Part 1 – Internet Peering, Net Neutrality, and Serving the “Eyeballs”

This is part 1 in a series on Internet peering and network neutrality

In an Internet “shot heard round the world,” AT&T’s former chairman Ed Whitacre stated in reference to Google and Microsoft’s Internet content:

“How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?” (Ed Whitacre, Former Chairman of AT&T)

Not withstanding the fact Whitacre neglected to mention much of his network was subsidized with public money supplied through Universal Services Fund fees (USF), and that individual subscribers are already paying for accessing content through the Internet, AT&T’s attitude was a wakeup call to both the Internet user community, and Internet-enabled content providers.

The American commercial Internet scene has been dominated with a select few “Tier 1” service providers, including AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and Level 3.  Those service providers carry Internet traffic through large capacity network pipes around the country to most of the major cities, and then deliver consumer services or hand off Internet traffic to smaller, local service providers and cable TV companies.  The Tier 1 network providers not only provide a large portion of the long distance transport of traffic, but also carry a complete table of Internet routes, which maps the manner in which Internet traffic finds its way around the world.

So, if you are a network manager for AT&T, it is in your interest to have as many smaller networks and content providers connected to you as possible, as you make money on both sides of the “eyeball” to “content” relationship.

The smaller networks don’t see it that way.  A network (such as Colour Broadband) serving a local market in Long Beach, California needs to serve content to its clients.  If they serve a lot of content, in AT&T’s perfect world they would continue buying larger and larger network “pipes” to accommodate demand from their eyeball customers. 

On the other hand, if a Google or Microsoft had a presence within the LA area, and could connect their content directly to the Long Beach network, bypassing AT&T, then theoretically you would be able to get better network performance (by eliminating a “transit” network), and deliver the content to “eyeballs” without having to pay a fee to the “middle man” (again, AT&T).

This type of relationship is called “peering” in the Internet world.  To get customers the best performance, for the lowest cost, access networks such as Colour Broadband establish a point of presence in a location where they can meet as many other networks as possible. 

In Los Angeles, facilities like One Wilshire in downtown LA, or other facilities located in nearby buildings offer both data center colocation space, as well as meet-me-rooms and Internet exchange points (IXPs) where content providers can store their media, and network providers can connect to other networks and content providers in a single location.

This “peering” is the way networks and content providers can bypass the Tier 1 networks.  Much of the fiber optic cable needed to connect a company like Colour Broadband to Google, YouTube, or Sony is available though neutral alternative telecom carriers, such as utility provider Southern California Edison, Wilshire Connection, or Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. 

Once Colour Broadband has established a physical presence within a colocation facility in downtown Los Angeles it becomes fairly easy to establish individual interconnections with other networks and content providers – or connect one-to-many via an Internet exchange point such as Any2, Equinix IBX, or the LAIIX (Los Angeles International Internet Exchange). 

Every interconnection Colour Broadband makes in Los Angeles is a percentage of traffic they will not have to pay AT&T or one of the other Tier 1 networks.

The Tier 1 networks still have a role to play.  Colour Broadband still needs to provide its customers access to content in other countries such as Russia and Spain.  They may not be able to find networks serving Russia or Spain within the downtown LA peering community, and thus will still need to pay AT&T or another Tier 1 network provider to make that global connection.

The intent of Colour Broadband using their downtown colocation facility and peering relationships is to:

  • Reduce operational expenses by eliminating their need to connect to Tier 1 network providers for connecting to other networks and content
  • Improve performance by eliminating physical transit networks operating as a middle man between Colour Broadband and other networks or content
  • Provide an additional layer of disaster recovery capability in the event a primary Tier 1 has network problems or service failure

Peering for content providers and access networks is the best expression of companies taking control of their destiny, and network neutrality.

In the next segment we will have an interview with Peter Cohen, an Internet peering expert and long time peering manager with network service providers in the US and Europe.


John Savageau, Long Beach

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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