Internet Congestion Management 101 Now Available to All

Net neutrality continues to capture the attention of policy stakeholders the world over – it was a subject of discussion at last week’s Internet Governance Forum, it is a key component of the new telecommunications regulatory package in Europe, and the FCC’s Open Internet rules are the subject of ongoing litigation in the DC Circuit Court. At the heart of some of these and other neutrality debates lies the phenomenon of Internet congestion. Network operators have sometimes claimed that they need the ability to treat different kinds of Internet applications differently in order to provide their customers with the best performance possible when the network gets congested. Last week’s release of “Real-Time Network Management of Internet Congestion” by the Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group (BITAG) is therefore quite timely. I contributed to the report on behalf of CDT as a member of BITAG’s Technical Working Group.

The report explains the what, where, why, and how of Internet congestion in language that anyone can understand. It describes at a general level the most common techniques that network operators use for managing congestion, including Internet traffic shaping, caching, scheduling, and many other techniques. It provides examples to demonstrate the differences between application-based congestion management practices, which treat some applications differently than others, and those that are application-agnostic. Telecommunications regulators the world over would be well advised to give it a read and keep it handy as they confront questions about what choices operators have when it comes to managing congestion and how net neutrality policy would or would not affect such management.

The report also provides useful recommendations about how network operators should go about managing congestion. BITAG recommends that network operators use congestion management practices that have been standardized or reviewed by their peer organizations, allowing operators to align their solutions with broadly accepted engineering practices. Where practices could have a detrimental impact on certain applications, operators should seek to minimize that impact – deliberately degrading application performance without any countervailing benefit is unacceptable. If operators choose to use practices that target specific applications, they should defer to users’ preferences about which applications’ performance should be managed, for example by letting users choose to have the traffic associated with their preferred VoIP client or gaming provider prioritized. Operators should also conduct thorough, ongoing tests of the hardware and software they use if they chose to conduct application-based management, since it can be tricky for an operator to accurately determine which traffic flows are associated with which applications. At CDT, we would have liked to see more support for application-agnostic practices from BITAG, but overall these and the rest of the report’s recommendations are sound.

BITAG is demonstrating its ability to take complex technical topics and make them digestible for policy audiences. As policymakers the world over grapple with net neutrality issues, the congestion management report should prove a valuable reference.

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