Two North American telecommunications regulatory agencies are proactively entering into some gritty details of network management. The results might announce a new era of strengthened regulatory capabilities to enforce Net neutrality. Concurrently, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has recently convened two Birds of a Feather (BoF) groups to address traffic-management complexities exemplified by rising peer-to-peer (P2P) application use that some ISPs claim is choking off bandwidth for other users.
The new traffic-management discussion centers on how far Internet service providers (ISPs) can go in limiting customers' bandwidth and how much information they must disclose about how they're doing it. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission found that cable ISP Comcast illegally used deep packet inspection (DPI) technology to throttle application-specific P2P packets. Specifically, Comcast separated BitTorrent P2P packets from the message transport, then used TCP reset packets to make the P2P packets look as though they were coming from other end users' computers.
Farther north, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission ( www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/welcome.htm) has also been investigating complaints by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers. The CAIP claims that telecommunications giant Bell Canada has been throttling retail P2P traffic as it traverses the large carrier's backbones-transport for which the small ISPs have paid Bell without expecting proactive degradation.
"We are currently addressing the traffic-shaping issue in the context of Bell's wholesale broadband access tariff," CRTC Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein said in an address at the Canadian Telecom Summit in June ( www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/NEWS/SPEECHES/2008/s080617.htm). "But this particular dispute is just the tip of the iceberg. Under the heading of 'Net neutrality' lies a whole range of questions affecting consumers and service providers. Fundamental issues of technology, economics, competition, access, and freedom of speech are all involved."
The FCC flexes its new muscles
The FCC stopped short of fining Comcast for its actions in throttling P2P content. However, it issued a strongly worded warning early in August and reiterated its criticisms in its official Memorandum Opinion and Order, released 20 August ( http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-08-183A1.pdf).
"Although Comcast asserts that its conduct is necessary to ease network congestion, we conclude that the company's discriminatory and arbitrary practice unduly squelches the dynamic benefits of an open and accessible Internet and does not constitute reasonable network management," the order states. "Moreover, Comcast's failure to disclose the company's practice to its customers has compounded the harm. Accordingly, we institute a plan that will bring Comcast's unreasonable conduct to an end."
In particular, the order lays out the following steps Comcast must take to satisfy the Commission:
• Comcast must disclose within 30 days the details of their unreasonable network management practices;
• Comcast must also submit a compliance plan describing how it intends to stop these unreasonable management practices by the end of the year; and
• Comcast must disclose to both the Commission and the public the details of the network management practices that it intends to deploy following termination of its current practices.
Some US-based observers expressed surprise that the current FCC, which has struck many as more friendly to business and government interests than to consumers, issued such a strong order against one of the nation's largest ISPs. However, Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), says the ruling indicates more than an "us versus them" business-consumer story.
"I think most of the stories about [FCC chairman] Kevin Martin being too pro-big media/anti-consumer were a little too simple, and I think this ruling indicates there are more complicated politics going on here," von Lohmann says. "I wouldn't say I was surprised. Obviously this is the same FCC that gave us the Internet policy statement ( http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-260435A1.pdf). So, there was some handwriting on the wall that Martin felt Net neutrality was important."
However, von Lohmann says the Comcast order also signifies what could be a sea change in Internet regulation. Specifically, it could represent an FCC power grab.
"If you look at it in the framework that the FCC has announced it intends to regulate ISPs," von Lohmann says, "that's a pretty big power grab. So maybe it's not all about the consumer, but about expanding the empire of the FCC— which is entirely consistent with what Martin and other chairmen have done."
ISPs' lack of disclosure regarding both their traffic management technologies and their explicit consumption limits have been a long-standing bugaboo for US consumers, who buy Internet connections that ISPs commonly claim offer speeds "up to" a given bandwidth per second. However, many of these connections don't always (and sometimes never) reach the rates claimed in the sales pitches. EFF's von Lohmann says the Comcast order is a step toward addressing this larger problem of murky sales pitches and subsequent arbitrary limitations on customers' use of their connection.
"The main thrust of our comments to the FCC is, if the free market is going to work here, consumers have to know what they're buying," he says. "Right now, it's really a problem. Even after this whole thing broke, if you went to the Comcast Web site, they had some very ambiguous mumbo jumbo."
The FCC order and von Lohmann also pointed out that letting an ISP throttle bandwidth at an application-specific level raises concerns about anti-competitiveness. For example, if an ISP throttled legitimate P2P-based activity because it wanted to sell more video-on-demand (VoD), it would be unfairly advantaging VoD among consumers who were frustrated with mysteriously nonworking P2P applications.
Comcast had no comment. However, at the end of August, the company announced that on 1 October, it would place a 250 gigabyte per month data cap on all residential users ( www.comcast.net/terms/network/amendment/). It also filed an appeal with the US Circuit Court of Appeals on 4 September ( www.dslreports.com/r0/download/1346422~3347ae6219e0ec1cf7829412213b174c/Comcast filing.pdf).
Global approaches&and a technical solution?
The FCC action is just one of several developments worldwide highlighting the urgency around managing P2P traffic to ensure enough bandwidth for all users.
In Canada, the CRTC is expected to reach a final decision on the CAIP-Bell dispute by the end of October. In May, the commission didn't grant immediate interim relief for CAIP, which has requested that CRTC order Bell to halt throttling of the wholesale access services it sold to CAIP members. However, the lack of interim relief doesn't mean the CRTC is dropping the matter.
"Based on the record, the Commission is satisfied that CAIP has demonstrated that there is a serious issue to be determined regarding whether Bell Canada's practice of throttling Internet traffic carried by CAIP's members subscribing to the GAS [gateway access service] tariff is in accordance with the requirements of the [Telecommunications] Act," the CRTC stated in its interim decision on 14 May ( www.crtc.gc.ca/archive/ENG/Decisions/2008/dt2008-39.htm).
In Japan, where ultra-high-speed networks are more ubiquitous than in the US, one of the nation's largest ISPs has issued an explicit traffic management policy. OCN, an ISP owned by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT), announced that effective 1 August, users who uploaded more than 30 gigabytes of data daily—about the equivalent of seven feature-length movies, according to an NT spokesman-would be asked to throttle their activities or face disconnection ( www.ntt.com/release_e/news08/0006/0625.html). However, OCN won't limit downlink traffic.
Leipzig, Germany-based software vendor Ipoque ( www.ipoque.com) has developed a traffic-management application that lets customers such as educational institutions create BitTorrent white lists for public domain files such as Linux distributions, open source software, and NASA imagery.
"By putting all acceptable sources in the BitTorrent white list, such content can be accessed without restrictions, while access to all other, undesired content can be blocked," Ipoque documents explain. "Many of Ipoque's educational customers have implemented an online submission procedure that allows students to request additional BitTorrent sources to be white-listed."
Ipoque CEO Klaus Mochalski says the company's traffic management application can discern legitimate traffic by tying a given user's download to the coordinating BitTorrent tracker operated by the organization distributing the software, and subsequently whitelist it.
Techniques for Advanced Networking Applications (TANA) is one of the two IETF BoFs discussing possible solutions to P2P traffic and network congestion. The TANA BoF met at the most recent IETF meeting in Dublin, attracting participants from both the P2P and ISP communities, including Comcast.
EFF's von Lohmann says he thinks the standards-based approach will win out with technologists over a pastiche of national regulatory schemes.
"I can't imagine a network engineer would tolerate this kind of undisclosed protocol-based discrimination on his or her own Internet connection," he says. "That's always my test for the engineers. Would you live with this, especially if no one told you about it?"
The EFF has also developed a network-testing tool called Switzerland ( www.eff.org/testyourisp/switzerland). The tool is currently a command-line-based application in alpha release, designed to detect the modification or injection of packets of data traveling over IP networks, including those introduced by anti-P2P tools. Ultimately, von Lohmann would like to see a market characterized by more ISP choices for consumers, perhaps a market in which competing ISPs used such tools to keep each other honest.
"If I had to choose between FCC regulation and more free market competition, I'd choose free market competition every time," he says. "For example, the FCC doesn't have the resources to monitor every ISP, but you could bet competitors would have those resources. There are plenty of network management solutions that make sense and can be fully disclosed, and in a perfect world, we'd have competition between ISPs so consumers could choose. That's still the big problem here-the lack of competition along with the lack of disclosure."