Net Neutrality and consumer benefit

A story in Wired dated December 17th reports on a webinar presented by Allot Communications and Openet.

A slide from the webinar shows how network operators could charge by the type of content being transported rather than by bandwidth:

DPI integrated into Policy Control & Charging

In an earlier post I said that strict net neutrality is appropriate for wired broadband connections, but that for wireless connections the bandwidth is so constrained that the network operators must be able to ration bandwidth in some way. The suggestion of differential charging for bandwidth by content goes way beyond mere rationing. The reason this is egregious is that the bandwidth costs the same to the wireless service provider regardless of what is carried on it. Consumers don’t want to buy content from Internet service providers, they want to buy connectivity – access to the Internet.

In cases where a carrier can legitimately claim to add value it would make sense to let them charge more. For example, real-time communications demands traffic prioritization and tighter timing constraints than other content. Consumers may be willing to pay a little bit more for the better sounding calls resulting from this.

But this should be the consumer’s choice. Allowing mandatory charging for what is currently available free on the Internet would mean the death of the mobile Internet, and its replacement with something like interactive IP-based cable TV service. The Internet is currently a free market where the best and best marketed products win. Per-content charging would close this down, replacing it with an environment where product managers at carriers would decide who is going to be the next Facebook or Google, kind of like AOL or Compuserve before the Internet. The lesson of the Internet is that a dumb network connecting content creators with content consumers leads to massive innovation and value creation. The lesson of the PSTN is that an “intelligent network,” where network operators control the content, leads to decades of stagnation.

In a really free market, producers get paid for adding value. Since charging per content by carriers doesn’t add value, but merely diverts revenue from content producers to the carriers, it would be impossible in a free market. If a wireless carrier successfully attempted this, it would indicate that wireless Internet access is not a free market, but something more like a monopoly or cartel which should be regulated for the public good.

Video calling from your cell phone

Although phone numbers are an antiquated kind of thing, we are sufficiently beaten down by the machines that we think of it as natural to identify a person by a 10 digit number. Maybe the demise of the numeric phone keypad as big touch-screens take over will change matters on this front. But meanwhile, phone numbers are holding us back in important ways. Because phone numbers are bound to the PSTN, which doesn’t carry video calls, it is harder to make video calls than voice, because we don’t have people’s video addresses so handy.

This year, three new products attempted to address this issue in remarkably similar ways – clearly an idea whose time has come. The products are Apple’s FaceTime, Cisco’s IME and a startup product called Tango.

In all three of these products, you make a call to a regular phone number, which triggers a video session over the Internet. You only need the phone number – the Internet addressing is handled automatically. The two problems the automatic addressing has to handle are finding a candidate address, then verifying that it is the right one. Here’s how each of those three new products does the job:

1. FaceTime. When you first start FaceTime, it sends an SMS (text message) to an Apple server. The SMS contains sufficient information for the Apple server to reliably associate your phone number with the XMPP (push services) client running on your iPhone. With this authentication performed, anybody else who has your phone number in their address book on their iPhone or Mac can place a videophone call to you via FaceTime.

2. Cisco IME (Inter-Company Media Engine). The protocol used by IME to securely associate your phone number with your IP address is ViPR (Verification Involving PSTN Reachability), an open protocol specified in several IETF drafts co-authored by Jonathan Rosenberg who is now at Skype. ViPR can be embodied in a network box like IME, or in an endpoint like a phone of PC.
Here’s how it works: you make a phone call in the usual way. After you hang up, ViPR looks up the phone number you called to see if it is also ViPR-enabled. If it is, ViPR performs a secure mutual verification, by using proof-of-knowledge of the previous PSTN call as a shared secret. The next time you dial that phone number, ViPR makes the call through the Internet rather than through the phone network, so you can do wideband audio and video with no per-minute charge. A major difference between ViPR and FaceTime or Tango is that ViPR does not have a central registration server. The directory that ViPR looks up phone numbers in is stored in a distributed hash table (DHT). This is basically a distributed database with the contents stored across the network. Each ViPR participant contributes a little bit of storage to the network. The DHT itself defines an algorithm – called Chord – which describes how each node connects to other nodes, and how to look up information.

3. Tango, like FaceTime, has its own registration servers. The authentication on these works slightly differently. When you register with Tango, it looks in the address book on your iPhone for other registered Tango users, and displays them in your Tango address book. So if you already know somebody’s phone number, and that person is a registered Tango user, Tango lets you call them in video over the Internet.