by Bernard Golden

Net Neutrality and Hardware Hacking: An Object Lesson in Open Source

Jul 14, 20066 mins

Let me admit my bias right up front. I started my career as a software engineer for the local telco, Pacific Bell, and have retained tremendous brand loyalty since.

I had digital cable from TCI, which was then bought by AT&T, which ended up with Comcast Cable. It was awful under all three owners. The nadir was when I called to report a service outage and the service rep informed me that if some other people called up and reported a problem they would look into it — but if only one person reported a problem their policy was to not do anything. When the local telco (then SBC, which had purchased Pacific Telesis, holding company of Pac Bell) started offering satellite TV through a bundling deal, I switched immediately and have been deliriously happy with the service.

On the other hand, I’ve also had DSL from my local telco (which, confusingly enough, morphed from Pacific Bell to SBC and now is known as AT&T). It’s frighteningly expensive, but I’ve been reluctant to move to cable due to my poor experience in the past as well as a fear of poor performance due to shared infrastructure.

However, the last straw regarding my DSL line was when a repair technician came out and, in the course of replacing my modem, noted that my line had been dialed back to 384kB — in other words, barely mid-band throughput. I immediately began the move to cable. (The technician told me that I wasn’t being picked on; the surrounding area all had this level of service — amazing, considering I live in the heart of Silicon Valley in a relatively upscale neighborhood. Why doesn’t the phone company just announce they don’t care about their customers?).

The move wasn’t a piece of cake. While the DSL line terminated in my home office, guess where the cable Internet connection terminated? Right — behind the TV in the family room. This necessitated stashing a Linksys wireless router in the corner of the room. Unfortunately, the signal wasn’t so good to the wireless cards on my laptop in the office, so I put home-built signal concentrators behind the antennas — basically folded pieces of cardboard covered with aluminum foil. Furthermore, to connect up the other devices in the office, two servers and a Vonage connection (more on this in a moment), I installed a Buffalo wireless bridge/switch there. I must say I’m sold on the Buffalo bridge; it works a treat.

This solved the laptop and server connectivity problems, but I still had an issue with my Vonage connection. The Vonage telephone adapter (known as an ATA) wants to live between the broadband modem and any other devices, including a wireless router. However, since the broadband modem now lives in the family room, it would be kind of awkward talking on the phone while crouched behind the TV.

So, I attached the Vonage ATA to the Buffalo wireless bridge. While it could still talk to the Vonage servers to get VOIP connectivity, it had poor quality sound. After searching around on the Internet, it seemed like the culprit was the wireless router, which did not prioritize the VOIP packets (in other words, it did not provide Quality of Service, also known as QoS), which resulted in choppy conversation.

This is where the saga turns to open source. A number of the postings discussing how to address QoS on the Linksys box mentioned that it is possible to replace the standard firmware with other firmware that provides additional functionality; in particular, QoS functionality. Because the native Linksys firmware is a version of Linux, it is possible to modify the source and extend the router’s capability. In other words, because Linksys runs open source, you can hack the hardware.

I downloaded a customized open source firmware from a company called Sveasoft, which apparently is a guy living on an island off the coast of Sweden. (I also should mention that there are other open source firmwares available for the Linksys rounter — in fact, there’s quite a lively community devoted to doing interesting things with it, including adding VPN and Asterisk PBX functionality, for example).

The Sveasoft firmware resembles the native Linksys firmware, but has additional fields in some screens and also offers screens that are not part of the Linksys firmware at all. Sveasoft has a screen devoted to QoS, which I modified to provide a higher QoS to the Vonage connection.

Result? Much better sound quality on the Vonage connection. And installing the new firmware and configuring it was really simple.

By the way, the throughput on the cable Internet connection is very good. I never get less than 6 Meg downstream and have seen it up at 8 Meg on occasion. It’s noticeably much faster  that the DSL connection was. So my fear of service degradation due to shared infrastructure was really misplace).

So what does this experience tell me?

First, regarding net neutrality: The phone company insisting it needs to be able to segregate traffic and offer higher-bandwidth at a higher price doesn’t get much sympathy from me. They claim they need to invest a ton of money to offer Internet TV and therefore need to be able to recover that cost through discriminatory pricing. Given their willingness to reduce my bandwidth (without ever telling me about the fact, by the way), I don’t really trust their statements that they would never play favorites. Discriminatory pricing makes sense in a world of many offerings in which a customer can choose to spend more to get a differentiated product or service. In a duopoly, allowing providers to offer discriminatory pricing is an invitation to abuse, as they will undoubtedly begin to favor their offerings and the offerings of their partners. So, in a world of duopoly, net neutrality is a base requirement. And by the way, regarding their need to invest to offer Internet TV, have you heard anyone clamoring for more TV offerings? I’d rather they focus on getting their basic offerings right before worrying about moving into new businesses.

More than net neutrality, I’d rather have a world of many offerings. With significant competition, I’d be perfectly happy with providers selling a variety of packages. Even in my area, this may come to pass. I have fervent hope for WiMax, and there are plans afoot to blanket Silicon Valley with a seamless WiFi network.

Second, open source offers real benefits in terms of flexibility. The ability to modify the Linksys firmware enabled specialized functionality. If this flexibility wasn’t available, I would be out of luck with respect to the sound quality of my phone line. With this flexibility, there are a world of possibilities. Hacking hardware really solved my problem.

My home office is an enterprise writ small. The challenges of connectivity with an inflexible infrastructure (for some reason, they never ran Cat5 when they building my house), limited network connectivity, and software stack inconsistencies all reflect common IT issues. The flexibility of open source made it possible to solve them in a cost-effective manner.