I have had a very interesting discussion with Trevor Barr, professor at Swinburne University of Technology. Trevor in an expert in Telecommunication, and is often consulted by the Australian Government, with a recent focus on the National Broadband Network (NBN) initiative.
Trevor is developing an idea which I find very interesting, and innovative. He says the Internet should be divided in three types of services : the basic Internet services, the managed services, and the publicly supported (government) services.
The basic Internet services simply entails IP packet being delivered to the users, who then manage the range of services as they wish. They may use Skype, email, iTunes, youtube, or any web site or portal that they wish to subscribe, needing only the internet connection, if possible at a monthly flat rate for an unlimited amount of data, as it is the case in some countries like France.
The managed services are in addition to the pure Internet, and are provided by the Internet service provider (ISP). At the beginning of the public Internet, ISPs tried to set-up walled garden, with a full range of owned services, thus threatening to reduce the basic Internet layer to almost nothing. This did not work, and consequently the ISPs had to reduce their managed services to a few ones. Today, there are principally two :
- telephony, which is done using voice over IP, thus totally escaping the traditional commuted network (the famous POT; Plain Old Telephony);
- television, using IPTV specific protocols.
There have been attempts to deliver more specific services, like ftp, hosting, file sharing, but none of them are on the scale of that which will be the next huge service in this category : “mobile phone”. Using Femtocell, an ISP can put a 3G antenna on the home gateway, like the bewan one. This allows its community of users to call or surf, using a mobile phone, anywhere there is an available connection, offered by a customer from the same provider; which is very easy in dense areas. Some ISPs are already providing this feature with WiFi, it would be easy to switch to 3G. This is probably what the French ISP Free will do, now that they have the license to use 3G wavelengths. In this respect, the managed services part will convey the three services which, with the pure Internet, forms the quadruple play.
On top of this, Trevor says the Government should use part of the bandwidth for its own services, the publicly supported services. This includes e-health, e-education, e-government, or any other type of services which are provided by an administration. This is a brilliant idea. As Trevor says, how come the government creates a network without taking part of it for its own services? However, this scenario implies a very important second question: what would be the impact on the network architecture? Or, to put it in another ways: does the introduction of a Government set of services compromise the principle of a neutral network?
The design of the Internet was meant to put no intelligence in the network, and to distribute it to the extremities. Therefore, the Internet network processes any IP packet in a purely equal manner. So far, the focus on bandwidth is on the last mile, because of the slowness of ADSL, and its asymmetry. Its backbones, owing to the Internet bubble investments, and the availability of Content Delivery Network (CDN), are not saturated.
Then, came the debate about network neutrality. The telecommunication providers, who were looking for ways to increase their revenues without impacting on end user bills, thought about introducing classes of services in their routers, thereby asking content or service providers to pay for privileged services. As Tim Wu explained it, amongst all impacts, it could lead to stop the innovation that created the Internet. All pure Internet players complained, and, so far, the debate is still open.
Now, Governments start embracing a very innovative approach to the Internet, such as Opendata, Government 2.0, Government as a platform. Therefore, one can imagine in the near future that they will develop a whole range of truly useful services. Will such Governments accept the “best effort” traditional philosophy of the Internet, or will they require some sort of reserved bandwidth inside the network?
Let us make two scenarios.
- The first one is tele-medicine. A very important remotely performed clinical operation requires specific high broadband end-to-end communication. If the network is congested, because, as an example, people are downloading movies, leading to a failure in the remote operation, how would the public react to this ?
- The second one is an emergency situation, say earthquake, bushfire, flood, etc. In two major crises, namely 9/11, and the Haiti earthquake, the Internet proved its resistance to stress, by being the only alive communication network. So, it may well happen that, in case of a crisis, emergency services require that the network is devoted entirely to its management, and I don’t see any counter reason to do so.
In both cases, it would imply introducing classes of services in the network. And, if this is done, I can hardly imagine the telecommunication operators not using those classes of services in other, more commercial, contexts.
How to solve the issue while keeping the Internet neutral? I see three solutions. The first one is to say that Government creates a specific network for its own services. This would be highly costly, and totally counrary to the mutualisation principle of the Internet, which led to low price adsl access, and the whole Internet economy. The second one would be to insure a high availability network whatever the situation, something that would lead to an under used network in normal time. This is the case as of now, but what happens to the backbones when fibre-to-the-home is, at last, available everywhere? CDN is not a solution, as it is of no use for a synchronous peer to peer communication. The third one would be to rely upon civic behaviour; not an easy solution…
I sometimes wonder if keeping the network always neutral is feasible, or if it is utopia. Now that the Internet is an essential service widely used, shall we be able to continue the spirit of its inventors, something like “a globally interconnected set of computers through which everyone could quickly access data and programs from any site”.