The future of Internet “fast lanes” – quality assured ISPs

In this second part of my interview with Dr Neil Davies of Predictable Network Solutions Ltd, I explore the future of quality-assured broadband access. (For part one, see “How Wales got the first Internet ‘fast lane’”.)

What kind of “fast lane” did you build?

Our brief has been to create a video service for deaf, but what we had instead built was a generic intra-country data transport assurance system, which could manage any media or application. That capability could be tapping into by any authenticated end points and sources.

This system was a wholesale solution, not a retail one. This means it was a raw technical capability that could be packaged and used for many applications, each of which would require a product, marketing and support retail service “wrapper”.

To create this system we had to address issue of “quality fraud”: to get in the “fast lane”, you needed to pay the toll! We hardened the system’s security to prevent masquerading to get treatment you had not paid for. (This might be paid for by someone else in a 2-sided model.)

We also did all the economic modelling to rationally cost the different quality levels, and created an accounting system for quality. The cost of assured video telephony was the same price as telephony at the time, at around 1 penny a minute.

How do you see the future for quality-assured ISPs?

I still see that they have a future: indeed, they are the future! The only way to differentiate in the market is to create multiple quality and cost trade-off points.

This sign language service worked so well that it achieved what we considered the goal of any real-time service: cognitive absorption. You lose track of time, as it is totally engrossing.

We tried to market the Contention Management technology. Cisco came and talked to us. They freely admitted this was a valuable service. We asked them how long they thought they had been on the video call: they thought it was 45 minutes when it had been 2 hours. They too had lost track of time.

Yet Cisco didn’t take it up, as it was a functional replacement for £30k system they could now sell for £1k. You don’t get paid a sales bonus for that.

We have run the ISP as a technology demonstration for a number of years. We added more services: small cells, multiple VoIP lines, VPNs, bulk backups. These were all done through the same method and configuration management systems.

So why aren’t people rushing to buy, yet?

What we have found is that users have the (mistaken) impression they have already been sold the quality they need, so are unwilling to pay for it a second time. Broadband is a very immature market, and the Internet is young. The way in which people engage with the purchasing process is still developing.

Indicative of the market’s immaturity is the way in which everyone chases after ‘success’. Yet the mark of a mature discipline, like the ones that underpin most of our essential infrastructure, is that it has an appropriate focus on the identification and management of hazards, and the consequent risks for both service suppliers and users.

The current delivery philosophy in broadband is not based around the need to ensure and assure a fit-for-purpose digital supply chain. As a result, a lot of money is spent handling complaints and churn, rather than mitigating their occurrence. There is a mentality that packets should behave like circuits, and any non-delivery of quality is either a ’fault’ or the result of an ISP misdeed.

The transition to packet-based statistical multiplexing has yet to occur in the commercial mindset of telecoms industry leaders. For example, we have watched several projects purchase DSL technology, assuming that quality assurances of TDM were implicitly there. They have subsequently failed.

This Contention Management technology is now gaining wider interest due to the cost metrics of ISPs changing. Previously, ISPs have been chasing market share, whereas cost is now starting to become a big issue for senior management. We can drive assets harder, so cost growth is smaller.

So I think there is a good market, but not yet a mass market. The initial market is for small business and home workers.

What will your next step be?

Our next step will be to continue to technically develop the assurance system and run commercial-scale demonstrations.

We now see an opportunity to “quality arbitrage” other networks, such as to a home, WAN and longhaul fibre. We can mathematically “crack out” the different qualities and resell them at different prices. This opens up a lot of new business opportunities, because of the way people have had to over-provide good quality.

Our current piece of work is to take the techniques and apply them over other wholesale networks.

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