Amidst press conferences from Apple and Nokia today announcing more devices that will tap already strained telecommunications networks, there's another narrative emerging – hardware manufacturers pushing for a dramatic revision to how we organize the Internet. Huawei and Alcatel-Lucent, two companies that help build the physical backbones of the Internet, each think they have just the idea to pitch big ISPs.
It's no secret that telecom companies do everything they can to keep customers from using too much data: throttling, packet inspection, global slow-downs, tier pricing and more are all strategies that these companies use to help manage the total bandwidth they have to carry and manage.
Huawei's proposal is that instead of the rocky relationship between content providers like YouTube, Amazon Prime and Netflix, the two powers could cooperate for mutual benefit. The company's CTO, Daniel Tang, suggests revenue sharing between the two. Content providers could stream as much HD quality video as they wanted, providing there were people willing to pay for it with ad revenue and subscriptions. In exchange, telecoms would have a bigger incentive to actually build out the requisite networks to support that higher data usage.
Some tiered pricing would probably be necessary, but it's certainly a novel approach. Instead of trampling on the concept of net neutrality, it treats content-heavy services as partners – not adversaries. Daniel Tang stresses that it would take work and that these services would need to add enough value to convince customers that this path is a viable option. If it worked, it'd have huge potential benefits in terms of service quality with the possible downside of increasing total cost to consumers.
Alcatel-Lucent's approach to this same problem is a bit different, focusing on more distributed networks and hardware to reduce the total draw on bandwidth resources. With crunched wireless spectrum and increasingly tapped-out network back-ends struggling to handle the rapid adoption of mobile, tablets and countless other Internet-ready "smart" devices, one option is to use a distributed network that takes the traffic and keeps it away from the core infrastructure unless absolutely necessary.
Fiber optic skeletons feeding to high-bandwidth, local wireless options would keep the Internet from becoming too centralized and relying on a handful of Internet Exchange Points or IXPs too much. Much like distributed power generation, these kinds of ideas carry with them a huge bonus to network security. Having many individual networks that connect where necessary protects consumers from terrorist attacks, power outages or any number of complications upstream.
In the end, both of these strategies and more may be necessary to keep network traffic from becoming too overwhelming. Projects like Google Fiber are excellent, but they are enormously expensive and full rollout of that infrastructure will be slow-going yet, especially in North America where the land-to-people ratio is relatively low.
Hopefully, we'll figure out something soon though, because I live in a downtown area, and during peak times I regularly find my Internet almost unusable – despite having the highest tier package available. I'm sure I'm far from alone here, too.