Virgin Media to dump neutrality and target BitTorrent users
It's deep packet inspection, but it's not for Phorm...
Exclusive The UK's second largest ISP, Virgin Media, will next year introduce network monitoring technology to specifically target and restrict BitTorrent traffic, its boss has told The Register.
The move will represent a major policy shift for the cable monopoly and is likely to anger advocates of "net neutrality", who say all internet traffic should be treated equally. Virgin Media currently temporarily throttles the bandwidth of its heaviest downloaders across all applications at peak times, rather than targeting and "shaping" specific types of traffic.
The firm argues that its current "traffic management" policy allows it to ensure service quality at peak times for 95 per cent of customers while still allowing peer-to-peer filesharers to download large amounts of data.
The details and timing of the new application-based restrictions are still being developed, Virgin Media's Kiwi CEO Neil Berkett said in an interview on Monday following the launch of his firm's new 50Mbit/s service. They will come into force around the middle of next year, he added.
A company spokesman later declined to provide more detail on the CEO's comments. He said: "Broadband has become integral to delivering home entertainment services and with data consumption growing rapidly, we are exploring new ways to enhance our product offering. Part of this involves intelligent monitoring and understanding the way people use our broadband service."
Virgin Media has launched its 50Mbit/s broadband package without any form of traffic restriction, but it said it would do so as take-up increases. Berkett said top package customers would be reined in from the middle of next year; the same time he proposes to introduce application-based restrictions.
Asked why the firm would ditch its system of choosing who to throttle based on their total usage, in favour of singling out BitTorrent, Berkett said: "I think it's an issue of fairness."
BitTorrent is a major problem for network operators, who characterise its heavy users as "bandwidth hogs". The US provider Comcast was last year summoned to Congressional hearings over measures it took to reduce the impact of BitTorrent on its network. The Federal Communications Commission subsequently banned  the practice and fined Comcast, prompting celebrations from net neutrality campaigners.
In the UK there has been no regulatory opposition to application-based bandwidth restriction. Major ISPs including BT and Carphone Warehouse use specialised "deep packet inspection" (DPI) equipment to monitor and manage the protocols running over their networks.
As recently as June this year, however, Virgin Media told  The Register it had no plans to follow suit. "Our policy does not discriminate internet traffic by application and we have no plans to do so," it said.
That statement was made in response to the suggestion that Virgin Media's purchase of DPI kit from the Israeli firm Allot was a precursor to restricting bandwidth-hungry applications such as BitTorrent.
"Whilst we do use equipment from Allot within parts of our cable network, this is used to build usage metrics and does not affect customers' service in any way. It is certainly not used to do any form of packet shaping or change internet traffic priorities," came the denial.
Yet Berkett was clear yesterday that application-based restrictions would form part of a broader strategy to "monetise the intelligence" in the Virgin Media network. The firm did not, as reported  by The Guardian today*, promise "to press ahead with its targeted online advertising technology".
DPI technology is at the centre of Phorm's system, but it's understood Berkett's comments about DPI yesterday did not refer to a behavioural advertising strategy. He also said comments he made  at an analyst presentation in New York last month ("Our next initiative probably won't be with the Phorms of the world") did not preclude the possibility that Virgin Media will adopt such technology, but indicated it will look to other services powered by DPI - ones likely to be perceived as more consumer-friendly - first.
For example, Virgin Media is known to be in advanced talks to launch a legal, licensed peer-to-peer music service. DPI would be used to monitor the popularity of music files, enabling it to fairly divide subscription revenues among record labels.
BT completed its third trial with Phorm last week and plans to roll the "WebWise" system out across its retail broadband network next year. "There will now be a period of joint analysis of the results. Following the successful completion of analysis, both of the trial results and of any changes required for expansion, BT has informed the Company that it expects to move towards deployment," Phorm told investors yesterday.
Two previous trials were conducted in secret without user consent and are subject to scrutiny from the European Commission and Crown Prosecution Service. Phorm shares closed at £2.80 yesterday on its statement, up 40 per cent. In February stock was changing hands for more than £35.
Virgin Media maintained much more distance from Phorm than BT and has not pledged any deployment, nor customer trials of the system.
Berkett maintained the non-committal stance, but said the firm intends to lead the ISP industry in new network services that exploit customer data. "How we go about that is the $64 [sic] question," he said, although it's clear that Phorm isn't Virgin Media's priority. ®
*13.59: The passage quoted has been removed from the story.
The press event to launch the 50Mbit/s package yesterday was held in a grand building overlooking Buckingham Palace gardens. Berkett volunteered that the Queen is a Virgin Media customer.
So what's the Sovereign's position on net neutrality? We think we should be told. Let us know in comments, Liz.