While Google and service providers continue to spar publicly over net neutrality, the two sides are slowly - and quietly - coming to consensus on a number of issues, with serious implications for the future of internet services.
The row over network neutrality has been brewing since 2002, when Google and other internet giants banded together to form the pro-net-neutrality High Tech Broadband Coalition. Telecoms and cable companies largely lined up against the movement, which varies in definition but generally means that service providers must not delay or speed up IP traffic based on source, destination or content type.
Recently, however, the lines of network neutrality have been blurring. For example, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google is investigating closer collocation and caching mechanisms with service providers, which would move Google's content closer to the edge and give users faster performance of its sites than content not collocated or cached.
Google strongly objected to the implication that this is an about-face on network neutrality.
'Despite the hyperbolic tone and confused claims in Monday's Journal story, I want to be perfectly clear about one thing,' wrote Richard Whitt, Google's Washington telecom and media counsel, on the company's public policy blog. 'Google remains strongly committed to the principle of net neutrality, and we will continue to work with policymakers in the years ahead to keep the internet free and open.'
The rapid response - which was up before the Journal's print edition hit newsstands - underscores Google's struggle to balance its dual role as a public advocate for net neutrality and as partner with net neutrality's whipping boy, the telecom industry.
'What I believe Google and the other players were trying to do was use the net neutrality movement as a mechanism for forcing the access providers to improve access quality of service without paying for it,' said Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp.
Fighting fire with CDN
But the providers have fought back, he said, by creating local content delivery networks (CDNs) that can be leased by content providers looking to reduce latency and which have a higher QoS.
Over-the-top web-based players see their services being pushed out of the picture because of the challenges in maintaining QoS over the public internet, which is designed to be best effort. CDNs bypass the internet and push content directly from the edge, taking out much of the uncertainty and making possible applications like streaming high-definition web video.
Nolle said he has consulted for one major internet content company that is publicly advocating net neutrality while privately looking for ways to improve its own property's performance through non-neutral means.
'If you go and look at net neutrality as the issue developed, and you look at net neutrality as it's currently stated by most of the major players, the position has changed tremendously,' Nolle said.
Equipment vendors like Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent are already betting big that the two sides - big content and the service providers - will reach an amicable armistice, he said.