The end of the net as we know it

Even today’s traffic management methods can cause huge problems for certain websites and services. Peer-to-peer services are a common victim of ISPs’ traffic management policies, often being deprioritised to a snail’s pace during peak hours. While the intended target may be the bandwidth hogs using BitTorrent clients to download illicit copies of the latest movie releases, legitimate applications can also fall victim to such blunderbuss filtering.

“Peer-to-peer applications are very wide ranging,” said Jean-Jacques Sahel, director of government and regulatory affairs at VoIP service Skype. “They go from the lovely peer-to-peer file-sharing applications that were referred to in the Digital Economy Act, all the way to things such as the BBC iPlayer [which used to run on P2P software] or Skype. So what does that mean? If I manage my traffic from a technical perspective, knowing that Skype actually doesn’t eat up much bandwidth at all, why should it be deprioritised because it’s peer-to-peer?”

Nowhere has the effect of draconian traffic management been felt more vividly than on the mobile internet

Nowhere has the effect of draconian traffic management been felt more vividly than on the mobile internet. Websites and services blocked at the whim of the network, video so compressed it looks like an Al-Qaeda propaganda tape, and varying charges for different types of data are already commonplace.

Skype is outlawed by a number of British mobile networks fearful of losing phone call revenue; 02 bans iPhone owners from watching the BBC iPlayer over a 3G connection; and almost all networks outlaw tethering a mobile phone to a laptop or tablet on standard “unlimited data” contracts.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, has this chilling warning for fixed-line broadband users: “Look at the mobile market, think if that is how you want your internet and your devices to work in the future, because that’s where things are leading.”

Video blockers

Until now, fixed-line ISPs have largely resisted the more drastic blocking measures chosen by the mobile operators. But if there’s one area in which ISPs are gagging to rip up what’s left of the cherished concept of net neutrality, it’s video.

Streaming video recently overtook peer-to-peer to become the largest single category of internet traffic, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index. It’s the chief reason why the amount of data used by the average internet connection has shot up by 31% over the past year, to a once unthinkable 14.9GB a month.

Internet TV

Managing video traffic is unquestionably a major headache for ISPs and broadcasters alike. ISPs are introducing ever tighter traffic management policies to make sure networks don’t collapse under the weight of video-on-demand during peak hours. Meanwhile, broadcasters such as the BBC and Channel 4 pay content delivery networks (CDNs) such as Akamai millions of pounds every year to distribute their video across the network and closer to the consumer; this helps avoid bandwidth bottlenecks when tens of thousands of people attempt to stream The Apprentice at the same time.

Now the ISPs want to cut out the middleman and get video broadcasters to pay them – instead of the CDNs – for guaranteed bandwidth. So if, for example, the BBC wants to guarantee that TalkTalk customers can watch uninterrupted HD streams from iPlayer, it had better be willing to pay for the privilege. A senior executive at a major broadcaster told PC Pro that his company has already been approached by two leading ISPs looking to cut such a deal.

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