George Ou: Protocol Agnostic doesn’t mean Protocol Agnostic
George Ou: Protocol Agnostic doesn’t mean Protocol Agnostic
George Ou: Protocol Agnostic doesn’t mean Protocol Agnostic

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    George Ou, the former Technical Director of ZDNet, has found a new job where he continues to lead the technology sector by publishing innovative thoughts and ideas – sometimes not necessarily his own. Today he is writing to the FCC about Comcast’s experimental “Protocol Agnostic” congestion management method.

    George Ou: “The new system will attempt to fairly distribute bandwidth amongst users instead of amongst protocols so that it can be completely accurate and fair.”

    So imagine my lack of surprise when I recognize my own concerns echoed in his latest filing

    George Ou: “Imagine a user who simultaneously uses P2P and VoIP and they've manually reserved about 100 Kbps to their VoIP application by capping their P2P speeds to 2900 Kbps out of a 3000 Kbps connection. But during rare congested times, the ISP can only fairly allocate 2000 Kbps of bandwidth to that users [sic]. Does that mean the P2P application should get throttled to 1933 Kbps while the VoIP application gets throttled to 67 Kbps? If we wrongly assumed that protocol agnostic means all applications get equally throttled, we would be making a grave error since throttling a VoIP stream to 67 Kbps when it needs a minimum of 87 Kbps would simply break the VoIP application completely and the phone call is effectively blocked.”

    This is a tortured explanation of my very concern! I mentioned it in forum messages. I described it to the IETF last month in a message. I said, “In particular, I'm concerned with possible scenarios such as someone who is mid-upload of 1100 European vacation pictures (all at 8 Megapixel) when her husband has a medical emergency. She dials 9-1-1 on Vonage or whatever non-Comcast VOIP device. Comcast delays and drops her packets as the new system places her VOIP call behind long packet queues created by other activity in her neighborhood.”

    George Ou’s technical solution for Comcast’s Protocol Agnostic bugginess? Don’t be protocol agnostic!

    George Ou: “Fairness however does not mean that all protocols should be throttled equally by the network management system, especially when it's intra-user throttling or throttling between applications being used by the same broadband account.”

    So, according to George, Comcast is going to detect VOIP and prioritize it over the other traffic. Cool, huh? No, because in order to do this, Comcast has to look at the contents of all of your packets using Deep Packet Inspection to guess as to whether they’re P2P (bad), Comcast Digital Voice (really, really good), Hulu (competition), Vonage (competition), or (trouble-making). It doesn't always work, as Lotus-Notes users found.

    Don't condemn George for this lapse of logic, because it — like a few of his other ideas — really belongs to Richard Bennett, who said to NetworkWorld, “Even in this case where the FCC has banned the used of application-based discrimination, it's perfectly reasonable for ISPs to discriminate against applications on behalf of a particular user.” Bennett continued, “Say you've got two customers, and one is using VoIP and the other is using BitTorrent. You're going to need to give VoIP traffic preference over BitTorrent in order to ensure quality of service.”

    Scorecards — can't tell the players without a scorecard!

    George has shown that Comcast's proposed Protocol Agnostic scheme has unacceptable side effects — repeating my disapproval to the IETF only weeks ago. Or, from his point of view, I repeated his findings a few weeks before he made them! Either way, he's done a service and I welcome the fact that he sees the same peril that I do. We disagree as to the solution.

    This is a problem of network congestion and the problem is as old as the Internet itself. We don't need DPI or fancy-sounding schemes to fix the problem. What we need is network management the old-fashioned way — don't sell more product than you have to offer and upgrade your network ahead of demand.

    The Internet is a world-wide network based on a set of accepted Standards. An ISP who invents its own proprietary schemes threatens to break other standards-following applications like Vonage (and who-knows-what-else?). Comcast needs to Stop the Insanity and return our net to the protocol-agnostic Standards-compatible way it was meant to be.

    Thanks for calling this to our attention, George, and keep your eyes on your own paper!

    Glad to be in the clique,

    Robb Topolski