Friday, December 3, 2010

Comcast and L3

I always read the comments on online news. I think it's a wonderful view into the process of society moving. Interactions, the spread of ideas: it's all stored in 1's and 0's for us to examine.

The internet feels nebulous, but it's built on very real hardware spread across the world. No one entity owns the internet, instead millions of companies and billions of people each own a little piece. The science and technology of the connections, the mathematics of the virtual information speeding down copper wires, the economic transactions between billions that makes it all work: it's an interesting topic, but in many ways an esoteric one. Like most other things in moden society, a small group of people specialize deeply in each aspect, and make it work.

So it's interesting when the small details are brought to the broader attention of the public. This happened recently in an ongoing dispute between Comcast and L3. Each presented a different set of facts to the public, and in online news and the related comments sections I've watched as consensuses formed. First, there was anger at Comcast, and accusations this was about stopping Netflix from replacing cable tv. Then Comcast's arguments were considered, and the discussion turned towards absolving Comcast. Maybe L3 was in the wrong here? People taught each other about peering and CDN's, short arguments were developed explaining sides, and last I saw people were solidifying their views, the debate seeming to be won by the L3 side, but with moderate disagreement as is always true in a controversy.

The very short of it is that Comcast, provider of internet to residential areas, and L3, who owns heavy duty connections between far flung ISPs, had a peering agreement. This said that since they were sending about the same amount of data to each other, there was no need to calculate detailed bills. It was a wash, they carried each others data for free. Netflix contracted L3 to stream movies for it, Comcast claimed L3 now owed it money, and L3 said Comcast is just trying to block Netflix.

It's murky, because there are two types of data transfers. If a Comcast customer sends an email to Verizon, and it travels across the L3 network, L3 gets paid. Comcast is paid by its customer, Verizon by its customer, but nobody is paying L3. In contrast, if Comcast and Verizon are directly connected, it's not clear either should pay. Even if Comcast is sending far more emails to Verizon, it's in both companies interest to make sure the email gets through. If not, both have angry customers.

So in that regard, Comcast is sending data across L3, but L3 is supplying Comcast with data it's customers explicitly requested. Comcast argues that the previous Netflix provider did provide them, and that L3 is looking for a unfair advantage. L3, and before it Aakamai, are acting as CDNs, Content Distribution Networks.

But again, the term is ambiguous. In one sense, both L3 and Akamai distributed content, so they're in the same business. But they did it dramatically differently. Aakamia essentially paid Comcast to host the content, acting as a middle man. L3 already has networks across the country, so it just places the computers on its network. In a sense, the computers just move a few miles. But now, they're moving around like the rest of the content on the internet, a middle man was just removed.

It's these subtle distinctions that define the situation. Is a CDN distributed content hosting, or is it a specific way of doing it, purchasing service from your customer's ISP? Is "peering" just traffic that passes across a network elsewhere, or does it include traffic destined for the other network. But these distinctions have the potential to dramatically change who makes billions and who goes under, what sort of internet you get and for what costs, even whether things like high fidelity video conferencing will change business or not.

It's been heartening to watch thousands of people online all unraveling, at least a little, the interconnections and implications of the topic.

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