December 24, 2009

Network Neutrality, UPS, and FedEx

I buy a lot of things that are delivered by UPS or FedEx.  And I kinda like to watch the progress of the shipments.

Now we all know that UPS and FedEx have different grades of service - Overnight, Two Day, Three Day, etc.  And faster deliver costs more.

Several years ago UPS and FedEx would frequently deliver a Two Day package the next day, i.e. they would effectively elevate the class of service.  A lot of us took advantage of that by sending almost everything using the lesser grade (and price) and often winning a higher grade (and price) delivery.

I am sure that that that did not please the bean counters at the shipping companies.

Today, with better tracking systems UPS and FedEx almost never deliver a package in advance of the delivery time for the paid class of service.  They will hold packages in their warehouses in order to make this so.  Today, if you want a given class of service you can get it only by paying for it; the old gambling trick no longer works.  I am sure that this has increased UPS' and FedEx' revenue.

The thing to note here is that UPS and FedEx can carry packages Overnight, but that they impose a delay, often an artificial delay, on packages that aren't paying the premium Overnight tariff.

So what has this got to do with Network Neutrality?

Consider an ISP that adopts the UPS/FedEx model.  In particular let's say that this ISP decides to impose a delay of 100 milliseconds on all standard class packets and does so in a way that is completly neutral as to source, destination, or protocol.  On a 10gigabit link that means holding about 125megabytes of traffic, in each direction, in a delay queue - that's a number readily within the range of today's technology.

Then that ISP could offer premium, i.e. more expensive, grades of service that bypass some or all of that 100 millisecond delay.

I have never heard anyone claim that either UPS or FedEx is not acting with neutrality.  It would seem that an ISP that acts as I have described would also be able to claim that it is just as neutral as UPS and FedEx.

I did not pick 100 milliseconds out of the air - rather I picked it because it can have a pernicious effect on VoIP. The ITU publishes 150ms as the time limit beyond which the users of a VoIP call to go into "walkie-talkie" mode.  100ms, one way, does not reach that amount, but it is close enough that other network delays could easily push the connection over the edge; and round trip time will certainly exceed the threshold.  In other words, a completely neutral application of 100ms to all packets, VoIP or not, will force VoIP users to upgrade to a premium service.

Other network activities would be impaired.  Domain name transactions would slow down causing user perceptions of sloggish service.

Bulk data transfers, such as web downloads of images, would only be marginally effected once TCP adapts to the round trip time.  But ISP's could "fix" that by adding some packet loss and some delay jitter to their "standard" quality.

The point of this exercise is to suggest that ISPs have a well stocked bag of tricks to induce users to pay more for what we used to get for free from "best effort" services on the internet.

Posted by karl at December 24, 2009 2:07 AM