December 15, 2008

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So the Wall Street Journal runs Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web, by Vinesh Kumar and Christopher Rhoads. It’s dated today, but hit the Web yesterday. Among other things it says,

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same — nobody is supposed to jump the line.

I declined to post on this yesterday because I suspected that this was simply a matter of edge caching: locating services as close to users as possible, to minimize network latencies and maximize accessibility. Akamai‘s whole business is based on this kind of thing. Much of what we now call the “cloud” — including conveniences provided by Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others — are back-end utilities that benefit from relative proximity to users. It’s all part of what Nick Carr calls The Big Switch.

As Richard Whitt of Google puts it here,

Edge caching is a common practice used by ISPs and application and content providers in order to improve the end user experience. Companies like Akamai, Limelight, and Amazon’s Cloudfront provide local caching services, and broadband providers typically utilize caching as part of what are known as content distribution networks (CDNs). Google and many other Internet companies also deploy servers of their own around the world.

By bringing YouTube videos and other content physically closer to end users, site operators can improve page load times for videos and Web pages. In addition, these solutions help broadband providers by minimizing the need to send traffic outside of their networks and reducing congestion on the Internet’s backbones. In fact, caching represents one type of innovative network practice encouraged by the open Internet.

Google has offered to “colocate” caching servers within broadband providers’ own facilities; this reduces the provider’s bandwidth costs since the same video wouldn’t have to be transmitted multiple times. We’ve always said that broadband providers can engage in activities like colocation and caching, so long as they do so on a non-discriminatory basis.

All of Google’s colocation agreements with ISPs — which we’ve done through projects called OpenEdge and Google Global Cache — are non-exclusive, meaning any other entity could employ similar arrangements. Also, none of them require (or encourage) that Google traffic be treated with higher priority than other traffic. In contrast, if broadband providers were to leverage their unilateral control over consumers’ connections and offer colocation or caching services in an anti-competitive fashion, that would threaten the open Internet and the innovation it enables.

But there is a political side to this. The WSJ is playing the Gotcha! game here, “catching” Google jumping “the line” across which its postion on Net Neutrality is compromised. According to Whitt, it’s not.

Net Neutrality as a topic is complex and politically charged. One can argue with Google’s position on the topic. But I don’t believe one can argue that edge caching deals are a compromise of that position, simply because these deals are nothing new, and do nothing to squeeze other companies out of doing the same kind of thing (so long as Google doesn’t make the deals exclusive, which it says it’s not doing).

Hat tip to my colleague Steve Schultze, who is on top of this stuff far more than I am.

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