February 8, 2015

Why Net Neutrality Will Cost Lives

Proponents of internet righteousness insist that net neutrality is the only just and proper operating principle.  Ignorant of important design considerations, they wish to bring down the heavy hammer of government regulation to thwart would-be evil doers.

It is not an exaggeration to assert that net neutrality regulation will cost lives.  I will explain why that is so.

Net neutrality is commonly defined as equal treatment for all data, regardless of content, type, source or consumer.

"All data" means much more than just web site and video content.  Email is a well known example.  There are many others on a rapidly growing list.

The internet is designed to move arbitrary data from any connected source to any connected recipient.  For some purposes, it is aptly termed a "data highway."  This helps us understand it by analogy with more familiar physical highways.

Physical highways facilitate movement of arbitrary vehicles from any adjacent location to any other adjacent location.  Their performance depends on both regulation and carrying capacity.  Highway regulations reflect decades of experience with vehicle types and traffic patterns.  Many have instructive analogs in the internet world.

During non-congested periods, speed limit largely determines how quickly a vehicle can get to its destination.  It reflects officialdom's view of the best tradeoff between safety and speed for "ordinary" traffic.  Trucks may get a lower speed limit, and some may be prohibited from using the highway altogether.  Non-motorized and "slow" vehicles are prohibited from serious highways.  Law enforcement and emergency vehicles are exempted from speed limits as necessary to perform their duties.  Even under ideal conditions, we understand that we cannot treat all vehicles the same as a matter of policy.

With congested conditions, a myriad of additional highway regulations kick in.  We have fast lanes set aside for vehicles deemed especially desirable.  On-ramp metering lights attempt to prevent congestion from becoming gridlock.  Drivers are required to get out of the way of emergency vehicles as best they can.  Nobody would say they should be prohibited from doing so!

A data packet is the analog of a vehicle on the internet's "data highway."  As with physical vehicles, data packets come in a wide range of sizes and serve a wide variety of purposes.  A data transfer may be sent in a single packet, an email perhaps, or smaller amounts of data in many packets that together might convey a streaming video.  Email works fine even if delayed in transmission.  Streaming video is unusable if successive packets fail to arrive timely.

Of course, data packets are not like physical vehicles in some ways.  They do not propel themselves, do not select the route they will take to their destination, and have no driver.  The network handles these functions as follows:

Each packet contains the address to which it should be delivered, rather like a vehicle with its intended destination stamped on its license plate.  During non-congested periods,  each network node reads the destination address of each packet it receives, then transfers the packet to an adjacent node of its own choosing that is closer to the destination.

When congestion arises, arriving packets are held in queues awaiting their turn in the transmission stream.  If a packet is directed to a queue that is already full, it is dropped and will never reach its destination.  What happens next depends on the original sender and intended recipient, and the purpose of their communication.  A common response is to resend the lost packet.  However, they may take other corrective action, or ignore the event altogether.

Here we see that, as with vehicles on a highway, data packets inherently have different importance associated with their purpose and intended use.

Do some internet data packets correspond to ordinary highway traffic, and others to emergency vehicles?  Yes!  Today's situation is quite compelling.  The future is likely to be even more so.

When an emergency vehicle is called, its operator must respond as quickly as possible.  Highway congestion may make that time longer, but the operator has no better alternative.  Increased response time unavoidably increases risk.  On a statistical basis, sometimes the response will not be fast enough to save a patient's life.

Similarly, a doctor may urgently require a specialist's image analysis to treat a patient in critical condition.  If he is at a remote location, an internet connection may be the best alternative.  Doctor and patient will have to take their chances with internet performance statistics.  Their chances will be better if the doctor and specialist (or their institutions) have contracted for premium quality internet service.  Risk of patient death will increase if such contracts are prohibited by net neutrality regulations.

Today's internet connections are pretty good for many purposes most of the time.  If not prohibited by regulation, a massive fleet of "emergency vehicle" packets on the internet has potential to save and enhance countless lives.  A net neutrality requirement to treat all data packets equally would snuff out this potential.

Some applications require better connections than are common today.  Musicians dream of collaborating in real time performance from diverse locations.  The latency (delay) of today's connections makes that impractical.  Imagine an expert surgeon remotely operating surgical equipment while monitoring a video image.  The image must be immediate, not delayed, and must reliably persist throughout the surgery.  Imagine a car about to drive onto a railroad track.  A track sensor sends the car warning of an oncoming train, and the car automatically brakes.  Such applications will never materialize in an environment that prohibits "emergency vehicle" treatment of data packets, and squelches funding for networks capable of delivering.