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Network Management Doesn't Have to Be Evil

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Yesterday Sprint launched its Xohm WiMAX service in Baltimore, the first step toward what could become a nationwide, alternative wireless broadband network. Within a few hours, the blogosphere was in an uproar over the network management practices Sprint had disclosed on its web site. But the issue is about more than Sprint throttling traffic on its network during times of congestion; it’s about a consumers’ right to know what happens to their traffic on the network.

The problem rests with the Federal Communications Commission, which in August called out Comcast for managing its Internet traffic in a way that stifled potentially competitive services, and did so without telling customers. The FCC then required Comcast to file a detailed network management plan. That decision should lay the groundwork for other ISPs, wireless and otherwise, to specify in detail how they plan to manage traffic on their networks. The FCC needs to require that broadband providers (all of them) do this. Barring FCC action, the providers should volunteer such plans on their own.

Sprint attempts this with its acceptable use policy, saying it reserves the right to manage its network using the following options:

  • limiting, or otherwise restricting uplink and downlink speeds and transfer rates
  • restricting or limiting, on a non-discriminatory basis, the number of sessions, applications or protocols (including peer-to-peer sessions) during periods of high network congestion
  • temporarily delaying, on a non-discriminatory basis, sessions, other applications or protocols (including peer-to-peer sessions) during periods of high network congestion

But Sprint hasn’t disclosed enough. In order for consumers to be able to decide whether or not this is a service on which they’ll spend $30 a month, the company needs to offer more information. How much are speeds slowed? For everyone, or only for heavy users? As Ben Scott, a policy director at the Free Press, told me, we are living in a post-Comcast order world, so if you tell people you’re offering them an unlimited service, then you should give them that. And if you have limits, you need to define them. Clearly.

Sprint told me the Xohm network wouldn’t have bandwidth caps because it’s a capacity play, not a speed play. With all of this capacity it should be able to offer up a detailed network management plan that consumers will find reasonable. When it comes to allowing any device from a data card to a navigation device, Xohm may already be open. But Sprint needs to open up about how it manages its WiMAX network.

13 Responses to “Network Management Doesn't Have to Be Evil”

  1. Brett Glass

    Unfortunately, WiMax — due to the nature of its technology — seems to be much more prone to congestion by P2P than cable modem systems, DSL, or even other wireless systems (such as those used by wireless ISPs other than Sprint). It’s no wonder that Sprint wants to reserve the right to put on the brakes when bandwidth hogs try to abuse the network.

  2. Stacey Higginbotham

    Ernest, I’m not asking for real-time notification of network management, simply for more details on the policies that will govern when and how traffic is managed. Implicit here is the assumption that Sprint needs to manage its network. I don’t think it’s evil for it to do so. The point of the headline is to say that an understanding of how a network is managed will strip the term “network management” of its negative overtones (unless of course the management practices are evil).

  3. The references to TCP in the comments are totally bogus. TCP is an IETF protocol implemented in the operating system. Sure, each OS has a slightly different implementation, but they all comply with the relevant RFCs — otherwise the Internet wouldn’t work. TCP slows down when it detects congestion so that the Internet doesn’t break.

    This has nothing to do with ISPs, and there’s no equivalent standard in ISP land. That’s kind of the whole point. If there were a standard along the lines of TCP that dictated how every ISP throttled traffic, that would be fantastic. For now, though, the analogy is just misleading. If only it weren’t…

    -Adam Fisk

  4. I certainly want to support Xohm, and any other broadband alternative. But allowing the gateway companies to set up their own arbitrary and secret rules regarding the regulation of traffic is guaranteed to end with winners and losers. Guess which side the consumer will be on.

  5. With the protocols built into TCP/IP and for other technical reasons, I don’t see why Sprint needs to open up any further than it has stated here. They simply state that when traffic gets heavy, it’ll throttle things back so everyone gets what they need. Any place you have shared bandwidth (wireless and cable especially), you’ll have to have some sort of throttling in place.

    Everyone pays for a piece of the pie, but not everyone can eat it all at the same time.

  6. Jeb Linton

    I agree with the need to be honest with customers about what they’re buying. However, having designed some large ISP networks myself, and knowing the Xohm people, I think there’s no question of “evil” here. Sprint’s engineers simply can’t be anywhere near the point of determining how they will manage bandwidth. The language in the AUP was almost certainly concocted by the Legal folks and run by the technical people to make sure it gave them all the leeway they will need to put measures in place at some future point.

    It may well be that they never put any measures in place and congestion will simply cause random packet loss, or they may someday find the personal bandwidth and capital budget to put something really sophisticated in place and do Deep Packet Inspection to start throttling or delaying on a per-flow basis – but they’ve got much more important things on their minds now. The first rule of throttling inside the ISP engineering community is “don’t complicate the configuration until congestion becomes a problem” – they likely won’t even think about it for a year or two at the soonest.

    Jeb Linton

  7. coconutwireless

    Hi Stacey,

    I am always on the lookout for posts from you. I wanted to draw your attention to my blog.

    It seems like internet access is headed in so many different directions. While users in US contemplate bandwidth caps, areas of the world are still waiting for reasonably priced service.

    Today in Fiji, a small-island nation in the South Pacific, the era of monopoly control of telecommunications is coming to a close and a new day dawns.

    We still have a ways to go before we see this first step result in cheaper and more accessible internet for all in Fiji.

    I wanted to thank you because your posts have informed a great deal of the content on my blog (LTE vs. WiMAX, broadband/cellular convergence).

    If you have a moment, please take a look through some of my older posts.



  8. Ernest Nova

    This is a bit of a slippery slope. Should the workings of the TCP/IP protocols be now “disclosed” in user contracts as well ?

    Under times of congestion routers drop packets based on various algorithms that may affect a particular kind of service differently by definition. The effect is to slow down a particular flow of traffic till dropping of packets is no longer required. This is how the Internet works, rather this is what is required to make TCP/IP networks efficiently. Even well meaning engineers could not tell you in advance exactly “how much are speeds slowed” under congestion and exactly which users it might affect.

    The second and third items of the AUP quoted above are arguably how TCP/IP networks today *without* any malice on part of the operator.

    In this note I am not debating the pros or cons of the operators traffic management policy – just commenting on what a reasonable AUP could actually contain.