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Fear of peers

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Two items from GigaOM today serve as good reminders that the over-the-top video user experience can be degraded by factors that are not normally talked about in the context of net neutrality and are not addressed by the FCC’s 2010 net neutrality regulations (currently being challenged in court by Verizon).

One item, by Om and Stacy Higginbotham, concerns the “crappy Netflix experience” some Verizon broadband subscribers are having to endure these days. The other, by Janko Roettgers, concerns problems with YouTube videos experienced by Time Warner Cable broadband users.

Both problems are the result of peering disputes among network operators. In the Verizon case, the ISP appears to be having a peering dispute with Cogent Communications, which provides wholesale bandwidth to Netflix. Cogent and Verizon peer with each other in about 10 places. Over the last year, however, as Netflix traffic has grown on Cogent’s network, the flow of bits across those peering point has been increasingly asymmetric, with Cogent dumping a lot more bits on Verizon that Verizon is shipping Cogent. As with Comcast’s dispute with Level 3 in 2011 over the same issue, Verizon has apparently concluded that its free peering arrangement with Cogent is no longer equitable and wants to charge Cogent for the extra traffic. To make its point, Verizon apparently is allowing its peer connections with Congent to degrade.

“This is a business model problem, not an engineering problem,” Cogent CEO Dave Shaffer told Om.

In Time Warner Cable’s case, the MSO/ISP has been forced to issue a denial to allegations that it is intentionally throttling YouTube traffic.

The Internet is not as simple as one wire connecting a website’s servers to a customer’s home. Traffic originates in countless places, heading toward billions of end-user destinations. Each network that carries web traffic is itself a collection of a number of complicated technological and business relationships. As traffic flows from one area of the Internet to another, it passes through this network of technologies, agreements, and protocols and culminates in each particular user experience [snip]

Websites and other content providers make their own arrangements about how to get traffic to and from the Internet. And each participant in the Internet ecosystem makes its own decision about the formats and equipment to use, and each has its own budget. So the levels of quality vary greatly at the source as well as the network level…Delivery of video and other data over the Internet is a complex matter with many, many variables contributing to each particular end-user experience. But we can assure you that, at Time Warner Cable, we don’t throttle traffic.

Throttling traffic over the last mile, of course, particularly where that traffic could be seen as competitive with the ISP’s own content offerings, would be a straight up violation of the FCC’s net neutrality regs. Even if the courts ultimately throw those regs out, in fact, an ISP throttling competing traffic would be inviting antitrust scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department.

But the current net neutrality regs, as well as much of the net neutrality discussion so far, stop at the end of the last mile. They do not address (and the FCC would likely lack statutory authority to regulate) the B2B dealings between last-mile ISPs and other network operators. Yet there’s clearly plenty of user-experience mischief that can be made upstream of the last mile.