Stuck in (Net) Neutral(ity) Part 2

26 May

This post picks up where the last post left off, so take the time to read Stuck in Net Neutral(ity) if you’ve not already done so.  And it bears worth repeating: this post is NOT about net neutrality.  I’m hoping that opening declaration serves as a bit of a moat, as from what I’ve seen in the past few weeks ANY point of view on net neutrality is met with serious vitriol.  I don’t need contempt in general, ESPECIALLY over something that I do for free.  So while I stand by my many requests for comments (and really people, you’re coming up short in that department) head elsewhere if you’re going to flame me.  Not only isn’t this post about net neutrality, it isn’t about the First Amendment.

In the earlier post, I outlined the vital function of content delivery networks (CDNs) and the fact that Netflix has built their own mother of all CDNs.  The inner workings are closely held, but it is reasonable to expect that the local “caches” hold the most watched 100,000 movies and shows.  That may sound like a lot, but run the numbers and you’ll see the NAS required isn’t terribly expensive.  Indeed, the caches may brute-force duplicate the entire Netflix library.  (Yes, spinning media still works like magic in many applications and wont’ be completely replaced by solid-state storage anytime soon.)

“OK then,” you’re thinking, “Netlfix has their massive video library replicated N times across the United States, with local copies located near all major population centers.  Netflix are home free.”  Those quaint last four words are where you would be dreadfully wrong.  In fact, the entire Netflix-Comcast feud comes down to just three words: Netflix, home, free.

Netflix believe that broadband providers like Comcast should deliver videos from the Netflix CDN to your home for free.  Netflix, home, free; CHECK.

Comcast believe that Netflix has lost its marbles if they think that gaining unfettered access and hovering up fully one-third of their broadband network delivering videos to your home should be free.  Netflix, home, free; CHECK.

Reed Hastings is SCREAMING that all packets are created equal: instant messaging packets, email packets, streaming audio packets and streaming video packets.  All the same.  The Netflix CDN brings their video packets to the metaphorical doorstep of the Comcast broadband network, and it is Comcast’s responsibility to deliver those packets to your home.  Rain, sleet, snow, one-third of their bandwidth be damned.  Netflix dropped serious coin building that CDN and they should NOT have to pay a penny to Comcast or any other ISP to get all those video packets delivered to your house.

You will no doubt be shocked to learn that Comcast doesn’t see it that way.  Despite being the second-lowest rated North American company on customer satisfaction (ever so slightly above Time Warner Cable), Comcast HAS built an impressive broadband network.  And it cost a MINT to build that capacity: those umpteen thousands of miles of coax they laid down were never intended to move bits, it was intended to move analog … in ONE direction, mind you, TO your house.  They’ve re-tooled that cable plant—the little boxes on your street, the bigger boxes in your neighborhood, their distribution centers, pretty much everything EXCEPT the coax—to handle bi-directional digital traffic and deliver up to 100 Mbps Internet PLUS a ton of digital video to your house.

Modest digression.  Those of you with really good memories may recall that the very first cable modems used ANALOG RETURN.  Yup, upstream traffic was sent via analog modem, as cable plant of the time was incapable of sending data in the ‘wrong’ direction.  The term “cable plant” is rarely used today, because [a] using it dates you and [b] a tremendous portion of the network is fiber optic rather than coax cable.

Having spent all that money building a solid broadband network, Brian Roberts wakes up one day and discovers that one-third of his traffic comes from one source: Netflix.  If he were a generous and charitable type, Brian would write another giant check, increase the bandwidth available on his backbone and all of us would thank Brian for being so devoted to net neutrality.  Guess what?  My Netflix would still freeze a couple of times an hour.  Because the problem is NOT a shortage of bandwidth on the Comcast broadband network.

“Hold on there From Silicon Valley dude,” you’re wondering, “if Comcast has enough bandwidth and my video still stalls, then they MUST be de-prioritizing Netflix traffic.  So this IS all about net neutrality after all!”  I stated clearly that both parts of this post are NOT about net neutrality, so OBVIOUSLY I am not about to pull a 180.  However, it is perfectly fair to ask: if Comcast has the bandwidth and all packets flow in the same manner—but our videos still freeze—what is the problem?

The problem is in the tubes; well to be more precise, the problem is the connection BETWEEN the tubes.  (Or “pipes” as everyone that isn’t named Senator Ted Stevens would say.)  As noted above: Netflix has dropped serious coin on their mother of all CDNs, effectively constructing REALLY fat pipes to all major population centers; Comcast has built a broadband network that impresses ME (someone not easily impressed by ISPs) with its own set of fat pipes.  The entire issue is the CONNECTIONS between the fabulously capable pipes owned by Netflix and the tremendously impressive pipes owned by Comcast.

Think of it this way: Netflix drops a massive video library/server in your town.  How does that Netflix server route those video packets to your home?  Over a public internet backbone and then on to Comcast’s broadband network? Absolutely NOT: that would add hops, which you will recall is every bit as bad as crossing the beams.  To say nothing of the fact that the public internet backbone would come to a screeching halt under the weight of all that traffic.  This is why we invented CDNs in the first place.

The solution is the answer to the age-old question “what is the shortest distance between two points?”  No, no, “let me check Google Maps” is most certainly NOT the answer.  The shortest distance is a straight line and FINALLY getting to the crux of the matter: connect the Netflix CDN DIRECTLY to the Comcast backbone.  As Inspector Clouseau would say, “Voilà!  The problem, she is solve-ed!”  Believe it or not, Netflix and Comcast agree on this, which is good, because it is the completely logical solution.

But not so good, because Netflix feels QUITE strongly that they should get this direct connection at no charge, while Comcast—wacky capitalists that they are—think that such a high-value-high-bandwidth connection has, well, VALUE that Netflix should pay for.  And THAT is the source of the feud.

Lest you think any of this would be easy to explain, it gets harder to explain.  Netflix convinced many smaller ISPs that a direct connection to their backbones was good for the ISP’s customers and hence should be provided to Netflix free of charge.  The larger ISPs like Comcast had the (pardon the pun, but I simply must) BACKBONE to tell Netflix “you want the high-value-high-bandwidth connection, you’re going to pay for it.”  And travel with me now through the looking glass: Netflix agreed and paid Comcast.

Inspector Clouseau nailed it: as soon the Netflix CDN was connected directly to the Comcast backbone, customer complaints about stalled/frozen videos plummeted.

I’ll refrain from quoting YOU and what you’re thinking, but I would actually like to know what you’re thinking at the end of this paragraph.  It was AFTER he wrote the check to Comcast that Reed Hastings went on the bender of all Twitter-and-then-some whistle stop tours telling EVERYONE that Comcast was ripping up net neutrality, destroying the Internet and—while they didn’t actually have the photo—that Brian Roberts flipped off the FCC.  Seriously, I can’t make stuff like this up even when I try.

One last factoid and then we’ll hand this to the jury.  Gross oversimplification here, but the analogy works:

  • Imagine that there is a single router sitting between the public Internet and the Comcast broadband network
  • The Netflix CDN is now connected directly to the Comcast backbone
  • Therefore, Netflix video packets no longer ‘compete’ with all other packets at that router; they do an end-run around that potential bottleneck
  • Now that Netflix packets have nearly unfettered access to the Comcast backbone, they hoover up all the bandwidth they need; THAT IS HOW AND WHY videos no longer freeze
  • Given that nobody added bandwidth to the Comcast broadband network, other traffic MUST be slower than it was pre-Netflix-Comcast-direct-connection

Call me cynical, but THAT doesn’t sound like a shining model of net neutrality.  That sounds like Netflix packets are getting preferential treatment at the expense of other packets.  THAT sounds like Reed Hastings should put a cork in the “Comcast is undermining net neutrality” bandwagon.  From Silicon Valley.



One Response to “Stuck in (Net) Neutral(ity) Part 2”

  1. Matt Collins May 26, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    Kudos for demystifying a topic that attracts a lot of emotional arguments on both sides of the debate. Focusing on what happens in a practical example like the kind Comcast and Netflix find themselves in encourages an evaluation on net neutrality based on an actual example that produces actual symptoms, good and bad, that actual customers will experience.

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