I had an interesting experience at a recent meeting with a local government agency. The subject of purchasing Internet and advanced communication services came up and the customer mentioned that of course they wanted to go with a tier-one carrier. This got me thinking as to the technical definition of a tier-one carrier and the often confusing public perceptions of its meaning.
In technical terms, a tier-one carrier maintains its own national or global network. Customers of that carrier connect directly to the carrier’s network. Communications among the carrier’s customers are handled “on net” and the carrier often guarantees a certain level of performance and uptime between its customers.
When customers of a tier-one need to connect with customers of a different carrier, the traffic is exchanged at one or more “peering points”. Peering among national and global carriers is almost always done on a settlement-free basis. This means that neither the sending nor the receiving carrier is a customer of the other. No money changes hands, and there are no guarantees. The major carriers exchange traffic so that they can offer “The Internet” to their customers and not just their own network. This usually works out well as all parties peering benefit. Those with content reach those desiring it and vise-versa.
However, when things don’t work, each carrier tends to blame the other and because there are no guarantees and no vendor-customer relationship among carriers it can take a while to resolve complex issues. Dealing with a tier-one also means dealing with a national or international company that isn’t likely to have local customer service. You won’t be talking to your neighbors when you call for support.
At Impulse, we do things differently. We don’t own a national or global fiber-optic network. We are a local company with local customer service. Rather than attempting to become a tier-one, we made a technical and business decision to buy Internet access from many of the major tier-one carriers. The technical term for this is “multi-homed”. What it means to our customers is that we can offer the guaranteed on-net performance levels of five tier-one providers to our customers. If there’s a fiber cut or technical issue at a peering point between two tier-one carriers, we are probably directly connected to both of them so we don’t depend on that interconnection. If we’re not connected to both, at least one of our providers will usually have a connection around the problem. We also take advantage of geographic diversity by connecting to some carriers over circuits going north to the Bay Area and others going south to Los Angeles. Should a major incident affect regional routes we have diverse paths on diverse carriers.
In addition to having the diverse views of the net as a customer of multiple tier-one carriers, we have also begun implementing our own direct peering with a number of other regional networks and content providers. For example, there’s now a direct connection between Impulse and Google. Should this path fail, we have five other indirect paths.
Not being a tier-one also allows us to offer technical innovation faster. For example, Internet Protocol Version Six or IPv6 is being deployed worldwide to deal with the problem of the world running out of IP addresses. Many tier-one providers aren’t yet able to offer IPv6 to their customers or can do so only on an experimental or makeshift basis. Impulse is ahead of the curve here. We offer native IPv6 today because of our diverse connectivity to multiple networks.
I’d rather be a tier-many than a tier-one.