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Prioritizing Traffic On The Internet: Why Change What Works?

One of the great things about the internet is that most Americans don’t need to spend too much time thinking about how it actually works. Most of the time, barring some technical issues or weather damage to infrastructure, it just … works. It’s not like those early 20th-century cars where motorists had to be auto mechanics as well as drivers.

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The basic function of the internet is to get packets of data from one place to another. Network managers spend huge amounts of time and money to be sure this happens correctly, so users may simply get the information they need quickly and with minimum disruption.

Understanding this, government regulators have long understood that certain types of data, certain packets, need priority. Real-time medical scans, battlefield reconnaissance and streaming sports programming degrade significantly with even minimal latency, while email or movie downloads can wait a few extra milliseconds without consumer harm.

The simple fact is that not all packets are equal, just as not all vehicles are equal on the highways. Drivers pull aside to let an ambulance pass, because it has (and deserves) priority.

The analogies are not exact, but they help illustrate why data prioritization of itself is not a bad thing but is indeed something essential to the smooth functioning of the internet. Prioritization is not a new thing; it is part of the internet’s structure.

As network speeds have risen, questions about priority of data have only grown in importance. Policies to optimize transmission of data have become, as Richard Bennett of the High Tech Forum notes, “not only commonplace but essential.” As we move into the era of 5G speeds and the Internet of Things, getting those packets to the right place precisely when they need to will require ever-more careful network management.

In a recent hearing on data and the internet, Rep. Greg Walden sensibly stated that “(in) a basic sense, prioritization has nothing to do with traffic speed, but rather it’s putting certain bits over others to ensure that all packets arrive at their destination on time. A complete ban on prioritization would not permit this and would not allow some services and applications to operate smoothly.”

For an example of how this works in practice, consider Aira, a company that makes glasses for the blind that offer instant video feedback. Surely everyone can agree that the data packets transferred through Aira technology deserve priority, deserve to get to the glasses more quickly than others. There are many similar examples — think of robots performing remote surgery in a war zone — and there will be many more as the Internet of Things becomes a reality.

For those things to happen, the internet community needs to understand that the concept of priority is not a bad thing and that countless reasonable content delivery rationales exist for prudent prioritization. Yet in 2015 the Federal Communications Commission decided to regulate these through a “Mother, may I?” principle, by applying a general conduct standard that would have required service providers to first seek permission from the government before adopting a particular innovation.

The internet, and online innovation, move too fast for prior government review and permissions of something as dynamic as network management. Instead, policy makers should encourage innovation by letting network managers decide how to prioritize the packets that need priority.

Of course government officials must remain engaged to protect against anti-competitive behavior and ensure core open internet principles. No blocking or throttling of traffic based on content. No unfair discrimination or censorship based on content. Strong privacy protections for consumers that apply throughout the internet ecosystem on an equal basis for everyone.

One last point: increasing internet speeds takes investment. And don’t confuse the speed of the internet with the speed at which a web page loads; even as speeds increase, one analysis shows that “performance has remained stagnant.” For an understanding of performance, look to how web pages, not Internet Service Providers, actually handle traffic.

So, priority is not something bad; it’s essential to the internet. Add in legal protections for an open internet, and solving this one should be easy. For Congress, it should be a priority.

  • Mehlman is founding co-chairman of the D.C.-based Internet Innovation Alliance and previously served as assistant secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy.

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