Friday, March 28, 2008

How Non-Net Neutrality Affects Businesses

[Michael Geist has been maintaining an excellent blog on the challenges of net neutrality. While this remains a hot topic in the US, despite Michael's best efforts it has barely caused a ripple in Canada. There is increasing evidence of the impact of bit torrent throttling is having on business, competition and Canadian cultural policies, as for example, CBC's attempt to distribute DRM fee video content through BitTorrent. As well Geo-blocking is preventing Canadians from watching the NHL hockey games over the Internet which will be distributed in the US by It is incredible that the country where hockey is considered almost a religion, that Canadians do not have the same rights and privileges as their American cousins to watch their national sport. The major ISPs who are practicing bit throttling and benefit from geo-blocking are also Canada's major distributors of video content via cable TV and satellite. As Michael Geist's reports in his blog "As cable and satellite companies seek to sell new video services to consumers, they simultaneously use their network provider position to lessen competition that seeks to deliver competing video via the Internet. This is an obvious conflict that requires real action from Canada's competition and broadcast regulators" --BSA]

Michael Geist's Blog

How Network Non-Neutrality Affects Real Businesses

Network neutrality leaped back into the headlines last month, when FCC commissioners held a public hearing at Harvard University to examine whether the commission should institute rules to regulate the way Internet service providers (ISPs) manage traffic on their networks. The panel heard from executives representing the two largest ISPs in the Northeast, Comcast and Verizon, along with Internet pundits, politicians and academics.

The hearing coincided with an increasing public awareness that Comcast and dozens of other ISPs (most of them cable TV companies) commonly use methods to throttle some forms of traffic on their networks. They do this to prevent their networks from becoming congested. These methods typically target peer-to-peer traffic from BitTorrent, a popular music and video file sharing program the ISPs say generates a third or more of their traffic.

Accordingly, BitTorrent has become the debate’s poster child, pushing much of the net neutrality debate into endless arguments over free speech, copyright law and what—if anything—should constitute “legal use” of the Net.

But there’s another side to this debate, one that gets far too little attention. In their attempt to limit BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer file sharing traffic, some ISPs have unwittingly caused collateral damage to other, unrelated businesses and their users. For example, some Web conferencing providers have seen their services slow to a crawl in some regions of the world because of poorly executed traffic management policies. Since ISPs often deny they use such practices, it can be exceedingly difficult to identify the nature of the problem in an attempt to restore normal service.

My company, Glance Networks, has first hand experience. Glance provides a simple desktop screen sharing service that thousands of businesses use to show online presentations and web demos to people and businesses worldwide. When a Glance customer hosts a session, bursts of high speed data are sent each time the person’s screen content changes. The Glance service forwards these data streams to all guests in the session, so they can see what the host sees. The streams need to flow quickly, so everyone’s view stays in sync.

One day a few years ago, our support line got a spate of calls from customers complaining that our service had suddenly slowed to a crawl. We soon realized the problem was localized to Canada, where nearly everyone gets their Internet service through one of just two ISPs. Sure enough, posts on blogs indicated that both of these ISPs had secretly deployed “traffic shaping” methods to beat back the flow of BitTorrent traffic. But the criteria their methods used to identify the streams were particularly blunt instruments that not only slowed BitTorrent, but many other high-speed data streams sent by their customers’ computers.

This experience illustrates why additional rules need to be imposed on ISPs. While we were working the problem, customers were understandably stuck wondering who was telling them the truth. Their ISP was saying “all is well” and that “nothing has changed”, both of which turned out to be wrong. But how were they to know? Their other Web traffic flowed normally. From their perspective, only our service had slowed.

Luckily, we quickly discovered that by changing a few parameters in our service, we were able to restore normal performance to our Canadian customers. But the Canadian ISPs were of no help. For over a year, they denied even using traffic shaping, let alone what criteria they used to single out “bad” traffic. We were forced to find our own “workaround” by trial and error.

And there’s the rub.

Imagine for a moment that regional phone companies were allowed to “manage their congestion” by implementing arbitrary methods that block a subset of phone calls on their network. People whose calls got blocked would be at a loss to know why some calls failed to connect, while others continued to go through normally. Such behavior would never be tolerated in our telephony market. Yet we allow ISPs to “manage their congestion” this way today.

In a truly open marketplace, we could expect market forces to drive bad ISPs out of the market. But most ISPs are monopolies, for good reason. Their infrastructure costs are enormous. The right to have a monopoly, however, must always be balanced by regulations that prevent abuse of that right.

Business and markets cannot thrive when ISPs secretly delay or discard a subset of their traffic. Networks need to be free of secret, arbitrary traffic management policies. Just because an ISP’s network suffers chronic congestion, that ISP cannot be allowed to selectively block arbitrary classes of traffic.


Meanwhile, FCC commissioners need to understand that arbitrary and secret traffic management policies have already impacted businesses unrelated to the peer-to-peer file sharing applications targeted by those policies. These are not hypothetical scenarios. The ongoing threat to legitimate Web services that businesses and consumers depend upon daily is real.

The FCC must impose rules that prevent ISPs from implementing such policies. ISPs that oversold capacity must respond with improved pricing plans, not traffic blocking policies. To let the status quo continue imperils legitimate users of the global information infrastructure that so many of us depend upon daily.

The Bell Wake-Up Call

For months, I've been asked repeatedly why net neutrality has not taken off as a Canadian political and regulatory issue. While there has been some press coverage, several high-profile incidents, and a few instances of political or regulatory discussion (including the recent House of Commons Committee report on the CBC), the issue has not generated as much attention in Canada as it has in the United States

The reported impact of traffic shaping on CBC downloads highlights the danger that non-transparent network management practices pose to the CBC's fulfillment of its statutory mandate to distribute content in the most efficient manner possible. This should ultimately bring cultural groups like Friends of the CBC into the net neutrality mix. Moreover, it points to a significant competition concern. As cable and satellite companies seek to sell new video services to consumers, they simultaneously use their network provider position to lessen competition that seeks to deliver competing video via the Internet. This is an obvious conflict that requires real action from Canada's competition and broadcast regulators.

The Bell throttling practices also raise crucial competition issues.
The CRTC has tried to address limited ISP competition by requiring companies such as Bell to provide access to third-party ISPs that "resell" Bell service with regulated wholesale prices that lead to a measure of increased competition. Indeed, there are apparently about 100 companies that currently resell Bell access services. Many have made substantial investments in their own networks and have loyal customer bases that number into the tens of thousands.

Those same companies have expressed concern to Bell about the possibility that it might institute throttling and thereby directly affect their services. Until yesterday, Bell had sought to reassure the companies that this was not their plan. For example, in response to a question about network speeds to resellers, it told the CRTC in 2003 that:

Bell irks ISPs with new throttling policy

CBC To Release TV-Show via BitTorrent, For Free

CBC, Canada’s public television broadcaster has plans to release the
upcoming TV-show “Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister” for free via
BitTorrent. This makes CBC the first North-American broadcaster to
embrace the popular filesharing protocol.

According to an early report, high quality copies of the show will be
published the day after it aired on TV, without any DRM restrictions.

CBC is not alone in this, European broadcasters, including the BBC,
are currently working on a next generation BitTorrent client that will
allow them to make their content available online. The benefit of
BitTorrent is of course that it will reduce distribution costs.

The popularity of movies and TV-shows on BitTorrent hasn’t gone
unnoticed. We reported earlier that some TV-studios allegedly use
BitTorrent as a marketing tool, and others leaking unaired pilots

[snip]= Blocks Canadians from NHL Games