The Internet is a Series of Tubes and You Don’t Have a Dedicated Connection

It’s hard to believe that Slashdothas been around for over a decade.

Taking a couple of paragraphs to reminisce, I signed up fora Slashdot account not long after the site openedfor business. Following my normal tradition at the time, I suffixed my newlycreated account with the two-digit year of creation, in that case 98. It was an easy way to choose account names that were lesslikely to be rejected as already in use.

I didn't imagine that I'd be using the same account over a decade later, so now I have a nick that makesme look like I’m pretending to be an eleven year old (if you ignore the 4-digituser ID, it is conceivable that an eleven year old might visit Slashdot).

I didn’t join the ranks of Slashdot to cheerlead Linux andopen source, despite it being the overwhelming direction of the site at the time.

My intentions were much less idealistic.

DSC03277I actually signed up to troll a co-worker: aLinux-loving long-haired hippy named Warren Postma.The guy was always going on about the greatness of open source software and therelated initiatives, about the evils of Microsoft and closed-source, and so on, andof course he was an early fan of Slashdot.

[Over time I came toappreciate that much of what he had to say was right on the money, and inreality he was one of the best developers I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

And he wasn’t reallylong-haired or a hippy, though maybe my perception imagined him that way at thetime, what with all the free-software rhetoric]

That was an era when being up on the latest meme was a lot more difficult, so a site like Slashdot was a welcome source, allowing you to knowingly declare that you'd already seen the dancing baby when a less-connected co-worker gets it emailed to them and comes over acting all connected-like. Though to be fair Slashdot came a little late to give a heads up of the dancing baby craze, but it was there for All Your Base Natalie Portman hot grits, though along the way to enlightment came some less appealing memes involving tubs and goats.

Slashdot no longer fills the industry-dominating position that it once did (where being "Slashdotted" was a term used in the mainstream press) — I suspect it has more to do with its competitors pandering to the common, all degrading eventually to funny pictures, "facepalms" and non-stop political posturing and claims of oppression, with sites like Digg and later Reddit escaping from the technology ghetto, while Slashdot remained chained to its original niche — but it often still has interesting and elucidating discussions throughout its comments, even if the UI of the site continues to grow worse with every passing month. Seriously, guys, the endless page thing was demonstrastably lame on DZone, so why did you think it was a good idea?

So during a moment of mental relaxation yesterday I thoughtI’d see what was up in the world of /., where the top story at the time detailed a congressman’s bill to “Ban ISP caps”. I found the submission hard tobelieve, so I RTFA to find that it had been very poorly interpreted.

What the congressman really proposed is more of a feeoversight body similar to those that many utilities have to workwithin.

Here in Canada the monopoly phone companies, for instance,have to apply to the CRTC every time they want to change fees (whether toincrease or decrease) or service levels, justifying why they need to make thosechanges. Of course they’ve always been grotesquely profitable, and seldom getdenied their desires (except, humorously, when it came to reducing fees tocompete better against new upstarts), but just pretend that such bureaucracies makethem more competitive or accountable or economical or something.DSC03673

So I posted a commentsaying that the summary was inaccurate. I also tossed in a little aside aboututilities, drawing from the congressman and the submission’s analogy comparingISPs with utilities, speculating that soon ISPs might just switch to a pureconsumption model more analogous with the utilities that they are being comparedto, saying “I don’t get carte blanche from the electric company to use it allfor free, complaining that "they provide 20A to the house so I should beable to use 20A around the clock for free!".

I touched a sore spot, which I have to confess to doingintentionally. Sometimes I can’t help but troll a bit, and given that it’s apretty common position on sites like Slashdot that it is a basic human right totorrent a pipe full around the clock, I thought I’d pick that scab a bit.

I got the typical “the bits are free and the man is justkeeping us down.” variety of responses, including my favourite.

Anyone who is comparing ISPs and bandwidth toother utilities such as electricity, water, or anything tangible should simplystop posting… immediately. The Internet is not a series of tubes, yourcomparisons are invalid, and you are ignorant.

Please cease in the proliferation of these ludicrous analogies.

Ignoring that the utility analogy came directly from thecongressman himself, this comment has made me personally invested in thisspurious analogy, so now I must embrace it with vigour.

And, for that matter, the internet is effectively a series of tubes,as fun as it might have been to point and laugh at Mr. Stevens. Those tubes havea finite capacity, and if you want to push more through, you have to lay moreor “wider” tubes.

Conceptually it isn’t all that different from a power or water network, where many of the same circuit principals apply.

And those “tubes” didn’t magically appear from nowhere. Theyaren’t public infrastructure. The internet isn’t free. Bandwidth isn’t free. Throughputisn’t free. All of it costs money to lay and service, and as demandsgrow, there is the capital requiredto increase capacity.

So let’s go back to the electricity analogy (even though Ihad no intention to draw it out so literally, I’m invested now).

Back to the responses again, a less stupid one said:

The total amount of power you usein a month directly affects the amount of fuel a power utility has to burn, or the amount of water you consumer affects how much water the utility has to treat. Bits on a connection aren’t like that. If youdon’t use a bit on their fibre link to the backbone, that doesn’t leave them with an extra bit, and if you use a bit, the next one is coming at the same time and same cost anyway.

Fair point. When you use electricity, the variable costs increase.When you use water they have to buy a little more chlorine and pay the electriccompany to run the pumps.

Yet here in Ontario mostof my electricity comes from either hydro-electric (our power company washistorically called “Ontario Hydro”, causing confusion for decades as children triedto understand why the power company was effectively named Ontario Water), ornuclear.

The variable costs with either are a small percentage of thetotal cost to operate those services, and instead the vast majority of the cost comes in the form of capital expenditure –what they had to build and maintain to handle the current load, and to handletomorrow’s load.

Most of the “conservation” efforts – incremental andaccelerated fees for heavy consumers, and rebates for power saving appliancesand technologies — have been aimed at avoiding exceeding the gross capacity ofthe system right now, because the next stepwill cost billions, and it’s not to buy a few more fuel rods.

Nuclear power plants and giant dam projects don’t come cheap;nor does building a water purification system to service a city of 200,000. It’sone of those perverse situations where if demand dropped significantly, they’dactually have to increasecosts.

To wring every last bit of ridiculousness out of thisanalogy, imagine that you live in a village of 100 people and @Tesla just twitteredabout a cool new tech called electricity.

Hyped about the latest fad, you get a bank loan and put up awind generator, connecting it to anyone willing to pay an even split of the costs(a loan you amortized to get paid off just as the turbine needs replacement,plus basic maintenance and upkeep).

Your new turbine is spinning around the clock (it’s a verywindy valley near the ocean), putting out a constant 100kW, and everyone isenjoying their 1kW space heater, all paying their 1/100th cost.

Every now and then someone turns on a hairdryer, but itbalances out because other people sometimes turn off their space heater, and inthe end the load can be handled due to its natural distribution.

But then someone decides that they’d also like to run their 5kWback massager around the clock – you did saythat electricity could be used around the clock, and the wind is free, right?— so they crank it up and your system starts tosuffer brownouts and everyone suffers.

You face some tough choices: You can either put a 1kW limiton everyone (“dedicated” capacity), which would be unfortunate given that mostof your customers benefit from sporadically spiking their load while they usetheir motorized hair curler, or you can start charging or limiting only theoutliers, maybe targeting the growing trend of back massagers specifically,putting limiters on that specific use of your power.

Or you can add capacity.

So you decide to do the latter in the most cost-effective way, arranging a powersharing agreement with a neighbouring village: When you have left over capacityyou send it to them, and they do the same in return.

It all balances out, and everything is fine in the worldagain, and that one customer gets to enjoy his back massager, essentiallyfreeloading on the standard customer load.

But then another user decides that he, too, might as wellget a back massager. And then another. And then another.

The neighbouring village starts rethinking the power sharingagreement because it is nolonger serving both partners equally. They demand either payment for theirinconvenience, or they’re going to sever the line.

So now, despite the fact that there is “no cost” for each incrementalkW, the village is faced with a massive capital (or loan servicing) cost of puttingup another wind turbine.

This is grossly simplified, as analogies often are (and there are countless similar scenarios, from toll roads to bridges to movie rentals…this is like beginner economics, but so many are so blissfully ignorant of it), but thereare a lot of parallels with internet backbones, where end-users are getting 10Mbps connections to a grossly oversold network at a heavily discounted price. Any delusion that there’s some 10Mbps dedicated channel available for every subscriber is absurd. Go and buy a commercial dedicated T1 at 1/6ththe speed and see how the pricing stacks up.

Consider that my little suburban town has about 50,000 highspeed customers, all with 10Mbps service. If we all used our throughput, this single town would be a 400Gbps load onthe network. Try laying a 400Gbps city wide network, much less provincewide, much less country wide, much less continent wide, much less…that is an enormously expensive proposition.

This is the realityof the internet today. Maybe the backbones shouldbe a public bit of infrastructure, with massive, limitless pipes from coastto coast, but that isn’t currently the case. If people want to argue for that –I think a next generation, coast-to-coast Canada backbone would be a great projectfor some of those stimulus billions — then theyshould argue for that.

Things are getting better. There are billions of dollars constantlybeing spent improving the backbone of the net (YouTube and Hulu today alone today account for moretraffic than the entire backbone could handle in 2000), and I’m sure in afew years we’ll all being using our 1Gbps connections to play a live-streamed 1080pnever-obsolete video game system.

I have no desire to defend ISPs, or to support some of thevarious tactics they have pursued (traffic shaping, for instance, is not at alljustifiable, nor should a carrier care or restrict which sites you visit, trying to monetize the fact that you visit Hulu, or trying to extort Google. Restrict or charge based on the throughput, not specific uses ofit that should be none of your concern), but some of the rhetoric on this topicis just so absurdly ridiculous, and can only be drawn from the delusions ofself-serving fantasy.

The denial of the reality of overselling and fair use is how we end up with traffic shaping, or stupid constraints like cellular carriers refusing to allow uses like tethering (which is because they rely upon most of their customers not using their “alloted” throughput, and tethering would completely throw off that assumption. I’d rather they base all of it around actual usage and cease trying to indirectly massage usage through unnecessary secondary restrictions and throttles.

The standard tripeabout how one’s usage somehow only ever uses excess capacity (is there some “onlyif available” NoQuality-of-Service bit?), where peopleassume that their actions somehow exist in a vacuum of inconsequence, unboundby the limits or constraints of anyone else, offends common sense.