Net neutrality and Internet QoS in Sri Lanka redux

Lirneasia’s post on Net Neutrality by Chanuka Wattegama stimulated a lot of debate on the pros and cons of net neutrality from a Sri Lankan perspective. In Net Neutrality: Economics and implications for ICT4Peace and ODR I fleshed out some of the implications of Net Neutrality, and Chanuka’s stance on it, for web and internet traffic related to peacebuilding and Online Dispute Resolution. In it I also critiqued Chanuka’s assertion that ” that heavy users should pay for the additional bandwidth they use” would in any way help address Quality of Service (QoS) issues stemming from the lack of international bandwidth (or more accurately, the high cost associated with better bandwidth) in Sri Lanka.

My post prompted the head honcho of Lirneasia to suggest that it really had no position on Net Neutrality. My response to that assertion was followed by another post by Chanuka on Lirneasia’s site, suggesting the debate on net neutrality was of enduring interest in Sri Lanka.

Like Plusnet in the UK, Comcast (in response to the FCC’s ruling) has now come out with what seems to be a sensible, protocol agnostic, traffic management plan. Though different to Vint Cerf’s model of managing traffic on the internet, the Comcast plan looks very interesting on paper. As Ars Technica notes,

Comcast’s new technique is based on a simple premise: during periods of congestion, heavy users of bandwidth on a local node ought to see speed reductions before light users. To make that happen, the system tracks each customer’s uploads and downloads separately using software from Sandvine that runs on Linux servers (Comcast stresses to us that this is not deep packet inspection software, but basic “shallow inspection” code that simply counts packets.)

When any port (think neighborhood node) on the Cable Modem Termination System (CMTS) in the local cable company office enters a “near congestion” state, the system looks up the heaviest users of bandwidth during the preceding few minutes. Those users then have their traffic tagged as “Best Effort” rather than the default “Priority Best Effort.” At this point, nothing happens to anyone’s traffic.

When congestion actually occurs, the Priority Best Effort users should see no slowdown in their connections; all traffic will go through ahead of the Best Effort traffic. Best Effort folks may not notice any slowdown, either. They are not speed-limited, but they do go to the back of the quality of service (QoS) line. At this point, if traffic does in fact fill the pipe, users in the Best Effort category will experience delays in their connections, though their traffic will still be sent on whenever possible.

Emphasis mine. 

Deep packet inspection based traffic management is a route that spells disaster for freedom of expression on the web, particularly under repressive regimes that under the guise of say protecting citizenry from pornography can institute a strict regime of over-broad web filtering that censors inconvenient truths. 

Deane’s assertion on Lirneasia’s blog, that the market will look after itself without any regulation and that net neutrality is “American-progressive worry about the free market”, is ignorant of Lirneasia’s significant research on Internet QoS and how (Sri Lankan) telecoms companies will act against the interests of consumers, as noted by Janaka Beneragama and the comment here (though Janaka’s conflation of international bandwidth and unlimited downloads is just wrong).

Further, Lirneasia’s own field-testing of 3G “broadband” points to a glaring divide between marketing hype and reality.

In this context, Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT) on 12th September 2008, under a misleading PR titled SLTnet goes 3G, stated that, 

SLTnet, the internet arm of SLT which is the largest internet service provider (ISP) in Sri Lanka today offers up to 3 Giga bits per second (Gbps) international internet bandwidth, adding even more capacity to be of better serve to the nation… With this initiative, SLT provides internet users in Sri Lanka super fast access to online web applications such as web search, web mail, calendar, images, VoIP calling applications, audio, video and maps amongst a host of other most popular features on the internet…  SLT is happy to invite and facilitate the hosting of mirror sites of all popular international sites like Google, Yahoo, MSN, Facebook, Youtube etc., to improve the quality of services to Sri Lankan internet users and to help avoid the bottlenecks found in the international internet backbone.

I wonder what the policy analysts at Lirneasia would make of this announcement? On face value, it seems to respond to some of the key findings of the Ashoka-Tissa QoS survey. As noted by Chanuka, “What we saw from our research that limits in international bandwidth is the key reason for the poor broadband experiences in India and Sri Lanka.”  But the PR also has gems like this,

Also SLT is now in the process of further upgrading and improving the direct connectivity with social networking, web application and video service providers as and when the need for broader bandwidth arises.

which is utter nonsense. Let’s also not forget that two years ago, SLT promised us VDSL with speeds of 52Mbps.

In Patriotism and broadband in Sri Lanka I explored a similar announcement by Lanka Bell to strengthen its internet backbone. So in sum Lanka Bell has a 1.2 Terabit cable backbone and SLT now has a 3 Gigabits per second backbone. Dialog I believe has its own backbone.

This sounds like an awful lot of capacity. Yet, to date, my ADSL Office Express connection from SLT, however, shows absolutely no signs of improvement. Today, as on most Sundays, I got a maximum sustained download rate of 224.5kbps and a peak upload rate of 103kbps on a connection that promises much more and for which, may I add, I pay a premium. Tomorrow, after 8am and especially around 5pm, I know my transfer rates will be no better than my erstwhile dial-up modem. So where’s the real benefit to the consumer beyond the marketing spiel?

The issue of net neutrality for Sri Lanka is quite simply this. Sri Lankan telcos will, before investing on local infrastructure and international bandwidth, always default to traffic management to make do with what they already have across their customer base. Improvements to QoS will be infrequent. Being a small market (our entire broadband market is is dwarfed by broadband consumers in large Indian cities alone) yet one that increasingly creates, disseminates and accesses audio-visual content on and for the web, the demands placed on local ISPs to guarantee minimum data transfer rates will continue to grow. However, ISPs will continue to only guarantee maximum data transfer rates, capping and managing as they see fit our use of their pipes. Verbose FUPs will attempt to convince us that network management works in our favour, when the reality will be quite different. And whatever promises SLT, Dialog Telekom and Lanka Bell make on enhanced access to the web, we know that we’ll never be able to access Tamilnet through their pipes. 

While I look forward to mirror sites and the benefits they will bring to long-suffering consumers, I also wonder if, in the absence of progressive regulation, telcos that obey every arbitrary diktat of the Ministry of Defence and under a TRC more interested in appeasing the Rajapakse regime’s lunacy, these seemingly progressive measures will be used to control and curtail our behaviour on and access to the web. 

For me net neutrality is more than serious concerns about deep packet inspection. It is about the commitment to an open web, where regulation is more transparent and progressive than partisan, stentorian and limiting, where government promotes access to the web and Internet as a right of all citizens, where everyone is guaranteed a minimum QoS and where select content isn’t discriminated against. 

I guess given a choice between slow access to an unrestricted internet over blazing fast access to a restricted internet, I’d gladly choose the former.

But is asking for both really that unfair?

UPDATE – 27 September 2008

Lirneasia’s head honcho the good Prof. Samarajiva and I have an interesting debate on the issue of net neutrality starting with his response to this post here.

2 comments on “Net neutrality and Internet QoS in Sri Lanka redux

  1. Deane
    September 22, 2008 at 12:06 pm #

    Sanjana, we can go into a lengthy debate over this, but to my mind the two fundamental positions for not supporting net-neutrality legislation stand ever more clearly in the Sri Lankan (or south-asian) context. I will be brief; I don’t want to recycle already well-documented arguments.

    One being that net neutrality is essentially a technical question, not a legal one. Getting the legislature, who without doubt have no clue about these issues is asking for trouble. Any internet regulation that’s coming out of the Sri Lankan parliament would not be neutral there will inevitably be morality clauses and bunch of other non-desirable stuff to me or you.

    As I’ve said in that blog post you mention, I think the best way to ensure net neutrality is to make sure we have enough competition in the market. If that is ensured, contrary to what you say, I think the telecoms would face enough incentives to give a decent Qos.

    I’d say you have a better chance of pressurizing Telecoms to follow a certain course than you have of the telecom regulator. You are right, I’m quite ignorant of the Lirneasia Qos findings, but I suspect I won’t find anything there that would change my mind. The fact that the advertised rates can be much lower than the actual rates is not a sufficient case for regulation. You are also yet to spell out the exact kind of regulation that you’d prefer.

    Legislation guaranteeing minimum-data rates for example will mean higher user fees across the board, even for lower bandwidth users. I understand you wouldn’t mind paying the premium for faster internet, but much of the country might beg to differ.

    I also don’t understand how your worries about HR defenders, etc. would be addressed by net neutrality legislation.

    Trusting governments in the abstract is one thing machang, but trusting the Sri Lankan government is a completely different ball game. Surely, I don’t need to tell you that.

  2. Sanjana Hattotuwa
    September 27, 2008 at 8:47 am #

    Machang Deane,

    Thanks for your comment and sorry for the late response.

    Firstly, I’ve taken on Lirneasia on their position (or non-position, they are somewhat confused about this) on net neutrality, arguments which are of relevance to the points your raise.

    I agree with you that the issue of net neutrality is technical, but differ as I do with Lirneasia, with the belief that in Sri Lanka the market and telcos will by default ensure net neutrality without legislation that protects consumers from network management techniques that impair their experience on the web. A concrete example in provided in my comments to Rohan. Competition in the Sri Lankan market will not guarantee net neutrality. It didn’t in the US either and it took the FCC to get Comcast to come up what I think is a very good network management framework (even though the cap on traffic that operates in tandem is confusing). As I’ve pointed out earlier on this blog, Vint Cerf has other ideas about network management that protect net neutrality and also gives telcos the flexibility to manage limited bandwidth. There is the example of Plusnet in the UK, that also has clearly defined network management techniques which are packet agnostic. If you believe that the market in Sri Lanka is mature enough to ensure the establishment of these techniques, we must agree to disagree.

    The regulation I would like to see is to ensure that telcos deliver on what they say they will deliver. If they don’t, and throttle traffic based on packet inspection as is the case with the example I have quoted, that’s a problem. It’s also a problem because such inspection based management framework can be used by regimes to clamp down on certain types of traffic, clients and services that may be used for dissent and the dissemination of information on the web and Internet. I have also clearly spelt out what I’d like to see in the spirit of regulation. I said I would like to see a situation “…where regulation is more transparent and progressive than partisan, stentorian and limiting, where government promotes access to the web and Internet as a right of all citizens…”.

    The TRC today is very far removed from the institution Rohan Samarajiva led and is a lackey of the Rajapakse regime. In this context, options available to ensure net neutrality range from public interest litigation, FR cases and groups acting as watch-dogs. For example, a Sri Lankan equivalent of EFF can help identify net neutrality issues, raise consumer awareness, hold telcos and their network management frameworks to public scrutiny (using tools like Switzerland) and use the media to name and shame those who don’t deliver what they promise.

    What I don’t agree with is the somewhat naive belief that paying for usage, as proposed by Lirneasia, will lead to better QoS or any guarantee of a network management framework doesn’t discriminate against certain types of traffic. Please note exactly what I’m saying. I am not opposed to high-users paying more for the bandwidth they consume. What I am deeply skeptical of is that, as noted in my post and my comment to Rohan), paying a premium is any guarantee of better QoS for those consumers or that they will be free of deep packet inspection.

    Comprende amigo?

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