Content Delivery Networks and Network Neutrality: Net Is Not Neutral

Much discussion about network neutrality seems to assume that the issue is bit or application "blocking," and from one perspective that is correct. The existing Federal Communications Commission rules about a users' right to use all lawful applications already prohibit blocking of legal applications on wired networks. The issue is whether those rules, and the other "Internet Freedoms" principles also should be extended to the wireless domain.

In another sense, popular perceptions are misguided or worse. There is a separate issue, that of whether it ever is permissible, for any legal reason, to shape traffic, either to maintain network performance, provide an enhanced service to a user, or create a new level of service.

Some will maintain there are other ways of maintaining end user experience aside from traffic shaping. That is arguably correct, but might cost so much that the entire consumer access pricing regime has to change in ways people will find objectionable.

Some argue that any traffic shaping of legal bits should be banned, because such practices have undesirable business impact. "No bits should have any priority," that line of reasoning suggests.

One might simply note that about 60 percent of video bits--almost universally served up by media companies--already enjoys such "unequal treatment." Indeed, that is the purpose of a content delivery network: to expedite the delivery of some bits, compared to others, so that a better end user experience is possible.

In fact, about $1.4 billion was spent in 2008 precisely to deliver such expedited bits. The U.S. market currently generates an estimated 55.8 percent of the global CDN traffic, though international traffic is now increasing at a faster rate than its domestic counterpart, according to Research and Markets.

And though video delivery historically has been the CDN staple, new growth areas include whole site delivery, dynamic content, "live" video, high-definition video, mobile and smartphone applications, other non-PC devices and adaptive bit rate streaming, Research and Markets notes.

Of the 22.5 billion professional video views served during 2009, Akamai delivered 31.9 percent, Limelight Networks 12 percent and Level 3 11.2 percent, says Research and Markets.. Additional CDNs active in the market include CD Networks, Velocix, Liquid Compass, Abacast, Mirror Image, Edgecast Networks, Highwinds, BitGravity, Cotendo and Internap, the firm notes.

The point is that preferential delivery of bits already is an established part of the way the Internet works. Private network users, especially businesses, also commonly set up traffic priority systems for their internal communications and content, as well.

The ability of a consumer end user to choose to use such services and applications is one of the implications of the network neutrality debate that often is lost. To reiterate, preferential treatment of bits already is happening on a wide scale, and for very good reasons: to preserve end user experience. Perhaps we ought not to be in such a rush to foreclose practices and capabilities of obvious value.
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