With an ever greater amount of video being consumed online, many Internet users are in for a shock. There’s a dirty little secret in the broadband industry: Internet Service Providers (ISPs) don’t have the capacity to deliver the bandwidth that they claim to offer. One way ISPs attempt to conceal this problem is to place a cap of say 1GB per-month per user, something which is common in the UK for many of the lower-cost broadband packages on the market. Considering that a mere three hours viewing of Joost (the new online video service from the founders of Skype — see our review) would all but use up this monthly allowance, it’s clear that lots of Internet users aren’t invited to the party.
But what about those who (like me) pay more for ‘unlimited’ broadband access? There shouldn’t be a problem, right? Wrong.
Unlimited doesn’t always mean unlimited, as many ISPs impose a ‘fair use’ policy which masks a monthly cap. Others employ bandwidth throttling, where under certain circumstances download speeds are reduced significantly. The intent, the ISPs claim, is to stop users who exhibit ‘abnormal’ behavior — industry-speak for accessing so-called “illegal” peer-to-peer file sharing networks — from degrading the service at the expense of others. Even if we take ISPs at their word, and presume they’re not being disingenuous in the reasons given for bandwidth throttling, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between illegal and legitimate use of peer-to-peer technology — particularly when it comes to online video.
Last week, in an article titled ‘Channel 4’s 4oD hamstrung by UK ISPs‘, CNet reported on the problems faced by the UK television channel’s new on-demand video service, which, along with Joost (and a number of other services), uses peer-to-peer technology similar to that used by “illegal” file sharing networks.
In an attempt to restrict how much illegal sharing can be done on their network, ISPs use a technique called ‘packet shaping’. Packet shaping examines what you’re downloading — or more specifically, how you’re downloading — and restricts your download speed by up to 500 per cent…
The problem is that packet shaping technology can’t easily tell the difference between different kinds of peer-to-peer traffic.
… if you’re planning on using Channel 4’s 4oD service to download your favorite shows while you travel home from work, make sure you’re not on an ISP that treats you like dirty rotten thieving scum. Video on-demand is the way of the future, so it’s important that legitimate, efficient technology can make it happen.
A recent new policy introduced by my ISP, UK cable company Virgin Media (previously NTL/Telewest), goes one step further. Instead of trying to distinguish between different kinds of traffic, throttling is employed during peak times (between 4pm and midnight) for individual users after they’ve consumed a set amount of bandwidth. So for example, customers paying for the top package (approx. $70 per month) will see their download speeds halved — from 10Mb/s to 5Mb/s — after they’ve consumed just 3GB. Which, The Register notes, could theoretically take as little as 20 minutes.
Overall, things are likely to get worse before they get better (while we wait for Telcos or companies like Google to build out the next-generation networks). In the meantime, there’s nothing like the online video revolution to reignite the net neutrality debate.