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Weekly Column

Beyond Net Neutrality: If at first you don't succeed, change the game.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (42)
By Robert X. Cringely

There was a news story that made the rounds last week about a group of chemical researchers at St. Louis University who had developed a battery that ran on sugar water. Reporters who couldn't hope to understand the chemistry instantly flocked to the idea of recharging your mobile phone with lemonade or maybe flat Mountain Dew (carbonation apparently inhibits the enzymatic reaction). I, on the other hand, erred typically in the opposite direction and wondered if these things could be used in electric cars. And would we then be held hostage by the Organization of Sugar Exporting Countries?

It's not such a wacky question, since lithium-ion batteries, which these sugar cells are designed to replace, are the battery of choice in top-end electric cars. The sugar cells are more efficient too -- a LOT more efficient -- offering by weight about four times the energy capacity. So why not? And why was I the only guy asking such questions?

So I tracked down Shelley Minteer, associate professor of chemistry at St. Louis University, who did the work. Shelly, who looks like a cheerleader, graduated from college TWENTY-THREE YEARS after I did. I feel so old, and dumb.

Having done my research, I wondered why she gave up her earlier work on making a battery fueled with vodka (ethanol)? It turns out that the chemistry of using enzymes to pop electrons loose from sugar is a lot harder than it is with ethanol but the energy content of sugar is greater and fuel production is simpler (nobody is tempted to get drunk, just fat -- a much slower process).

The challenge of this entire process isn't making the reaction work, by the way, but keeping it working, since the enzymes will degrade if they aren't physically protected from the very fuel they are working on. The trick is encapsulation -- building the equivalent of a cellular membrane that is semipermeable yet protects the enzymes (enzymes are plural because this is a multi-stage process that allows so much energy to be released). Shelley's enzymes keep working now for months at a time, though that still isn't long enough for a practical battery.

But what about that electric car? Imagine a Tesla roadster with one quarter the weight or four times the range or maybe 15 percent faster? Imagine a collision where, instead of blowing up, the car just gets really sticky. Well it won't happen anytime soon. "It will be hard to scale to large, because of transport issues in the fuel cell and generally engineering issues," said Shelley.

Some of it comes down to cooling the battery, keeping the enzymes in their proper temperature range, and some to having enough surface area to produce greater power. Where are those carbon nanotubes when you need them? And don't even get me started on Buckminsterfullerenes.

For now those sugar cells will be aimed mainly at military electronics since the research was sponsored by the Department of Defense, but don't be surprised if professor Minteer's work goes a lot further and we eventually become subject to the tyranny of the sugar cartel. Well at least it produces no greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile a LOT of gas has been and will continue to be spewed about network neutrality, which is the idea that ISPs should treat all packets equally. For the record, I am strongly in favor of network neutrality even if I see it as a fading hope. For the moment most ISPs have signed on to this notion, but I am here to tell you that's not going to be the case long-term. The big ISP's have long planned for the end of net neutrality and, whether it is next year or five years from now, most ISPs are ready.

Net neutrality be damned, the local multiple system operators (MSOs), any company operating multiple cable television systems, are preparing to give priority to their packets over others in the event of "network congestion."

On the cable TV side, for example, both Comcast and Time-Warner Cable (probably other MSOs as well) are already changing their IP packets to priority bit '1' (default is '0') in their networks (from the Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) back to the edge of their network). They aren't setting their routers to treat the priority bit '1' to do anything YET, but, when or if they want to give their own packets preference in cases of congestion on their own networks, it'll be a flip of a switch.....

Now let's look at this in the context of net neutrality. For the cable companies, at least, it probably doesn't matter. That's because while cable Internet service and cable VoIP service both use the CMTS, it is easy for the cable company to configure its VoIP product as completely separate from its Internet product. IF YOUR CABLE OPERATOR WILL SELL YOU VOIP SERVICE WITHOUT INTERNET SERVICE, THEN NET NEUTRALITY DOES NOT APPLY.

If excess Internet traffic causes problems for the VoIP services of these cable companies, they can prioritize their own VoIP packets with impunity because VoIP isn't defined as an Internet service. And for that very reason, packet prioritization can -- and will -- occur even if the broadband ISP has signed an agreement promising net neutrality.

The next level of this ploy is to validate the un-Internetiness of the VoIP system through public service interconnects like 911. "Should calling the police get priority treatment?" will be the question and most courts won't say "no."

A second technique for getting around net neutrality also happens to defeat traffic-shaping for a double-win for ISPs. Traffic-shaping, which can be used both to defeat net neutrality and defend it depending who is doing the shaping, is ultimately a pain in the butt to broadband ISPs, who would like a much easier way to impose their will upon us. And they have found that way, which is not through stateful packet inspection, but simply through throttling gross bandwidth.

Check your terms of service and you may shortly see that while you are promised (but never guaranteed, since promises are meaningless but guarantees involve money) a certain amount of bandwidth upstream or downstream, your ISP may begin placing limits on total bytes transferred, something they haven't generally done since the mid 1990s. What matters is how they interpret these limits, which will generally be higher than most users require so they won't be noticed.

Let's say, for example, that your ISP limits you to downloading 20 gigabytes per month. Most users are happy with 3-5 gigs per month so 20 seems like plenty. But another way to look at 20 gigs per month is 27 megabytes per hour. Yes, you can still download a 320 meg episode of Ugly Betty from iTunes, but don't be surprised if your ISP throttles your total download capacity in the next 10-20 minutes to something approximating dial-up speeds. The idea is to punish chronic offenders and I am hearing of ISPs imposing these new terms on users -- terms that since they are not imposed on a per-packet basis do not in any way infringe net neutrality. And since your download speeds pop back up fairly quickly, most users won't notice, though they may decide that downloading shows from iTunes --- or any competitive service -- is more trouble than it is worth.

In the end the ISPs are going to win this battle, you know. The only thing that will keep them from doing that is competition, something it is difficult to see coming along anytime soon, rather like that lemonade-powered sports car.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (42)


It's a shame you can't put a comment in context. Bob goes on to describe the professor as 23 years his junior. Your comment seems to be from someone who seeks nits to pick.

misandry_is_so_pc | Apr 10, 2007 | 11:12AM

How much energy does it take to produce ethanol and sugar? It depends. Are you producing it from corn, sugar cane, sugar beets or some other crop? Sugar cane is much more effecient than corn, by the way.

How much land would it take to produce enough ethanol or sugar to fuel our needs? Again, it depends on your source, but it will be a LOT. However there are technologies on the near horizon that can potentially take agricultural byproducts that would otherwise have very little marketable value (think wheat chaff) and use them to produce ethanol.

The shift to ethanol-based fuels is shaping up to be very interesting indeed.

farmers' daughter | Apr 10, 2007 | 8:49PM

re: Net Neutrality
I agree with net neutrality, but the whole issue is predicated on net congestion. In 5-10 years, I expect that new technology will take care of the congestion, and this will be a non-issue!

Gerry Power | Apr 12, 2007 | 12:00PM