Google and the New America Foundation have been working together for some time on White Spaces. Now they have (with PlanetLab and some academic researchers) come up with an initiative to inject some hard facts into the network neutrality debate.
The idea is that if users can easily measure their network bandwidth and quality of service, they will be able to hold their ISPs to the claims in their advertisements and “plans.” As things stand, businesses buying data links from network providers normally have a Service Level Agreement (SLA) which specifies minimum performance characteristics for their connections. For consumers, things are different. ISPs do not issue SLAs to their consumer customers. When they advertise uplink and downlink speeds, these speeds are “typical” or “maximum,” but they don’t specify a minimum speed, and they don’t offer any guarantees of latency, jitter, packet loss or even integrity of the packet contents. For example, here’s an excerpt from the Verizon Online Terms of Service:
VERIZON DOES NOT WARRANT THAT THE SERVICE OR EQUIPMENT PROVIDED BY VERIZON WILL PERFORM AT A PARTICULAR SPEED, BANDWIDTH OR DATA THROUGHPUT RATE, OR WILL BE UNINTERRUPTED, ERROR-FREE, SECURE…
Businesses pay more than consumers for their bandwidth, and providing SLAs is one of the reasons. Consumers would probably not be willing to pay more for SLAs, but they can still legitimately expect to know what they are paying for. The Measurement Lab data will be able to confirm or disprove accusations that ISPs are intentionally impairing traffic of some types.
This is a complicated issue, because one man’s traffic blocking is another man’s network management, and what a consumer might consider acceptable use (like BitTorrent) may violate an ISP’s Acceptable Use Policy (Verizon:”…it is a violation of… this AUP to… generate excessive amounts of email or other Internet traffic;”). The arguments can go round in circles until terms like “excessive” and “unlimited” are defined numerically and measurements are made. So Measurement Lab is a great step forward in the Network Neutrality debate, and should be applauded by consumers and service providers alike.