Prioritizing Internet Traffic Will Cause Problems

Internet service providers like Comcast and AT&T want to speed up voice and video applications while downgrading others. And while that might not seem as dramatic as outright blocking or slowing down their competitors’ applications, prioritization can still cause problems for Internet users.

On this week’s Media Minutes, Free Press Policy Counsel Chris Riley talks about the new paper he wrote with Robb Topolski of the New America Foundation, Hidden Harms of Application Bias. On the show, Riley explains how Internet traffic prioritization would harm Net Neutrality.

In this edition of Media Minutes Extra!, Riley discusses how prioritization can undermine the overall health of the Internet.

Riley: One of the worst, underappreciated negative impacts of prioritization is the fact that, well, if the ISP says it’s going to speed up voice and video and its going to slow down peer-to-peer, some peer-to-peer users will say that they don’t like that, because their use of peer-to-peer actually is priority.

Let’s say they’re doing peer-to-peer video or peer-to-peer voice, for example, because there are peer-to-peer video and voice apps. Those users will likely switch to encryption, rendering it difficult or impossible for the ISP to know that what they are doing is peer-to-peer. So this cycle of deep packet inspection and encryption will trigger an arms race between application developers and Internet users and the Internet service providers themselves.

This arms race is just going to create a whole lot of inefficiencies. And it’s all to try and enforce a policy that wasn’t really the right idea to begin with.

Riley admits that prioritization can help a little with voice applications, but it won’t improve video.

Riley: Most of the reasons why users have problems with real time interactive video is not congestion, because you can always buffer, and you can handle congestion on some level. The reason we don’t have high-definition, two-way interactive teleconferencing is because almost everybody in this country is using a slow DSL line or an only barely faster cable modem.

The only real solution to the major problems experienced in the broadband market right now is substantial investment to try to get the United States out of the cellar in international broadband rankings.

And that means building bigger, faster pipes. ISPs will continue to resist investing in their infrastructure, Riley says, but the FCC shouldn’t allow prioritization to be a fallback plan.

Riley: The fundamental idea that voice traffic is important, we want it to work well – that resonates with a lot of people. That’s why the problems of prioritization are so pernicious. It does seem to make sense that voice and video should get better treatment on the Internet.

But the engineering just doesn’t back up that common-sense assumption. Especially when the network is the one doing the prioritizing and when the user doesn’t have any control to choose, the problems really outweigh the potential benefits.

Riley emphasizes that decisions about what traffic should be prioritized belong with individual users, not the phone or cable companies.

Riley: If the user says I want this traffic to be prioritized. If the ISP wants to respect that and wants to prioritize that, that’s fine. The only problem comes in when the ISP says, regardless of what the user says, this application needs priority, because that’s where you get all of these spinoff problems. They occur when the network operator says this will be prioritized, regardless of what the user chooses.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good