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Giving packets sirens

I want to pull on just one thread in the argument against Net neutrality: The claim that it’s obvious that some types of applications deserve priority. It’d be crazy not to give priority to Internet telephony packets or to heart monitoring packets. Right?

It seems crazy because it’s a fact that some application types are sensitive to delay and others are not. No denying that.

But given finite bandwidth and an indefinite number of jitter-sensitive, delay-sensitive app types, it’s not obvious that the ISPs are the ones who should make the decision about how to prioritize the packets. That is, it makes sense to give vehicles with sirens priority in the streets, but when an indefinite number of vehicles have sirens, who decides which vehicles get priority? If I’m not a VOIP user and if I don’t care about watching videos over the Net, why should my World of Warfare packets suffer? Why should your interest in high-def ESPN packets shoulder aside my SecondLife packets? Do my in-game chat VOIP packets deserve the same — or greater? — priority than your VOIP business calls? If I’m a Boston researcher who is engaged in some obscure (but important to me) delay-sensitive research with a lab in Japan, why should I have to hope the ISPs will decide to honor my packets’ sirens? Will my physician have to petition Comcast to let my kidney monitoring data have priority? Diabetes monitoring vs. thyroid info? Who decides if routine heart monitoring data should go at the same speed as critical care heart data?

And if I invent a new type of application that happens to be delay-sensitive, who has to approve it to get it onto the priority list?

If the only way to manage this were to rely upon the ISPs, then we’d just have to hope they’d make decisions that are genuinely in the public interest. But, if end-users can instead make those decisions, why not give them the power to say that they want their heart monitoring data to have a huge siren, and VOIP to be a Yugo that needs a valve job? And when their hearts stabilize, let them turn down those packets’ priority. in order to avoid an obvious gaming of the system, only let users change their designated siren vehicles once a month or so. And, I’d prefer that the ISPs not charge for this service — it’s simply a bit of network mgt — because I don’t want to give them an incentive for keeping the system sluggish.

There are some easy ways to present this to users, ways that never use the word “packet” or “jitter.” Let them designate some sites as high priority. Let them specify some application types (telephone calls, on-demand video). Even maybe let them choose “What type of user are you?” from a list.

It’s entirely possible that the solution I’m proposing is technically impossible or too expensive. IANAG (I am not a geek.) Nevertheless, thinking that some packets obviously should have priority doesn’t resolve the problem of figuring out how to prioritize packets. The more you look at it, the less obvious it becomes. [Tags: ]

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