Cerf Proposes Alternate Strategy To Comcast

    August 4, 2008
    WebProNews Staff

The broadband network management question has been at the center of the Network Neutrality debate for sometime, but recent scuffles between Comcast and the Federal Communications Commission have brought the issue more scrutiny. Vint Cerf, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, weighed in on that issue today, suggesting a new model for dealing with cable capacity issues.

When Cerf speaks, people generally listen; he did help invent the Internet. Last week, Comcast was symbolically punished by the FCC for blocking access to peer-to-peer networks at all times of day. Comcast, after initially denying such blocking occurred, defended the practice as necessary to prevent traffic jams on their network.

Expecting a regulatory backlash in response to apparent network-specific troubles (DSL suffers no such traffic management issues), cable competitor Time Warner began testing metered pricing instead of unlimited access, a throwback to the 1990’s. Instead of charging per minute, users are charged for excess usage above a certain amount. It is thought (feared) that Comcast, the nation’s second largest Internet provider, would follow suit with a similar model.

Cerf thinks that’s a bad idea. "I do not find [volume caps] to be a very useful practice. Given an arbitrary amount of time, one can transfer arbitrarily large amounts of information." Cerf draws on the occasional lack of user knowledge about the size of what type of data they are transferring. A PDF or a streaming video, for example, may not be clearly labeled, and can run up a subscriber’s bill in much the same way cell phone subscribers run over their available minutes or data plans.

"Rather than a volume cap, I suggest the introduction of transmission rate caps, which would allow users to purchase access to the Internet at a given minimum data rate and be free to transfer data at at least up to that rate in any way they wish."

Doing so, he argues, would allow ISPs to differentiate between "low latency" packets and price accordingly. This approach prevents ISPs from discriminating based on application or protocol or even content (what one might refer to as "packet sniffing"). "Broadband carriers should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the market under the rubric of network management," said Cerf.

In theory, if I understand what Cerf is describing at the Google Public Policy Blog, this wouldn’t be much different from offering consumers different speeds at different prices like ISPs do now, and (cable) consumers could retain unlimited access. If the consumer intends to use p2p networks, the speed at which data is transferred under those conditions would require they pay more. In this way, specific p2p services without special arrangements penned with Comcast wouldn’t be discriminated against, and Comcast’s network could be effectively managed without having to block access to anything specifically.

In the comments, please correct my interpretation of this and offer any counterarguments to this type of network management.