Imagining the Internet (10): the end-to-end principle

And the end of the Pew futures questionnaire for this year…

Q.10 – Will the internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

A. In the years between now and 2020, the internet will mostly remain a technology based on the end-to-end principle that was envisioned by the internet’s founders. Most disagreements over the way information flows online will be resolved in favor of a minimum number of restrictions over the information available online and the methods by which people access it.

B. In the years between now and 2020, the internet will mostly become a technology where intermediary institutions that control the architecture and significant amounts of content will be successful in gaining the right to manage information and the method by which people access and share it.

[my answer: A]

Please explain your choice, note organizations you expect to be most likely to influence the future of the internet and share your view of the effects of this between now and 2020.


“By 2020, the Internet will still be dominated by the end-to-end principle. But general adherence to the principle doesn’t mean gatekeeping will disappear. The big development will be much more visibility for the dozen or so Tier 1 network operators, who collectively provide access to every part of the Internet on the basis of their settlement-free peering relationships.

“Tier 1 network owners like AT&T, Level 3, Sprint and TeliaSonera operate in secrecy, and their business practices are not governed by either national regulators like the FCC or international bodies like ICANN. It is actually difficult to identify the members of this privileged club, some of whom have been involved in highly disruptive de-peering incidents in recent years. They wield extraordinary market power, since Tier 2 and Tier 3 operators are obliged to procure the bandwidth they need by negotiating for paid transit with the Tier 1 operators – negotiations that are invariably shrouded in secrecy. This lack of transparency opens the door to anti-competitive actions to raise prices, increase market share and punish rivals. A further issue from a global perspective is that most of the Tier 1 networks are American-owned, while some of these same carriers, like AT&T, also have a major stake in Tier 3 ISPs and retail mobile services. The ultimate problem is that disruptive actions like de-peering affect not just other top-level networks, but potentially millions of end-users as well. By 2020, look for the debates about openness to shift from network capacity in the last mile to the wider problem of data reachability across the global Internet.”


Jan.15 – I’m indebted to Dr Nancy Paterson for introducing me to the concept of data reachability and the problems developing among the members of the Tier 1 secret society (see her research here). I’ve typically looked at the end-to-end principle from the perspective of the end-user and the last mile. As a result, the cloud in between tends to look “neutral” – at least compared to the shenanigans we’ve come to expect from the broadband ISPs in North America. I have noted one recent concern directed at issues upstream from the Tier 3 providers: debates about middle-mile providers that have emerged from the FCC’s research on the national broadband plan. This is still a long way from the lofty reaches of the Tier 1 providers; but it’s a start. Back in October, when the FCC called for comments, a post on their broadband blog was devoted to this new perspective. It’s worth quoting at length:

“Many of you may be familiar with the telecom term the “last mile”-the connection between your home (or wireless device) and your broadband service provider.  Somewhat less familiar, however, are the terms “second mile” and “middle mile,” the connections between your broadband service provider and the Internet.  A Public Notice that we released today seeks comment and data on the pricing of second and middle mile connections to the Internet, and we hope that its release will inform us on the crucial-if not gating role-that these connections play.

“As we noted in our mid-term presentation to the FCC last week, these connections-effectively high-speed “on-ramps” to the Internet-are critical links between communities and the broadband Internet.  Our workshops have indicated that in rural areas, calling these links a “second” and “middle mile” is somewhat of a misnomer, as these high capacity, multi-megagbit per second connections can be tens, if not hundreds of miles long-and can be very costly.  As a result, any plan to ensure broadband access for all Americans must examine closely whether these on-ramps are adequately available, reasonably priced, and efficiently provided in all areas of the country.”

What I’d like to know is this: has Industry Canada done any due diligence (as part of its Connecting Rural Canadians program) on the costs, availability and pricing of upstream bandwidth – and whether any service providers are engaging in anti-consumer or anti-competitive practices? If they have, they’ve been very quiet about it.

This diagram from FCC blog post on Internet access topology.

FCC sketch of Internet access topology