Return of the Jedi: Enable the Ewoks

By Carl Ford, Partner, Crossfire Media  |  September 01, 2010

Enable the Ewoks.

Recently, Google (News - Alert) and Verizon have teamed up to suggest a net neutrality framework, which is outlined on page 3 in this magazine. In light of that, Jonathan Askin in TechCrunch compared Google to Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader, in the Star Wars series. In his analogy Verizon (News - Alert) is the Empire. I’d like to expand the theme. I want to use the analogy as a call to arms to Internet engineers, who should wrestle this argument away from legal frameworks and bring it back to the reality of network operations.

While Google and Verizon speak well to most of my issues, I believe the issue of net neutrality is focused on the right thing – promoting competition. Our entire country is underserved by competitive alternatives and promoting competition should be our goal. Here is why.

Let’s talk about what the Internet has always been about. The Internet was designed to eliminate the possibility of single carrier failure, by enabling packets to travel in multiple directions based on a variety of protocols. The system also was designed to be an overlay using best effort.

Best effort is a deliberately nebulous term. As a Bell head, I have often asked the Jedi Internet engineering talent to quantify what best effort means. To their credit they have told me that the act of quantifying it would in effect limit it. Once you make best effort a quality of service standard you in effect limit the innovation of the Internet.

Internet engineers should wrestle this argument away from legal frameworks and bring it back to the reality of network operations.

And the Internet has been the home of tremendous innovative strategies to deliver better quality. Video being delivered on the Internet is often a good place to see this innovation. At the client we have the ever lighter weight compression mechanism. At the core, the content delivery network is heavy with processing and speed. In between we have caching and other delivery strategies that were not imagined when multicast was specified. Using HTML to deliver video as will be standardized in HTML5 indicates that innovation is still the part of the Internet industry.

The billions of dollars of wealth that has been generated on the Internet and the thousands of jobs it has created all are the result of no one guaranteeing the quality of service.

No guarantee by an individual carrier was ever required for the Internet. And yet services have some form of quality on the Internet. If the Internet is built to not rely on a carrier, what is the concern regarding net neutrality?

In some ways I would submit we are hearing the echoes of problems past and the realities of our future markets. The assumption of carriers monopolizing the bottleneck assumes a lack of competition. While this is true in many ways, the problem like the one associated with quantifying best effort may be the result of having limited our thinking to the concept of a carrier.

It’s like the Return of the Jedi movie where the Ewoks beat high-end technology with low-tech alternatives. If we know the ubiquitous symmetrical Internet services should be our goal, perhaps our answers are found in alternative delivery methods. Our friend Brough Turner would point to the generations of Wi-Fi coming in the near future. Our friend Rick Whitt would point to the opportunities with TV white space. David Reed would point to an entirely distributed system of our peers. Others would point to unlicensed spectrum being managed by cognitive radios and beam forming. All of these represent strategies for innovators to adopt and adapt and refine. Undoubtedly new methods are on the way as well.

If we want to insure the Internet’s success, the first goal should be something akin to the Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. I think this is a more obtainable goal than Don’t be Evil, but I grew up a Calvinist.

The way to do no harm is to recognize that innovation is going to happen from many sources and that many of these companies will want to partner with the other companies to offer better solutions through bundling. Some of these may involve preset bandwidth availability, and others will try to run similar services without an allocation. For example, let’s say that my friend Alice has created a magnifier application that shows me anything I want to point my camera at in real time with broadcast quality video at speeds of 135mbps. She has partnered with a fiber carrier to bring the service to her customers. While she uses Internet technology since it has become the lingua franca of transport, her requirements make it a special service only available with direct connection. However, presently the backbone supports her system and the carrier uses its backbone for both the magnifier application and the Internet. Then my friend Bob comes along and builds Microscope. Microscope does amazing things with just a little bandwidth and is competitive to Alice’s system in some situations. My view is as long as no discrimination exists, then our goal has been achieved.

However, if Alice’s magnifier system is limiting the Internet availability and in the process Bob’s microscope solution, then we have a cause for concern.

Finally, let me add to the mix Carol’s invention of the Periscope Prioritizer. This device looks for the best paths on the Internet for Alice’s traffic to travel. When Carol first built it, the system monitored the traffic and in effect made super routes. However she has been in talks with carriers that see her solution as a way to segment the shared backbone. It could be that the deployment facilitates better services for all, but it also could be that it is used for preferential service delivery.

The issue of discriminatory business practices can be investigated and documented. All of these points are implicit in the discussion of prioritization being made well in the Google/Verizon suggestion.

However, we then get on to the subject of wireless, and we clearly see a digression. Either the Internet principles apply to all transport or we are not talking about the Internet. Remember, the Internet was delivered to you over dial-up. You chose to buy a better access method when it was available. It is wrong to think of wireless as nascent. We have saturated the market with wireless services, and the wireless world looks much like the PSTN did in the 1990s when people were buying modems for the first time. (Yes, we can make the case that the iPhone (News - Alert) is nothing more than an integrated dongle).

The current network architectures for wireless are being migrated to an Internet model, but to allow companies to claim it is not part of the need for competitive services is wrong. The innovation at the edge needs to be encouraged, and solutions that enable more transport power on the edge should be part of the goal. Calling wireless nascent leaves the status quo on the road to long term to evolution and off the tracks of competition.

Enabling access from a variety of solutions regardless of communication is what the Internet is about. The Internet works over all the transport technologies, and the framework should be the same for any method of access. Brough Turner has pointed out that the concepts of common carriage are appropriate for our dilemma of avoiding bottlenecks.

Most policy experts point out that we need more than three operators to make a competitive marketplace and without the wireless operators we have little chance of seeing competition. In addition, wireless solutions (including satellite) are the only place where the bottleneck is most likely to result in true redundant infrastructure, which is important from a public safety and emergency services perspective.

In Europe the common carriage requirement is being used to promote more competition by having the backbones interconnected and shared to reduce cost and maximize coverage.

However, for whatever reason, the U.S. government is looking to change the rules. It may be that the resemblance of ATT’s logo to the Empire’s death star has people looking for the emperor lurking in the shadows. But the reality is that the bogey man is not there. A case to make my point is the request in Washington about Apple’s (News - Alert) choice to not allow Google to put Google Voice in the App Store.

As you will recall, the blogosphere, Congress and the press all looked toward AT&T (News - Alert) as the company blocking the service. However, AT&T had little to do with the Silicon Valley turf war.

Apple and Google transcended the transport and were at the application layer. This also points out that the problem of monopolistic control may not be in the hands of the operator, but may be with the equipment manufacturing world. It may be that the whole role of guaranteeing access to services has more to do with Federal Trade Commission and less to do with the bottleneck.

If we stop treating the transport services as separate (but not equal) technologies and treat them the way that the Internet does, as a means to delivery, then our goals should be simple.

Best effort means that services can be designed with the expectation of experiencing the same issues as the rest of the Internet. Discriminatory practices cannot be maintained in a competitive market of access services.

I believe a network operator can guarantee services but not at the cost of the supporting overall Internet use. The application that runs on the Internet well with one carrier should work well on alternative providers.

If companies are allowed to create solutions that access the Internet with the best up/down speeds possible (wireless will always lag fiber), companies will form solutions that will deliver new services and the emperor will be proven to have no clothes.

USF reform that gives money to innovation at the edge makes sense to me, but only because the method is in place. I would rather see a grant system for new access methodologies.

In conclusion, I feel for the advocates in Washington; when it comes to telecom and the Internet, each person must feel like he or she is Luke Skywalker walking around in the Mos Eisley Cantina looking for safe passage with Obi Wan. The solution was Hans Solo’s Millennium Falcon; our goal should be to make this millennium full of alternatives. It will happen if we fund it, and not regulate it.

Enable the Ewoks. NGN

Carl Ford is co-founder of Crossfire Media, 4G Wireless Evolution Community Developer (

Carl Ford is a partner at Crossfire Media.