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US broadband providers holding last-mile traffic ransom, ISP alleges

Consumers see 'permanent' network congestion unless peering partners pay 'tolls'

Traffic in Beijing during period of heavy pollution

Consumer broadband providers in the US are deliberately ignoring traffic congestion on their networks, resulting in dramatically degraded service to customers, one major ISP has claimed.

The issue, according to a blog post by Level 3 Communications VP of content and media Mark Taylor, lies with the peering interconnects that link broadband providers with internet transport providers such as Level 3.

At least six consumer broadband providers have consistently refused to up the capacity of these interconnects to keep pace with their traffic growth, Taylor said, resulting in consumers experiencing network congestion that is effectively "permanent."

Level 3 currently has peering arrangements with a total of 51 other companies, Taylor said, including both other ISPs like itself and consumer broadband providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner.

Of those 51 companies, he said, 39 have no traffic congestion problems. Their peering interconnect ports run at an average utilization of around 36 per cent or less.

Another 12 companies currently have peering interconnect ports to Level 3's network that are running at 90 per cent utilization for several hours per day. That means the links are saturated; they're trying to ram far more traffic in and out of Level 3's network than the current equipment can efficiently handle, resulting in dropped and delayed packets.

"Six of those 12 have a single congested port," Taylor wrote, "and we are both (Level 3 and our peer) in the process of making upgrades – this is business as usual and happens occasionally as traffic swings around the Internet as customers change providers."

But the other six of the 12 are different, he said. These companies don't just have one congested port; nearly all of the ports linking their networks with Level 3's are congested. Nonetheless, they refuse Level 3's requests to jointly add more capacity – meaning their customers will likely see their internet service continue to degrade as traffic levels grow.

And while Taylor said Level 3 is not naming names, he said all six of these bad actors are big broadband providers, the kind that offer "last mile" internet access direct to consumers. One of them is in Europe, he said, while the other five are in the US.

So what's the hold-up for these companies? According to an earlier blog post by Level 3 general counsel of regulatory policy Michael Mooney, some last-mile ISPs are now refusing to augment the capacity of their networks unless their peering partners pay them to do so, in a break with historical internet peering practice.

"Some ISPs agree to augment capacity on reasonable terms," Mooney wrote. "But other ISPs try to strong arm the content providers into paying by playing a game of 'chicken' with the Internet ... These ISPs are placing a bet that because content providers have no other way to get their content to the ISPs subscribers, that they will cave in and start paying them."

Notably, streaming video service Netflix inked for-pay traffic sharing deals with Comcast and Verizon last month, albeit with gritted teeth. "Comcast can simply refuse to provide capacity to any network at any time, constraining the ability for Comcast users to use the services they want," Netflix VP Ken Florance observed at the time.

The issue is just one of many raised in the debate over network neutrality that's currently raging among ISPs, broadband providers, online service providers, customers, and regulators such as the US Federal Communications Commission.

In March, Level 3 petitioned [PDF] the FCC to support a policy that would force ISPs to offer interconnection with other networks on "commercially reasonable terms," rather than imposing "tolls" or "gatekeeper fees" for access to their users.

"Some say network neutrality is a solution looking for a problem," Mooney wrote in his blog post. "We disagree." ®

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