Does the Internet Need More Roads or Better Traffic Signals?

If the Internet is a highway, then the companies responsible for maintaining the roads are increasingly at odds with the ones producing a lot of the traffic. Comcast throttling BitTorrent traffic as a way to protect network integrity (or so it says) is one example. Another can be found in the arguments of a British ISP that’s seeking to get the BBC to pay for network upgrades, claiming the broadcaster’s iPlayer is hogging too much bandwidth.

I’m not going to get into the insanity happening in the UK right now, but what is worth talking about is how networks can handle the increasing amount of traffic going through their pipes. The request for funding to build more robust networks made by Simon Gunter, chief of strategy at ISP Tiscali, is akin to asking car companies to pay a tax for building more roads. It’s one way to address the issue, but there are other options, among them better traffic management, which would decrease the distance cars need to travel.

Now that I’ve thoroughly beaten that metaphor into the ground, let’s talk network management. It’s an evil phrase, but necessary in a world in which backhaul is limited and fiber to the home is still a luxury. Recall that the FCC had no problem with Comcast engaging in network management practices, but rather that Comcast “managed” a specific application without disclosing that fact to consumers. And the application attacked was competing with Comcast’s own cable offerings.

Many of these media files are delivered via peer-to-peer networks. They’ve long been the most efficient way to get large amounts of data across a network, and now they’re working hard to be even more efficient. Nine months ago, Verizon and Pando Networks stepped up to create the Peer 4 Peer working group, which is trying to create a standardized protocol through which P2P firms and ISPs could work together. The idea was that sharing an ISP’s network topology would help P2P companies route traffic in ways that are advantageous to both the ISP and the end user. Results included a 235 percent increase in delivery speeds in the U.S. and keeping more traffic inside an ISP’s own network.

The other way to reduce traffic involves each P2P company making tweaks to their software. In October of 2007, BitTorrent launched a function called BitTorrent DNA that recognizes when a network point is too congested and shunts the traffic flow through different areas. Jay Monahan, general counsel for Vuze, says his P2P company started paying more attention to congestion within the last few months as well.

At some point new roads will have to be built. But in the meantime, there are ways to prevent network congestion that don’t involve kicking certain cars off the road.

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