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Irwin Lazar
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Net Neutrality and the Virtual Worker

With the finalization last week of the AT&T / BellSouth merger, Net Neutrality issues are once again taking center stage.  What does Net Neutrality mean to enterprises struggling to deliver the same level of application services to all workers regardless of physical location?

Last week the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted final approval to the merger between AT&T and Bell South.  As part of its process for obtaining this approval, AT&T agreed that it would refrain from degrading or prioritizing network traffic for a period of two years after the merger received final approval (see Information Week: “AT&T Merger Contains First Net Neutrality Guidelines”).  Various definitions of Net Neutrality exist but they all boil down to a simple concept, that providers of Internet access services should not take any action that would result in varying performance of applications using the Internet access service.

Net Neutrality has been a gray concept for years, as Internet service providers routinely filter traffic on their networks such as blocking TCP port 25 (SMTP) to fight spam, block other ports to fight worms, and throttle BitTorrent traffic to prevent peer-to-peer file sharing applications from overwhelming available bandwidth.  But those concerned with Net Neutrality see a more ominous prospect ahead, that Internet service providers will begin to filter application such as VOIP or video, not to protect overall network performance, but to degrade third party applications that compete with those offered directly by the service provider.  The example often cited is a service provider blocking third party VOIP services so those services can’t compete with voice services delivered directly by the provider.  For proponents of Web 2.0 applications and services, Net Neutrality is an essential requirement to ensure the usability of such applications.

For enterprises that must increasingly support a virtualized workforce, the fear is that service provider filtering policies will adversely impact employees that rely on public Internet access services to access enterprise applications.  For example, a provider could choose to degrade encrypted IPSec traffic, requiring customers to buy a “business level” access service to obtain guaranteed performance.  Or, enterprises who rely on third party VOIP services such as Vonage and/or Skype, would find that those services are unusable (and we’ve come across a number of companies relying on these services for their remote or telecommuting workers).

The remarkable aspect of AT&T’s declaration is that for the first time a service provider is not only committing in writing to respect Net Neutrality, but is also providing a written definition of what they believe Net Neutrality to encompass.  Still, Net Neutrality continues to be difficult to define.  Sure you can impose requirements that providers such as AT&T not filter or limit Internet traffic, but as video moves to IP how do you separate one IP application from another?  Should a provider such as AT&T or Verizon be able to reserve a certain percentage of residential bandwidth for their own voice and video services, or should the entire pipe into the consumer’s house be treated equally?  What about the typical residential service which is over-subscribed (meaning the aggregate bandwidth coming out of building or neighborhood exceeds the available up-stream bandwidth).  Should service providers be able to provide “guaranteed” services at a premium price that would allow residential users to avoid the typical evening slowdowns when residential Internet usage is at its maximum?

The bottom line for the enterprise network manager is that Net Neutrality issues can impact your plans to support your virtual workers.  Be aware of trends in regulation and service provider policies, not just in the United States but in every market you have workers.  Lobby appropriate government institutions to push for access to the services you need to ensure that all your employees can leverage all of your applications, regardless of location.

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