FCC Begins Technical Inquiry Into Net Neutrality

The commission will hear technologists' concerns about plans to regulate network

 By Kenneth Corbin
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The Federal Communications Commission today began an in-depth look into the technical aspects of its controversial proposal to establish Net neutrality regulations.

Julius Knapp, the chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and technology, introduced today's proceeding as a down payment on the commission's promise "to ensure that decisions in the commission's proceeding on the open Internet reflect a thorough understanding of current technology."

The day-long event is slated to hear presentations from senior technologists around the industry, giving voice to the technical concerns of rules that would regulate network management practices in the cable, wireline and wireless sectors.

"Today's workshop is just the start of the technical advisory process," Knapp said.

The proceeding will not result in any immediate policy proposals, but rather is aimed as a fact-finding mission for FCC officials to arrive at a better understanding of how far the commission should go in determining what constitutes reasonable network management -- the operative and notoriously vague term in the debate over ensuring that all Web content receives a safe passage across the Internet.

Scott Jordan, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, kicked off the proceeding with a broad-brush overview of the traffic flow of the Internet, and outlined various network management policies and proposals around the industry.

One of the key variables Jordan described are the famously opaque service-level agreements (SLA) providers sign with one another that govern how traffic passes across their interconnected networks. The SLA Verizon maintains with AT&T, for instance, might have different terms than its agreements with smaller, regional providers.

The terms of those agreements could have a broad impact on Net neutrality rules, Jordan explained, because of the different methods providers have of prioritizing Internet packets. That could be a particular issue with services and applications that have low tolerance for speed bumps that produce latency and jitter, such as Internet phone calls.

If one provider designates voice packets as priority transmissions, but they then travel across another provider's network that does not, it becomes difficult to guarantee a baseline quality of service for VoIP calling services such as Skype.

"Will quality of service be available not just in a single network but end to end?" Jordan asked.

Of course, the utopia for Net neutrality proponents would be the speedy delivery of all packets handled by providers without discrimination or prioritization. But Jordan pointed out that network activity is "bursty," meaning that providers find their networks overwhelmed by occasional and short-lived periods of congestion, necessitating different techniques of traffic management.

"Are you going to [invest] in enough capacity to satisfy the peak demand? And the answer is no," he said. "It's going to be very expensive and it's not going to be used very often. These times where it's congested don't last for hours on end."

So ISPs have been tinkering with different tactics for directing traffic on their networks, such as setting aside a portion of their bandwidth for so-called managed services that are guaranteed priority in exchange for a fee. They have also been looking into the automatic identification and prioritization of certain types of traffic, such as VoIP, though that entails a process known as deep-packet inspection, which is not yet supported by the major standards organizations and can unravel due to discrepancies in providers' SLAs.

And, as with every aspect of the debate over Net neutrality, the meat of the argument is in the details.

"So far those techniques are not in and of themselves either reasonable techniques or unreasonable techniques," Jordan said. "It depends how they are used."

The FCC is planning a second workshop on some of the more political aspects of the Net neutrality debate Dec. 15. That forum intends to focus on "speech, democratic engagement and the open Internet," the commission said.

This article was originally published on Dec 8, 2009
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