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Summary:

Even if the FCC reimposes “net neutrality” rules, consumers’ video streams could still suffer if ISP’s are allowed to impose choke points at deeper layers of the internet.

Even if advocates for net neutrality win the battle at the FCC over “no discrimination” rules, they could still lose the war if ISPs subvert the spirit of those rules by applying chokepoints at deeper layers of the internet. For practical purposes, this would mean that any internet traffic would reach your house at the same speed — but that some types of that traffic, especially from video-heavy websites like Netflix, would arrive in a degraded condition.

This, anyway, is the fear of Level 3, an internet communication company that has been  raising the alarm over ISPs that demand “tolls” behind the scenes to guarantee certain types of internet traffic get passed through to the end customer.

On Monday, Level 3 proposed in a blog post that the FCC adopt interconnection rules that would require ISPs to accept traffic without requiring a fee beyond what they charge to their customers:

If Internet content is delivered locally – in the ISP’s local market closest to the location of the ISP’s customer requesting the content – the ISP must accept the traffic and deliver it to its customer without charging a fee. The ISP could require the aggregation of some minimum amount of traffic to avoid an obligation to interconnect with “everybody”.

More broadly, the company also stated that ISP’s should not be able to prioritize some websites’ content over others, nor impose data caps that don’t apply to the ISP’s own offerings.

Level 3, however, also appeared to acknowledge that maintaining interconnection points isn’t a one-way street, stating in the blog that “no one should get a free ride” and that websites and back-end companies “must also do their fair share of the work to deliver content to the ISP.”

Level 3 is basically asking the FCC to require that ISPs do their bit to maintain the gates at which traffic comes and goes from the rest of the web. Here is how Level 3 depicted the traffic distribution process in Monday’s blog post (Level 3 is a CDN and backbone provider as depicted in “option 2 and 3″) :

Level 3 peering graphic

In the past, the process for passing traffic through these interconnection points has been uncontroversial as a result of “peering” agreements under which ISPs and companies like Level 3 agreed to accept the other’s respective incoming or outgoing internet traffic. Recently, however, a new flood of inward-bound video traffic has led ISPs to demand payments for upgrading the critical inter-connection points — if the likes of Level 3 failed to pay the toll, then the interconnection gate would not be big enough, and the end-customer would see a dreaded “buffering” message while trying to watch Netflix or YouTube.

Level 3’s call for new rules, then, is a way for it to call foul on certain ISPs that it thinks are playing unfair; the company’s blog post does, however, also points to some ISP’s that it claims are acting in good faith.

So does Level 3 have a point? Are certain ISP’s playing dirty at deeper levels of the internet?

For now, there’s not enough information to say for sure, but the FCC is looking into it as part of the broader process of remaking rules for the internet (previous net neutrality rules collapsed in court in January).

Depending on what the agency discovers in its inquiry, it could grant Level 3’s wish by imposing anti-discrimination rules that would reduce some of the ISPs’ leverage to demand that CDNs and content providers pay tolls.

The FCC is currently in the midst of a comment period on the net neutrality debate, and final proposed rules are not expected till late in the year.

Correction: an earlier version of this story referred to Level 3 as a content delivery network. It was updated at 4pm ET to say that the company is also a backbone network provider.

  1. Jim Jackson Tuesday, July 8, 2014

    Free peering is based on an equal traffic exchange, When one side begins sending 30+ % more traffic than they receive from a peering partner just exactly why do they expect to still have the free peering remain in place?

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    1. Stop repeating this weak argument. With this argument, consumer ISPs are always going to have the upper hand against companies like Level 3 who actually run the expensive submarine cables that make the internet what it is.

      I pay my ISP to give me whatever I request. My ISP needs to establish the interconnects it needs to in order to meet the terms of the contract it gave me. My ISP can either lay it’s own submarine cables to every other global ISP, or they can interconnect with people like Level 3 at agreed exchange points.

      If I pay for a 50mbps pipe and I cannot watch a netflix stream at 5mbps, when Netflix has done everything it can to make itself available at the various Internet Exchange points around the world, and Comcast refuses to upgrade it’s interconnects just because it has the power (because it’s subscribers are always requesting, rather than uploading, and they also cripple the upload side of their customer’s connections and have TOS that prevent running servers), then the fault and the blame lies squarely with Netflix, and If I could afford, I would start a lawsuit against comcast for breach of contract.

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      1. Meh, the fault and blame lies with the ISP, for example, Comcast :)

        slip of tongue there.

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  2. Thankfulperson Tuesday, July 8, 2014

    I have a better solution than having to change how the internet works just for streaming movies: WAIT for the movie and let it buffer a few minutes and thankful that you can even watch movies at home at your convenience, especially in good and even HD quality.

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  3. The idea of charging extra to get your service to the customer is totally ridiculous. Companies that purchase internet service buy a certain size line. That line is also set to handle a certain speed of traffic and also how much traffic it is going to carry over a period of time, usually a month. If the company goes over they pay extra for that usage. So w we are now seeing is basically the providers wanting to double dip. But is it really what they are trying to do? Might they have other reasons for doing this? How many of the providers that are pushing for this have a service that competes with Netflix and other streaming services? Are they pushing this to strengthen their duopolies that they created years ago promising that the cost of internet services in the US would drop? On the flip side our politicians who are supposedly in office to protect the American people are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from these companies either directly or through lobby groups that they have set up to take care of the people (former government workers or politicians) after they have helped do their bidding.
    Maybe internet providers should not be allowed to provide services beyond connectivity. They have the power to drive other competing businesses out of business by manipulating the networks. Might they also be able to affect the campaign activities of opposing politicians?
    Net neutrality should be “the providers will provide the service paid for, unobstructed and unfiltered, from place of origin to the end users.” No additional costs and no special rates for anyone or anything.

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  4. Pauline Overby Tuesday, July 8, 2014

    The internet is a public communication. It was created in 1969 by ARPA a department in our defense military. It connected, first
    Pentagon communications then to bases ans colleges. It still belongs to you and me. We pay fees to access it by wire. Congress has tried to get wireless (wifi) available.

    We could use the electrical wiring to get to each home, but the telephone companies do not want to loose the business. Such a transmission could be made available with wireless transmitters set as relay stations threw areas that are on different electrical grids. Pete and repeat. The internet uses unlimited packets sorted by address, and they arrive at different points at different times and often to build the message you see. It should be available to all and our phone communication and cell phones can work off it as well.

    We don’t need to be held up by the phone companies.

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  5. mrg3dit2002 Tuesday, July 8, 2014

    @Pauline Overby
    and I thought I was the only one that seen the internet like that, small world!

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  6. Correction: Level 3 is a backbone business, the largest in the world. They also just so happen to be a CDN. They are not a CDN company that just happens to provide backbone services as the article alludes to.

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  7. Jim Jackson you have no idea about the subject you are speaking of.

    If we went by your statement then you need to consider 3 things.

    1.) Not a single bit of traffic is sent by Netflix to an ISP subscriber without that ISP subscriber explicitly requesting it. It doest matter if it is 1%, 30% or 95% of all internet traffic.
    2.) ISPs sell their connections asynchronous so that the ISP network will NEVER send as much traffic to a peering partner as they request from it. Their TOS further cements this by making it against the rules to host any service that may create traffic “up stream”. Thus the ISP adds absolutely no value to the internet and would not be a part of the internet without backbone peering.
    3.) Comcast, being very large, is trying to include their ISP consumers traffic into peering as though they are doing the backbone providers a favor by taking the traffic their own ISP consumers have requested and delivering it to them.

    How long do you think any ISP would survive if all backbone providers refused to do business with them? Not long as nobody wants an AOL without being able to get to the actual internet.

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  8. Franklin Pierce Tuesday, July 8, 2014

    Whatever a monopoly cable system ISP -can- do to further monetize it’s position, it will do. This is what all monopolies, throughout all of history, have done: Create artificial scarcity and continue to raise prices and profits to the maximum extent possible, and to invest as little as possible in it’s assets–except for billing systems. It is actually what they’re supposed to do, right? It’s what I would do if I ran Comcast. Nobody ever said capitalism is supposed to be fair, right?

    That’s why we must reform this system. Otherwise the monopoly cable systems will continue to impose “taxes” on us, to the tune of $1,000+ per year, and going up into the future, for the privilege of buying their franchised, monopoly service. Remember, it is the Republicans who are in favor of these “taxes.” Not the Democrats.

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  9. jeffrey james snyder Tuesday, July 8, 2014

    its not a free ride because you have to pay your cable bill…after i have paid my cable bill i expect no other charges…the bastards are trying to squeeze in some extra charges

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