When Does An ISP Cross The Net Neutrality Line?

from the up-for-debate dept

Not that we feel particularly sorry for them, but broadband providers have really put themselves in a bind by working so many people into a lather over net neutrality. They've made it very difficult for themselves to actually follow through on their hardline rhetoric about blocking sites or degrading traffic of content providers that won't pay them, and this heightened awareness or hyper-sensitivity to net neutrality continues to dog them. For instance, Comcast apparently plans to launch a music and video download service (via Tech Trader Daily) at the end of the month. The service will reportedly send media files to both users' computers and their set-top box, which seems like a nice feature, but it will also apparently ignore bandwidth caps on a user's connection, making downloads from the Comcast service potentially faster than those from outside download stores. Unsurprisingly, this gets labeled as potentially being in "the grey area of Net Neutrality" -- which is actually pretty accurate, since it's really not clear that Comcast is doing anything wrong. As long as Comcast is not actively blocking or degrading other services' traffic, and giving people what they pay for (meaning if somebody's paying for a 5 Mbps connection, that's what they're getting), is there a problem if their own services run faster? It doesn't really seem like it, but of course, nothing is quite so straightforward. What happens if a user is paying for a level of service on a DSL or cable line that's not fast enough for something like VoIP from an external provider, but the ISP's own service, which ignores the bandwidth cap, will run perfectly? Again, that doesn't seem like it's such a problem, because with or without the ISP's service, the external service still wouldn't be able to run on such a slow pipe -- and the pipe is slow because the consumer has chosen a particular level of service. In many ways, this is the crux of the net neutrality argument: telcos and cable operators want to be able to offer their own services over their networks, and be able to use their ownership of the network to make their service more attractive. On the face of it, this seems okay, when the only limiting factor on outside services is the level of service for which the consumer has chosen to pay. Of course, there's an easy way around that: make the only level of service they offer ridiculously slow, then ignore that cap for internal services and traffic from content providers that have paid up. While that's a possibility, again, it's a plan that would destroy a broadband ISP's business.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 1:01pm

    One issue ISP's will need to cover is the term "Best Effort". What the lay person thinks "best effort" is quite different than what the term means in the industry.

     

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    Dirtboy, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 1:17pm

    Every time you give a packet higher priority, every other packet is effectively being given a lower priority.

    What happens when Comcast degrades everyone else's speed in order to pipe out the video to those few who need it faster? How would you identify it? Would you be able to argue that while paying for 1.5 Mb downloads, you were only getting 256 Kb because your traffic had lower priority than upsell services from Comcast?

    This type of service almost defeats itself. If it becomes popular and someone is downloading music or movies at any given time, then your internet service becomes less valuable to every one else. Is it worth the cost of the customers you will lose for crappy service, or the cost of having to upgrade your infrastructure so that you do not lose them?

    I'm glad I don't have to answer these questions (yet).

     

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    Sean, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 1:52pm

    It should not slow the services down. They still have the same amount of bandwidth coming in from the net. Its like having a home or work network with a file server on it you can be uploading or DLing the newest back up at 90Mbs and other computers can still get on the net with out any slow down due to you unless the internal network is at its limits.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 1:59pm

    "If it becomes popular and someone is downloading music or movies at any given time, then your internet service becomes less valuable to every one else."

    What? That's how it works now on Comcast. They make it clear that your speed isn't guaranteed (due in part to the kid next door downloading movies all day and night).

    What this is about now is not slowing down competitors (which I disagree with) but in speeding only their own network up at apparently no extra charge (which I don't disagree with). They're removing caps that were normally there for regular usage in order to provide their services faster. Of course, to the Average Joe it will seem like everything else is slower once he's experienced the faster speed.

     

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    ehrichweiss, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 2:04pm

    RE:"What happens if a user is paying for a level of service on a DSL or cable line that's not fast enough for something like VoIP from an external provider, but the ISP's own service, which ignores the bandwidth cap, will run perfectly?"

    On DSL the bandwidth cap isn't adjustable by the ISP unless the ISP also happens to be the telco and even then they have major limitations.

    Most cable companies hookup a second cable modem to handle the VOIP traffic so that your standard traffic doesn't suffer so that's really not an issue either, and besides, VOIP traffic isn't all that bandwidth intensive overall; even my slowest 128k could handle it and with 256/384+ upstream (actually nearing 11mbs SYMETRICAL in my area right now) you have plenty of bandwidth to spare.

     

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  6.  
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    Devang, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 2:06pm

    Make each ISP prioritize all video, and audio services the same, so I can get acess to any VoIP and Video over IP service provider on the internet. It's what the republicans in congress say they're doing (lookup "The Communicators" on C-SPAN) to help promote competition. It's what the Markey ammendment did too if I'm to have read the bloggers who've read the bill and ammendment correctly. The ISP's will just have to hope that someone from another ISP will sign up for their VoIP service if it's cheaper... why it's perfect competition! That's presuming offcourse that prioritizing a whole class of packets doesn't strain the intra-ISP connections, which they're bound to do.

    There are loads of technicalities beyond this, like my university shaping traffic for realplayer packets which are important only to the students studying remotely, and how existing services should not be degraded, but if the problem is video and audio, and the internet is to get rid of monopolies, there is no point in myspace spending extra to get preferred treatment on verizon's network alone, and if there is... we might as well not have the internet.

    I like the me-owning-the-last-mile-of-the-fiber-coming-to-my-house idea, I get more bandwidth, and the ISP's can concentrate on something other than preserving their monopolies.

     

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    ehrichweiss, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 2:15pm

    I need to add that most cable companies don't have the bandwidth crunch they'd like to make some people think they have since they can delegate unused channels to carrying data instead of video-on-demand, etc and thanks to how their network switches, they can pump extra bandwidth to selected nodes without any performance drop in others.

    Think of it this way, VOD takes an insane amount of bandwidth and yet you and every one of your neighbors could watch it simultaneously and never get a single skip or glitch in the video; they can do the exact same with your VOIP, etc. and no one would be the wiser.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 4:12pm

    Re:

    You fail to ask the right question: Does Comcast's pipe allow for this type of service without degrading the connection speeds of their customers?

    If not than this isn't an issue and your perspective is moot as the higher priority packets don't affect the lower priority ones because the network bandwidth can handle the traffic.

    However, if the answer to this question is 'yes,' than you make a very good point.

    Anyone have an inside perspective on the speed of their pipes and whether or not this service will affect consumer connection speeds?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 5:42pm

    Considering Comcast already lets me download at ~1Mb/s I wouldn't mind them stealing some speed from me to give to a neighbor downloading movies. What I wonder is if they will still shut your connection off for downloading too much.

     

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    A. Nony Mouse, Oct 6th, 2006 @ 6:17pm

    I don't see why the ISPs can't just bring online some of their dark fiber. That's what it's there for - to expand the network if they need extra bandwidth. There's no reason for them to "steal" bandwidth from customers that don't subscribe to the movie subscription service.

    As for the priority issue, if Comcast gives unlimited downloads and uncapped speeds for their service then they should allow customers to get the same unlimited downloads from another service (like Netflix). Failing to do so would likely lead to lawsuits.

     

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  11.  
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    w1nX aka iPiR@te, Oct 7th, 2006 @ 9:24am

    Comment #9

    Why pay for video on demand when you can download movies anyways?? The same time they get released for the On-Demand / pay-per-view service, they've been availiable on the Net almost immediately, thanks to DVR and TiVo. I'll wait the 2-3 hrs for the download thanks.
    BTW - I logged into my cable account - I'm only 1900% over my availiable download "cap" of 60GB, mind you I've got a roommate and a wireless access point as well

     

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    Dirtboy, Oct 7th, 2006 @ 11:56am

    "If not than this isn't an issue and your perspective is moot as the higher priority packets don't affect the lower priority ones because the network bandwidth can handle the traffic."

    Then why prioritize at all? The fact that they want to prioritize their own packets means that THEY believe that it will deliver higher speed to chosen customers. If their bandwidth was sufficient, then there would be no need to prioritize any packets at all, since the downloads would be the same for everyone, including what come from their service. Their bandwidth is finite, and they can see that delivering video along the same pipes as normal internet traffic might saturate it.

    And after writing all of this I go back and realize I have gotten way off the point of the story. Packet priority was never mentioned, but I do believe it will be done on the backend without a major press release. Cable in particular uses a "shared bandwdith" model right? I have DSL, but everyone I have spoken to concerning cable internet tells me that their 1.5 Mb connection slows to a crawl (modem speeds) every workday at 5:30 PM. Thats when everyone gets home from work and checks their email. Email is very small compared to video content. Good luck on those days when a new release is put on their servers. You might not mind if your neighbor gets a little more bandwidth to get a movie, but what if your entire neighborhood was downloading the new feelgood J.Lo movie on release day, or weekend, or however long it will take to download it 30 times on your circuit?

    I'm not for or against this. I just have technical knowledge with a lot of ISP's delivering a lot of different services with my job and I don't like it when companies use this kind of technology to give you less than you think your paying for.

     

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  13.  
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    satan, Oct 8th, 2006 @ 12:30am

    let

    Let the insanity begin!

     

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  14.  
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    Matt, Oct 8th, 2006 @ 6:19pm

    Solution

    Break up the monopolies and every single god damned problem will disappear.

    Thank you US. Government for caring more about the telcos than the people. yay?

     

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  15.  
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    d.l., Oct 9th, 2006 @ 9:13am

    Re:

    At some point all broadband networks are "shared." DSL is shared everywhere except the home-DSLAM portion of the network.

    In either cable or DSL networks, increasing the maximum speed available to one or more end users may require more capacity in whatever part of the network is shared. Otherwise congestion may rise. Comcast has basically decided that the benefit to lifting the cap for its video and music sales is worth the cost (which it will incur as more congestion, more capacity, or a combination).

    From the perspective of its customers, it might be a bad thing of Comcast decides to incur the cost in the form of more congestion. But since Comcast has not obligated itself to deliver any particular level of performance, its customers have no recourse against Comcast other than to cancel their service.

     

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  16.  
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    HandsOff234, Oct 10th, 2006 @ 9:32am

    In other words, it's not a problem!

    Speaking as someone working with the Hands Off campaign (i.e. let's not rush to regulate on this matter) I read this and I see: "this isn't a problem, but maybe it could be, and that's just fine, but you never know..."

    Comcast actually isn't part of our organization, but I'll still say, that could be a great service. If it ignores your caps, then consumers will actually be getting MORE than they're paying for. Gotta like that. And as for how this works out in the aggregate, well, there's a reason the telecom industry has been investing so heavily in bigger pipes.

     

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  17.  
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    Babbah, Feb 9th, 2007 @ 2:33pm

    Re: To be or not to be neutral

    I have used Verizon and Comcast for my ISP at one time or another and although most people complain about the high traffic slow down times with Comcast, their service seems far more reliable in my area - MD/DE/PA - than any Verizon service I have seen. The Cable company doesn't exactly boast about their speeds, they try to target a number that you can actually expect to receive most of the time, usually they go way over their target, usually makes people happier than a company that brags and boasts about a speed they never acheive and that cannot hold up on large downloads. Who hasn't been disappointed about Verizon's gradual slow down on a file download larger than 10 MB ? I cannot say I have ever seen that with Comcast. Just chugs along like a champ.

    Now as for neutrality, I am suspecting that Verizon actually hinders all connections originating from the Comcast network, and probably other competitors, and here is why I think this. Verizon has an infospeed bandwidth test page that I am sure most of us have seen. It is based in Reston, VA. My Comcast speed is rated at 16/1 but I usually get about 25/1. When I test using Verizon's test page it cannot even download any faster then 700K. But I can open another page at the same time and test on the Wash DC Speakeasy site and see my full bandwidth uncompromised. Either Verizon works against the Comcast speed or they just suck at networking, maybe both ! This isn't even for a service, this is just a speedtest.

    The cable company should not be considered a net neutrality offender when they offer a special deal to their customers, heck ! you don't even have to call in or order any upgrades, they just give them to you without asking. Verizon will just sit tight with you at their lowest rated packages to see how long you will pay them too much money when they offer new customers the better deals.

    I don't trust Verizon obviously, I would rather pay more to a cable company for a valuable service than to deal with rude and incompetent customer service reps at Verizon that don't even want to talk to you anyway. We'll see how much more they offend the truely higher speed internet world as we go along.

     

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