Net Neutrality

Bit Miles Won't Balance Net Neutrality Debate

Interconnection deals are a still a hot topic in the net neutrality debate. In an ideal world, when two networks interconnect, both operators share the responsibility and cost of delivering data from one network to the other. But in reality, the resource load isn't always evenly balanced -- one operator may dump a lot more traffic on to its partner's network than the other -- and that's where complaints about performance and fair treatment of data traffic come into play. (See No Heroes in the Battle for the Net.)

In one effort to level the playing field, Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT) has come up with a system for basing network interconnection agreements on the concept of "bit mile balance." In a noteworthy deal with Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) earlier this month, Level 3 instituted settlement-free peering with the Internet giant (i.e., no-cost interconnections between the companies' networks). But more importantly, the two partners also backed that agreement up with a promise to try to maintain an equitable balance of traffic. (See Level 3 Seals Bit Mile Peering Deal With Google.)

The companies are measuring equality by taking into account both traffic volume and the distance that traffic has to travel. If one company finds itself carrying more traffic than the other, then the partner company can counter that imbalance by moving the connection point to where traffic is delivered closer to the first company's end users. (See Net Neutrality: Level 3 Sees Peering Progress Soon.)

Crude illustration by editor Mari Silbey of how to solve for bit mile balance by decreasing the distance traffic has to travel
Crude illustration by editor Mari Silbey of how to solve for bit mile balance by decreasing the distance traffic has to travel

The fact that Level 3 and Google were able to come to an agreement using the bit mile balance concept is a big deal.

"We think it's really good for consumers. It just means that they're just going to get a better performance," says a Level 3 spokesperson, adding that he thinks "It's meaningful as well because Google is obviously a big and very smart company, and for them to say that this bit mile model makes sense and that it's equitable, we think is a really good validation."

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stated as part of its Open Internet Order that it will keep an eye on interconnection agreements to make sure they're "just and reasonable." But if the network operators have no complaints, then there will be no reason for the regulatory agency to get involved. (See Net Neutrality Rules Pass on Interconnection.)

Of course the big question is: How might the concept of bit mile balance impact the delivery of online video services like Netflix to consumers? Unfortunately, the answer is: Not too much.

For more fixed broadband market coverage and insights, check out our dedicated Gigabit/Broadband content channel here on Light Reading.

Level 3 acknowledges that Internet providers like Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) aren't interested in measuring bit miles because they really only care about the traffic that's delivered on to their last-mile networks. Most ISPs don't operate backbone networks, so they're not transferring a lot of content away from their own network infrastructure. That makes it hard to equalize any traffic exchange.

Just the fact that the FCC said it would look into interconnection agreements was enough to push many ISPs and transit providers like Level 3 and Cogent Communications Holdings Inc. (Nasdaq: CCOI) into new deals last spring. (See Interconnect Deals Bear Net Neutrality's Stamp.)

However, whether the FCC has the authority to preside over interconnection disputes has come into question as net neutrality opponents appeal the Open Internet Order in court and seek to restrict the agency's powers in Congress.

For now, the long-term interconnection agreements signed last year should help keep the peace as ISPs continue to contend with the Netflix dilemma (i.e., video flooding onto their last-mile networks). But if those agreements break down, or when it comes time for renewal, the fight is likely to heat up again. And while bit mile measurements look like a great option for deals between transit providers, unless and until ISPs are sending as much traffic upstream as they're receiving downstream, bit mile balance won't neutralize the net neutrality debate.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

Joe Stanganelli 1/26/2016 | 12:08:57 PM
The year was 2016, and everyone was finally equal. There's a lot of talk about the "fairness" of two companies pooling their resources.  But it ignores the fundamental fact that when you're a big company with more resources, you have...well...more resources.  And nothing is restricting smaller companies from pooling likewise.

There's too much Harrison-Bergeron sentimentality going on in this net-neutrality debate for my tastes.  I'm not particularly concerned with making it easier for smaller providers to compete (so long as their ability to compete is not directly and actually interfered with).  That's why it's called competition.
KBode 1/26/2016 | 12:04:38 PM
Re: On a positive note... Yeah the threat of enforcement is ok, but eventually with no actual enforcement I imagine things will go back to instances of phantom congestion and everybody finger pointing at the other party again. Like zero rating I assume the agency's hoping the courts uphold its rules so it can actually crack down on instances of outright anti-competitive behavior (which I still think the last-mile residential ISPs were engaged in). 
msilbey 1/26/2016 | 11:29:18 AM
Re: On a positive note... Agreed. Though I still wish there were a better way to ensure these deals get done fairly and in consumers' best interests. i.e. with some kind of actual oversight
KBode 1/26/2016 | 11:11:09 AM
On a positive note... On a positive note, it really does seem like the threat of net neutrality enforcement quited down the fracas over interconnection notably during the last six months or so. Deals are being struck all over the place relatively quickly, and all that talk about manufactured congestion at peering points appears to have evaporated.
thebulk 1/26/2016 | 12:44:11 AM
Nice, but..... I think the L3 and Google deal seems good, but they are both massive companies with massive networks so it's fairly easy for them to do this, it seems a smaller company would be at a disatvantage when trying to partner with a larger network under an agreement like this one.
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