A dialog between David Weinberg and Seth Finkelstein on David’s blog raises an interesting question. Dave W argues (as do I) that a network provider is the last person who should engage in such practices, because of the inherent potentials for mischief and the possible conflicts of interest. Seth Finkelstein argues that, as a practical matter in the real world, only the ISP can effectively make a determination on traffic shaping that maximizes the use of the network for everyone, protects time sensitive applications, and prevents a “tragedy of the commons” from a handful of users absorbing all the bandwidth.
David Isenberg (in the comments and in this blog entry) makes the case that we don’t need traffic shaping, just more capacity or, in the alternative, neutral means to reduce packet flow such as throttling all traffic equally or going to metered pricing. Others (including myself) have argued that the problems of “bandwidth hogs” are exaggerated, or that users dissatisfied with the “best efforts” environment of the internet should stick with the network optimized for voice (the phone network) or the network optimized for video (cable, broadcast television) rather than “break” the internet to better accommodate these applications. Neither of these answers, however, is popular in regulatory circles. Further, it is a legitimate argument that we should allow ISPs to choose what product to offer customers. If an ISP wants to offer services optimized for VOIP by retaining the power to shape traffic, why shouldn’t it bring that service to market? This inevitably leads to a debate on market power, availability of choice, switching costs, captive customers etc., etc.
So lets shake things up with something new. I will — for the sake of argument here — accept the proposition that we “need” traffic shaping (like I “need” “scare quotes” so that people will not “quote” me out of context or argue on trivialities). But accepting the need for traffic shaping does not mean ceding all power to the broadband access provider. To the contrary, I argue that we will achieve far better results by giving subscribers the ability to shape their own traffic.
Madness you say? “Tragedy Of The Commons” and all that. Maybe, but the electric industry tells a somewhat different tale. As described in this NYT story, a fair number of folks are taking advantage of pilot projects that allow people to shape their power usage in the same way I propose allowing them to shape their Internet use. Such programs may save $70 Billion in the next few years. Why not see if they can have serious impact on the supposed exaflood of internet traffic that supposedly justifies traffic shaping? Especially when contrasted with the pur privatization model, that gave us the Enron scandal and the California black outs in 2001?
More below . . .