing game of how many users are expected to be online at any given time. Because of this guessing game, it's difficult for an ISP to know how much equipment is too much and how much is not enough. So, they usually chose a median number that conserves cash outlay and gives the optimal usage for most users.

Because of this balancing act that the ISP has to do, the administrators and technicians can sometimes get overwhelmed at busy times. These busy times require fast thinking in order to thwart complete network meltdowns. Sometimes the solutions include traffic shaping, packet dropping and/or connection disconnects.

Consumer Perspective[]

As a consumer of internet connectivity from an ISP, it is expected that consumers will receive exactly what's promised in the service agreement and the marketing literature. For example, in many places Comcast promises at least 3Mbps down and 128k (and sometimes 256k) up in bandwidth. What they promise and what you get don't always match.

This is where neutrality issues begin.

Net Neutrality Realism[]

When usage gets too high on a network, ISPs have two options:

  • Traffic shaping / interference
  • Add more bandwidth

The reality of network neutrality is that ISPs need to understand when it's time to upgrade their network to add more bandwidth instead of opting for interference. Obviously, many ISPs do not upgrade their network often enough, mostly due to costs. At the same time, the ISP shouldn't make promises to customers that it cannot keep.

Network engineers at ISPs need to be well aware of the sales promises to customers and not do rogue actions that sacrifice these promises. Network engineers need to ensure that if it comes to the point where these actions are necessary, then management needs to know that it's time to purchase more bandwidth to handle the added traffic loads instead of using throttling mechanisms.

Consumers need to understand some of the issues behind an ISP. However, just because consumers understand the issues doesn't mean that they should be accepting of it. When it comes time for an ISP to upgrade its network, it should be upgraded. ISPs shouldn't bandaid the network for extended periods of time through traffic shaping mechanisms in the name of Quality of Service.

Buzz Out Loud References[]

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