The delusions of wireless Net Neutrality
[Updated to include Washington Post columnist's name. That column somehow left out the author's name] This Washington Post column by Rob Pegoraro says that wireless networks are just like wired networks and that most users don’t “obsess over ping times”. It’s really a shame that Pegoraro didn’t ask what the engineers thought or what users really thought when faced with the actual consequences of extreme Net Neutrality rules. Let me apply some jitter to Rob Pegoraro’s cell phone call or Skype call and we’ll see if he “obsesses” or not.
Let’s apply some high ping jitter to any gamer or Vonage VoIP user and see if they “obsess” or not. Anyone who lives with a gamer or VoIP user knows never to mess with a man or woman’s ping. We gamers or VoIP users will kick everyone in the house off YouTube or Netflix or BitTorrent whenever we need to use our Lingo VoIP service or do online gaming. I personally will go as far as disabling the Wi-Fi if I need to. It’s quite common to hear your VoIP or gamer peer on the other end say: hold on a minute as I kick the BitTorrent and Netflix users off the network because they cause so much jitter. Is that obsessive? You better believe it but that’s what happens when engineers are told by religious zealot non-engineers that they can’t do their jobs even though the only way to manage downstream jitter is on the network provider’s equipment.
The bigger problem with Pegoraro’s column is its insistence that wireless networks are the same as wired networks when they aren’t. Pegoraro claims that the larger capacities of 4G eliminates the congestion issues, but that isn’t even remotely close to reality. No matter how much capacity there is in a 4G cell, that cell has to support hundreds and possibly thousands of users on a network that has less total capacity than the guaranteed capacity of a single piece of fiber or short-haul copper on a Verizon FiOS or AT&T U-verse broadband connection. No matter how much Rob Pegoraro or anyone else wishes it to be true, we will never turn mobile networks covering more than a few rooms into a high quality Video on Demand network because it’s technically impossible.
The other major technical difference is that wired broadband connections offer a level of immunity between the users in the sense that jitter generated by a single user doesn’t affect any of the other users in the same broadband network. On a wireless network, a single BitTorrent user poisons the entire cell with massive jitter and makes the network unbearable for all the users on the same cell and even the entire cell tower because the backhaul is jammed up with jitter. A wired broadband subscriber can only cause jitter for his or her own broadband connection which makes it painful for the people living in the same house but not the entire neighborhood.
The other differences are economic. When was the last time you’ve seen wired broadband service sold on a per device basis rather than a per-home basis? You can buy single-device wireless service for very specific devices like the Apple iPhone 4 or iPad at half the monthly cost of a any five device service plan like the MiFi portable hotspot service plans. Would Pegoraro insist that these existing single-device service plans be outlawed? That’s what Net Neutrality would do as it doesn’t allow a network provider to place contractual limits on the device. When was the last time a content provider like Amazon paid for your wired broadband service but dictated what webpage, application, or device you could use? It never happened on wired networks but it is happening on wireless networks and the Kindle.
When was the last time someone sold a device that came with very cheap but very limited wired broadband service? It hasn’t happened, but it is happening in the wireless space with devices like the Peek Simply Email which only supports email but at a very low monthly cost. Furthermore, would this specialized type of device and connectivity be a bad thing for the people who don’t own a computer or broadband today? What if they could get an affordable and simple iPad-like device that had a very cheap but limited service offering such as email and non-video web? Wouldn’t that allow computers and the Internet to reach populations that have never been reached before? Should the market get to accept or reject these business models or should we have Soviet-style central planning for the future of the Internet?