US cable giant to throttle P2P
No, not that one
Cox Communications - America's third-largest cableco - is on the verge of testing new network technology that will fast-track certain "time-sensitive" internet traffic during periods of congestion.
This also means that "less time-sensitive traffic" will be slow-tracked.
As it announced late last night with a post to its website, Cox plans to test this new technology next month on broadband customers in Kansas and Arkansas.
"During the occasional times the network is congested, this new technology automatically ensures that all time-sensitive Internet traffic – such as web pages, voice calls, streaming videos and gaming – moves without delay. Less time-sensitive traffic, such as file uploads, peer-to-peer and Usenet newsgroups, may be delayed momentarily – but only when the local network is congested," the post reads.
"Our goal is to ensure that customers continue to experience the consistently fast, reliable Internet service they’ve come to expect from Cox."
The company should be commended for at least alerting the world to its new plan. In addition to announcing February tests via the web, Cox says it will notify affected customers via email and snail mail.
But the particulars of the plan are unclear. And naturally, the net neuts want some answers. "My initial thoughts are caution and skepticism based on past history with cable companies in this respect," Ben Scott, policy director of net watchdog Free Press told The Reg. "But I'd like to withhold judgment until I know a little bit more, find out what they have in mind beyond the generalities, beyond what they have on their website."
When we contacted Cox, it would not provide addition detail. "At this point, we’re not talking about the details of the technology being used, as this trial is based on policies that are designed to create a more customer-friendly user experience, rather than a particular equipment platform," a company spokesman told us.
It's unclear how the cableco will measure congestion, and it's unclear how it will identify traffic for fast-tracking. "Are they looking inside the packet to see what kind of content it is? Or are application providers pre-applying to get on a list? Are you looking at the header? Is it a precise methodology?" Scott asks.
The Comcast Analogy
Comcast - America's largest cableco - recently rolled out its own system for throttling certain network traffic during periods of congestion. But it works a bit differently.
Comcast's new software monitors traffic on each segment of its network, the company says, and if a segment's upstream or downstream usage exceeds certain thresholds, traffic from subscribers using particularly large amounts of bandwidth will be delayed.
Comcast settled on this so-called "protocol agnostic" approach after it was slapped by the FCC for surreptitiously blocking P2P traffic. The FCC insisted that the cableco adopt network-management techniques that don't discriminate against particular applications.
Cox is confident its methods will appease the FCC - even though its methods do seem to discriminate against particular applications. "If you're selecting applications and deciding which should be delayed and the user has no choice," Scott says, "that strikes me as problematic."
What's more, all signs indicate that the FCC will soon come down even harder on ISP management practices. An avowed net neut is set to take the Commission's reins now that Barack Obama is in the Oval Office.
Network architect Richard Bennett - one of Comcast's staunchest supporters during its battle with the FCC - takes the other side. "The issue for net neutrality as always been VOIP. Cox claims it is positively affecting VOIP, and they claim it will positively affect video streaming," he says, "and if that's the case, they're on the side of the user here."
But for many - including Peter Eckersley, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, another net watchdog - the problem is that Cox presumes to know what the user wants. "They are planning to detect different network protocols (or use-cases for those protocols), and have their own rules about how those protocols will be treated. If that's the case, Cox will be picking winners and losers, and leading us into a briar of thorny network neutrality questions.
"The problem is that there is no reliable and fair way for the network to decide which protocols should be prioritized. Cox says it wants to prioritize bandwidth-intensive streaming video, but deprioritize bandwidth-intensive P2P protocols like BitTorrent. How do they know that some program isn't using a P2P protocol to stream video in real time? People in fact do that all the time."
As the net neuts and the anti-net neuts fought like the Hatfields and the Coys over Comcast's BitTorrent blocking, independent tests also indicated that Cox was throttling P2P on the sly. But a formal complaint was never filed. ®