Electric networks and net neutrality

Tim Wu of Columbia University compares the internet to the neutrality of electric utility grid. With electricity, he says, you don’t have to ask the electric company for permission to plug in whatever device you want. It is an interesting metaphor that is worth examining.

Let’s look at some reasons why I’m not convinced the metaphor fits:

  • Electric networks are generally uni-directional, and certainly not peer-to-peer. Virtually all of us are consumers of electricity, not generators. I suspect that when I choose to install a wind turbine in my backyard and I try to send some of the power over to my friend across town, and only my friend, it will need a little bit of effort from the electrical network. And try to send a bigger chunk of the power to a business colleague around the world – simultaneously.
  • There are exceptions to simple plug-and-play electrical power. My electric dryer and my wife’s ceramics kiln won’t just plug into the wall. I have an electrician rewire. So much for application independence.
  • The electric grid sometimes does interfere with my applications. Look at summer brown-outs, smart meters and systems that disable clothes dryers and air conditioners during peak periods.

Electricity is generally a metered service. I wonder how many of the network management challenges of retail internet access are created by the all-you-can-eat flat rate business model. But please don’t tell me the answer is to change the business model of retail internet sales to pay-as-you-go. If you want to enter the ISP business and offer that model, go ahead. But we don’t get to make those kinds of business decisions for other people – specifically ISPs.

Environmental concerns are further leading to an evolution in the electric grid that will challenge its neutrality. Already, people distinguish between essential and unprotected applications: which devices need to be connected to back-up power. If you are in your office, look for the orange electrical outlet.

The near future may see significant changes to the way power is delivered – interruptible power to certain demanding appliances – transforming the application neutrality of the electric grid because we can no longer afford such a luxury. Forcing us to dial down our major electricity consuming appliances sounds similar to traffic shaping those movie and music downloads, doesn’t it?

Still, there is something attractive about network neutrality as a “network design principle” as Professor Wu describes. Can there be agreement that not all bits can always be treated the same.

Consumer information may be the best way to manage expectations.

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