Vint Cerf Admits Network Management is Necessary

There are some people whose opinions matter more than others. Take Vint Cerf, for instance. Cerf is often credited as being the "father of the Internet." While that might not be a technically accurate statement, it is safe to say that he played a very significant role in shaping what would become the Internet as we know it today--and he is certainly one of only about a half dozen people or so who can potentially even lay claim to that title. In his current role as Vice President and Internet Evangelist for one of the most important Internet companies presently doing business--Google--his opinion carries a lot of weight with the industry.

So the industry should sit up and take notice when a man who has been a very vocal advocate for net neutrality (see below)* concedes in a blog entry that network management by ISPs is, in fact, a necessity. Cerf observes that all networks have limited capacities, and that when "demand exceeds the available capacity of the network, network operators naturally seek to manage the traffic loads."

 Vint Cerf (Credit: Google)
As to how ISPs might manage that traffic, one possible scenario that could eventually play out is a "volume cap" (where users pay extra once they have exceeded their paid-for-allotment--similar to how many cell phone plans work). Cerf is not a fan of this or other metered bandwidth scenarios, as he claims it is often difficult to know how much bandwidth you will need:

"One problem with charging for total bytes transferred (in either direction) is that users will have no reasonable way to estimate their monthly costs. Clicking on a link can take you to an unexpected streaming site or a major file transfer."

Cerf thinks that a "transmission rate cap," however, might be a viable alternative to a "volume cap":

"... I suggest the introduction of transmission rate caps, which would allow users to purchase access to the Internet at a given minimum data rate and be free to transfer data at at least up to that rate in any way they wish."

Cerf next drops the bombshell:

"So the real question for today's broadband networks is not whether they need to be managed, but rather how."

There… He said it... The poster boy for net neutrality admits that ISPs need to manage traffic on their networks. Cerf sees the reality of the situation that as long as demand exceeds availability, resources needed to be managed in order to keep the services running. But with this concession, come the caveats:

"In my view, Internet traffic should be managed with an eye towards applications and protocols. For example, a broadband provider should be able to prioritize packets that call for low latency (the period of time it takes for a packet to travel from Point A to Point B), but such prioritization should be applied across the board to all low latency traffic, not just particular application providers. Broadband carriers should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the market under the rubric of network management."

In other words, ISPs should take a protocol-agnostic approach and not punish one particular type of application (such as a BitTorrent client) just because is consumes a significant amount of bandwidth or because it can be used for illegal activity (along with legitimate uses as well). Certain types of traffic, such as VoIP should be given QoS priority over other types of traffic, such as data, as VoIP quality is critically dependent on low latency transmissions (ideally 150ms or less)--most users would rather have a slightly slower download than to have their VoIP calls suffer from annoying drop outs or dropped calls.

Perhaps what is most interesting about Cerf's blog post is that he discusses the merits and weaknesses of different approaches ISPs might take to manage their networks, without a single mention of net neutrality legislation. This begs the question, is Cerf now of the opinion that industry self-regulation is the best approach to solving the net neutrality issue? If so, this is different stance than he took when he testified before the U.S. Senate in 2006 (see below)*.

* From Cerf's testimony to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary on June 14, 2006: "... Google supports a tailored, minimally-intrusive net neutrality requirement in law. As Congress creates new telecommunications legislation it must include necessary safeguards for consumers. It is time for Congress to act, by reinstating the long-standing nondiscrimination requirements for the on-ramps to the Internet."
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