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Service providers play favourites

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NetEvents Have you been a Skype user for ages? Noticed that it isn't as good as it was? Silent moments, repeated sounds, buzzes? Here's the good news: it's almost certainly fixable. The bad news? You have to lobby your cable company to fix it.

It turns out that a company called Sandvine is now boasting of its ability to "manage" peer to peer traffic over the internet. What this means, simply, is that if your ISP doesn't like what you're doing with your internet connection, it can slow you down.

Sandvine told delegates to this week's NetEvents Summit here in Garmisch, Germany, that peer to peer services like BitTorrent and eDonkey - and Skype - were now forcing internet service providers to increase capacity.

"From our survey, we can tell that out of all the traffic coming into the network, 60 per cent is peer to peer; and 70 per cent of the upstream traffic is also peer to peer," said the company today.

The number of file sharers has risen dramatically, says Sandvine. "Users are moving from sharing three meg songs to uploading and downloading 600 gig movies. That means that service providers have had to apply a lot of traffic assistance for this increased traffic."

Traffic assistance? "Reducing the number of sessions that are allowed. Nobody wants to control customers and say what they can and cannot do... but ISPs want some control to reduce the cost."

This "control" and "traffic assistance" started in the cable sector: cable companies are designed to transmit data out, not receive it in. It was set up to send TV signals from a central broadcast station, out to all subscribers.

But today's broadband users want to upload as much as they download. BitTorrent sends data, not from a central supplier, but from one user to another. And when the second user has the data, they become a supplier: they start uploading to the next downloader - doubling the capacity; and soon after, there will be six uploaders.

Peer to peer file sharing is categorised by many ISPs and copyright owners as "wicked" but in fact, it will be used for software distribution - Microsoft itself is trying to set up a peer to peer technology, to take the heavy download work off its expensive servers when releasing new versions. And Linux releases like Slackware have been freely available since BitTorrent, when they were almost totally unreachable from private servers.

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