Mark Goldberg

Fox Group Dispatch

Taking a neutral position

In my Twitter feed, Libby Jacobson linked to an interesting read about net neutrality: “Taking a Neutral position: How you spot an arts graduate in a tech debate“. The article by Andrew Orlowski in The Register was subtitled “Sorry lawyers, but the Packet Pixie doesn’t really exist”.

As the article indicates, “Earlier this month Ofcom quietly published a fascinating technical study which helped highlight this: casting light on the difference between the arts grad approach to network management and policy, and the hard numerical reality.” The Ofcom study, “Traffic Management Detection Methods & Tools” [download full report ], raises some important questions about the tools that many industry observers use when complaining about inappropriate traffic management.

It is inherently impossible to detect directly the specific application of differential treatment (other than by inspecting the configuration of network elements). Even when there is such an intention, it may not have any effect, depending on the particular circumstances of load, etc..

The report’s conclusions are important:

The success of packet-based statistically-multiplexed networks such as the Internet is dependent on sharing resources dynamically. This dynamic sharing is ubiquitous, occurring at every WiFi access point, mobile base station and switch/router port. Each of these multiplexing points allocates its resources in response to the instantaneous demand placed upon it, which can typically exceed the available supply.

Poor performance may have many causes, including the overall network architecture and topology, capacity planning and in-life management. ‘Traffic Management’ is only part of the equation.

Presumably for this reason, traffic management detection (TMD) has been pursued almost entirely from an academic perspective. Given the complexity of the relationship between desired outcomes and actual behaviour, inferring an intention from observed outcomes is effectively impossible. Rather than trying to address this general problem, most TMD starts from assumed intentions mediated by assumed particular TM techniques and then attempts to deduce whether or not certain observations are consistent with such assumptions. However, even positive results do not prove a deliberate intent to introduce bias; given the overall complexity of relating intentions to outcomes, demonstrating a differential outcome does not demonstrate an intent to produce that outcome.

The Ofcom report concludes, “no tool or combination of tools currently available is suitable for effective practical use.”

Orlowski says, “‘Net neutrality’ turns out to be a completely inappropriate metaphor to describe the physical reality of packet networking. Such awareness of the physical reality is what separates network techies and engineers from the typically arts or social-sciences qualified advocates who campaign for ‘net neutrality’.”

The articles are important reading for regulators and advocates on all sides of the debate.

Mobile alerting

In March, I expressed my disappointment with the architecture that has been deployed in many communities to accommodate text with 9-1-1 service. I wrote, “Regrettably, I am not convinced this is a service that truly meets the needs of the community it is intended to serve.”

There is a risk that we may see similar issues with the mobile industry delivering a solution for emergency alerting. In early June, the CRTC “congratulated the Canadian wireless industry for having developed specifications to deliver emergency alert messages affecting life and property to Canadians through their cellphones.”

However, the congratulatory note seems to indicate that the solution may not offer alerting capabilities to all mobile users in Canada.

There are two different technologies being used for the dissemination of mobile phone alert messages; Cell Broadcast, and Enhanced SMS. Cell Broadcast is an LTE capability that requires the subscriber to have a handset that is both capable and have the feature turned on.

According to the CRTC’s note, “Mobile devices that support the specification will be able to receive and display emergency alert messages in English and French.” This qualifying statement seems to indicate that the emergency alerting architecture may not be available to all mobile handsets.

On the other hand, Enhanced SMS can reach 100% of handsets on day one, including mobile users from outside Canada. The technology can allow alerts to be as focused as a single base station, and the alerting administrator can know exactly how many handsets are in the target area and how many received the alert. Among other benefits, Enhanced SMS can recognize a foreign visitor’s handset and translate the alert message into their native tongue. It can monitor the alert target area for a predefined amount of time and alert any new arrivals into the target zone without re-alerting the original population.

While cell broadcast may be appealing as part of the newest LTE technology deployment, we need to consider backward compatibility to maximize coverage for the alerts. We need to consider those Canadians who do not yet have access to the latest handsets and ensure that they also will be able to receive emergency alert messages. And, we need to consider a more diverse set of language capabilities to serve visitors to Canada’s multi-cultural mosaic.

Zero is better than nothing

Roslyn Layton posted an article this morning “Zero rating: Who bears the cost of bans?” that is a worthwhile read.

…those who wish to ban zero rating assert that all mobile plans must be “affordable full access,” and that anything less would be robbing consumers of the complete Internet experience. But this is tantamount to mandating that everyone fly first class.

Clearly, this one-size-fits-all attitude ignores the fact that consumers have widely varying needs and preferences. In the same way that people want to pick and choose their cable channels, they want the same freedom when it comes to their Internet service.

Earlier this year, I wrote about “Intellectual purity of technology over people” and “Connecting the unconnected“, taking a look at a variety of approaches being pursued to provide introductory internet connectivity to people who cannot otherwise afford devices or broadband service.

Should carriers and applications be restricted in exploring business models that increase adoption of digital technology and services? Or, as [Facebook founder, Mark] Zuckerberg asks, will an “extreme definition of net neutrality” put “the intellectual purity of technology above people’s needs?”

A few years ago, in a piece called “Restricting trade“, I wrote “It is difficult to understand how consumers can benefit from restrictions in the types of offers available to them.”

Almost 2 million Canadian households still don’t have a broadband connection and most of them are located in urban centres. As I wrote in May, “Affordable broadband isn’t just a rural issue“.

Canada continues to have a problem with broadband adoption in low-income households, whether urban or rural, despite government programs continuing to define digital adoption as a problem framed in terms of geography, not affordability. Pricing discrimination, including zero-rating, should be considered as we recognize the challenges of broadband affordability among low-income households.

It is going to take creativity from all stakeholders to develop solutions for universal connectivity; why would we limit the options under a guise of “intellectual purity’?

Competition counterpoints

Over the past few weeks, there have been a series of opinion pieces in the Financial Post triggered by the CRTC’s decision to mandate wholesale access to “incumbent” ISP’s investment in fibre to the home.

I thought it might be worthwhile to provide links to the exchange of points and counterpoints.

It got started with Terence Corcoran writing “Canada’s competing competition anachronisms“, which concluded:

The big unknown in the CRTC’s decisions, as with those of the Competition Bureau, is how much their essentially arbitrary activities impose in costs on the economy. They keep making regulations, changing the industrial structure of the country, without ever having to justify their existence beyond frequent and repetitive streams of economic jargon on the merits of a limited definition of competition.

George Burger of VMedia responded with an OpEd entitled “Counterpoint: Regulate the Internet as a utility“, concluding with:

When the public has choice and is offered fairly priced goods and services, as is the case with the bookselling industry, no regulation is needed. Where there is no choice, and the public is victimized, existing levels of regulation may not be enough.

Andy Baziliauskas and Frank Mathewson of Charles River Associates and University of Toronto respectively responded with a piece called “Don’t over-regulate the Internet

As consumers, we naturally want the lowest prices possible for Internet services, but we also want quality and innovation. We also want our providers to make sure that their networks can handle our ever increasing demand for bandwidth. If [the internet is regulated as a utility], we may see lower prices in the short term, but in the longer term there will be less investment in network infrastructure, which will mean less innovation by incumbents and much poorer Internet delivery for Canadian consumers.

On Twitter earlier today, George Burger promised a response. I will post a link when it is available.

[Update: 12:30 pm] VMedia posted a response to the Charles River piece, “Incumbent Consultants Target VMedia, Fire Blanks.”

In view of the direct attack on VMedia, we felt compelled to respond and set the record straight. We submitted our response to the Post, but it declined to publish it. We respect the Post’s editorial judgment, but we do feel a public response to the Charles Rivers piece is required.

I encourage my readers to read the collection of opinion pieces. As always, your comments are welcomed.

Putting family first

I have always had jobs that allowed me to put my family first.

That was a priority for me in choosing a career path. I was fortunate to have bosses who understood and who made accommodations to help me keep family first.

Of course, a few times, work priorities meant making compromises. There were a few months that I was working out of the Washington DC area on a proposal to the US Government, so my employer flew my young family to the Detroit area to stay with my mother-in-law to be an extra set of hands. I flew in for my daughter’s second birthday party and then flew back to DC to continue work on the proposal.

A few years later, in the midst of preparing for the hearings that led to the introduction of competition in Canadian telecom, the lawyers were put on hold while I popped back into Toronto for a couple hours to go to a special kindergarten presentation. The teacher commented to my wife that she thought it was great that I had the kind of job that allowed me to come to school in the middle of the day.

I was somewhat surprised to see a tweet from CBC that appears to mock a decision by Joe Natale to put his family priorities first:

Putting family first may not be the path for everyone, but I have no regrets about having chosen that for myself. When I started consulting, I was able to choose projects based on whether they allowed me to maintain the kind of work-life balance that was important to me. I am grateful for that.

We often see women put their careers on pause for family reasons; maybe it is unusual for people to see a man make a similar choice. That is too bad, but I don’t think it is really that unusual.

TELUS is a better company because Joe Natale was a part of the senior leadership for the past dozen years.

CBC shouldn’t be asking if you would choose to move to Vancouver to be CEO of TELUS. The right question to ask is whether you would put your career ahead of your family. Would you choose family responsibilities over a job…. even if the job is CEO of a major company?

How would you choose?