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The Pulpit
The Pulpit

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Weekly Column

We Don't Need No Stinking Best Effort: Net neutrality may have been just a fantasy all along.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (126)
By Robert X. Cringely

Let me tell you about the problems I am having with my fax line. Fax? Why would anyone still have a fax line? Well I have a few thousand business cards orbiting out there with my fax number attached, but the line also serves quite well as a secure (if slow) access point for remote control software when I am on the road. Or it would serve that role if my fax line actually worked, which it doesn't.

My fax line isn't a regular phone line, it is a Vonage Voice over IP phone line. I have two such lines with the other being my main business number. The business number works reliably, though the audio quality isn't what I would like and there are plenty of dropped bits. But the fax line doesn't work at all. It connects but won't sync no matter what I try. It is already set on the slowest possible speed and I have spent literally hours on the phone with Vonage, which can't find anything wrong.

For all its legal troubles, Vonage has always been a reliable supplier to me and they have made a valiant effort to get this fax line functioning. So what can the problem be?

It's not a lack of bandwidth. I am a Comcast business customer and pay three times the residential rate in exchange for eight megabits down and one megabit up with five static IP addresses, the right to run servers, and what they call a Service Level Agreement.

That's the good news. The bad news is I just tested my 8/1 connection and the actual speeds with tests that Comcast accepts as valid (Comcast service likes the Speakeasy speed test) are 6764 down and 1410 up. That's substantially faster than I am promised upstream but substantially slower than I am promised downstream, yet both are still plenty for a 9600 bps fax, right? Wrong.

When I ask Comcast business about the Service Level Agreement, they snort. I can do the paperwork and demand some money back, they say, but my numbers to them look pretty good and there isn't much they can do to improve them. So Comcast's Service Level Agreement in this case is probably more of a marketing tool than anything else. In terms of actually guaranteeing service levels, it is meaningless.

So why can't I get a fax, then?

I don't know for sure, but I suspect the answer may well lie in an extension of last week's column about net neutrality. In that column I explained that the big broadband ISPs were apparently preparing to offer tiered levels of service and at this point it is a matter of flipping a switch, with the result that Comcast's VoIP might suddenly work a LOT better than Vonage's VoIP, which is to say my fax line.

Well it turns out that I may have, in this case, actually understated the problem. Readers claim that some -- who knows, maybe ALL -- big broadband ISPs are ALREADY running tiered services.

"I used to work at Time-Warner Cable's Road Runner High Speed HQ," wrote one reader, "and as of 2005, TWC marked all VoIP packets with the TOS bit turned to 1. TWC has 5 levels of priority, VoIP having the highest, router tables second, commercial services 3rd, Road Runner consumer 4th and everything else is classified as 'best effort'."


In the strictest sense, this is perfectly in keeping with my point from last week that having a native VoIP service changes the rules of the game when it comes to net neutrality because VoIP in this case is a PHONE service, not an INTERNET service and is therefore not restricted from QoS prioritization. But what about those other service levels? They generally have to do with Internet services and so ought to come under the net neutrality rules.


I went to one of my smartest, best-informed, and most cynical friends who has a long career making these networks work and he wrote, "Well, there are no Net Neutrality rules/laws in place (yet). Correct? So, they can do anything they want, right? Besides, your point about why your fax doesn't work on Vonage may be explained..."

Suddenly it is all beginning to make sense to me.

Last year SBC (now AT&T), Comcast, and other big broadband ISPs began to make noise about how Google wasn't paying them for priority access and should. Feeling threatened, the Internet community tried to push through net neutrality rules that said every packet should be treated equally. The net neutrality rules haven't yet gone through but the ISPs also aren't charging anyone yet for priority access.

Too bad those of us on the side of net neutrality were so naïve. I looked in the RFCs and saw that the Internet was defined as a "best effort" network, which seemed to embody the principles of net neutrality. So, like most other people, I assumed that the de facto state of things was that all packets were being treated equally and what the ISPs were looking for was a change in the status quo.

Silly me.

What turns out to be the case is that some ISPs have all along given priorities to different packet types. What AT&T, Comcast and the others were trying to do was to find a way to be PAID for priority access -- priority access that had long existed but hadn't yet been converted into a revenue stream.

This reminds me of the problems Silicon Graphics (SGI) and NeXT Computer had making their machines work with the Network File System (NFS) protocol back in the late 1980s. NFS was invented by Sun Microsystems and published as an open standard for accessing data on other systems using a remote procedure call. Dozens of vendors supported NFS, but SGI and NeXT couldn't get their machines to interoperate. What turned out to be wrong was that SGI and NeXT both wrote their NFS code from scratch using Sun's published specification, while all the other vendors generally lifted Sun code and concentrated on making their implementations interoperate with Sun's, the de facto standard. BUT SUN'S NFS CODE WASN'T COMPLIANT WITH ITS OWN SPEC.

So lots of we "pundits" have been sitting around believing that the Internet is a "best effort" network, which in practical terms it isn't and probably hasn't been for a long time. We've believed that by being out of compliance with RFCs this combination of QoS and non-QoS services wouldn't work, but they do. And the result is that I can sit here with 100+ times enough bandwidth for fax service and still can't send a damned fax.

We should have seen this coming. When ISPs claimed that private peering arrangements gave them priority routing (a best-effort no-no) we should have believed them. OF COURSE they would give priority for services such as DNS and, frankly, I wouldn't want that any other way.

So instead of a true "best effort" network upon which some ISPs want to impose tiered services, what most of us probably have are already tiered services, which means that net neutrality, if imposed, would make some Internet services slower than they presently are.

Net neutrality threatens ISPs while a regulated lack of net neutrality rewards them, so they push for it.

The reality of this argument, then, is that in the strictest sense net neutrality is already dead and we don't really want it if that means slowing down every page access. At the same time, we have already paid for that bandwidth, so allowing our ISPs to effectively sell it twice seems unfair to users.

What's to be done, then? Well we won't be going back to true net neutrality. Revealing that it had never existed was probably a weapon the ISPs were saving for their final defense of the status quo. In the long run, the ISPs will probably get their way, too, on being paid for access to higher service tiers. But since we've already paid for that bandwidth, I propose the ISPs be made to share their bounty with us.

If an ISP can account for packets on different service levels accurately enough to bill a Google or a Yahoo, then they can take half of the revenue generated by allowing faster access to me and credit that to my account, lowering my bill. I can either take the money and run or apply it toward raising the priority level of some of my own services.

In my case, of course, that would be fax.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (126)

I should be so lucky.

I use Sunrocket and Wide Open West. I have no problem getting faxes. Too bad I don't want them. Apparently my number used to be a business. And whatever business it was regularly got faxes at 2AM.

BTSmant | Apr 19, 2007 | 1:24AM

It is like original sin: the damage was done before we were born...long before...............................

However we missed "making our A's' we can make our "Gentleman's "C's" and win the day.

Internet experience and actualities have materialized to the point where most of us can gras it and make corrections.......................

Tiered service is only one concept... there are many things most commonsense, fairplay, equalrights Americans would HATE....unconstitutional and illegal, as soon as the behaviors are brought to work in the mainstream........................

If we are truly American, we should actively campaign for a cleaner fairer time of it.
VERY actively, since errors buried deep will need digging out to fix........................

What do we do?
My little art gallery is patriotic but gentil, and
little effected by whatever goes on for the bigger fellas.....except for the gets fetid from such errors left unfixed........................

I am not a cynic, but a believer, and when it reaches my desk, I stand up nicely, but that's all
I can do........................

I would like more reading with fact and even graphics that I could post and share at my tech page...and remain objective and believing in the power to win. I signed the net neutrality thing at eBay, and I will more, as is sane, when approached........................

2007 Artisan from Connecticut
White House State Easter Egg Display.......................

elle fagan | Apr 19, 2007 | 9:05PM

Correction: I re-read the information at sunrocket's site, they now claim to support and allow faxing using their service.

I ordered my fiber without phone service for now. I will wait and see if my service improves with the increased bandwidth on the new connection.


Exothermicus | Apr 24, 2007 | 8:05PM