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Net Neutrailty and the perfidy of "last mile" ISPs (a.k.a. "cabel weasels")

From backbone provider Level 3's blog:

“Chicken” | A Game Played as a Child and by some ISPs with the Internet

A few questions to set the table:

Is your broadband connection really slow sometimes? Do movies or videos download poorly, not at all or become pixilated? Do you get messages like this one below?


Do you assume, “Jeez, lots of people must be using the Internet right now”?

You might be wrong.

Residential broadband ISPs promise their subscribers access to all of the content on the Internet, not just some of it. They also know full well that, in the Internet as it exists today, much more data will be downloaded by consumers (think of watching an HD Netflix movie) than uploaded (think of clicking your mouse to ask Netflix to send you that movie). As such, all ISPs offer download speeds that are faster than upload speeds.

To honor the promises they make consumers, these ISPs must then connect their networks to the other networks that can supply any Internet content the ISPs cannot provide themselves (which is most of it). It also means that as overall Internet content gets bigger (think of HD movies versus e-mails), all providers must “augment” their networks – making them bigger to accommodate the exponential growth due to the Internet’s success.

Some ISPs, however, have refused to augment their networks UNLESS the content providers they connect to agree to pay them to do so. Viewed in the light most favorable to these ISPs, they want content suppliers to pay not only for their own increased costs of supplying more robust Internet content, but also for any increased network costs of the ISPs too. This is not only unreasonable on its face, but it is entirely inconsistent with published reports indicating that returns on invested capital for ISPs are excellent, and are expected to improve even further, driving considerable additional growth in economic profits. More cynically, these ISPs simply view these arbitrary tolls as new sources of revenue for their last mile bottleneck monopolies or as a way to unfairly discriminate against content that competes with the content the ISPs themselves supply.

So if you think that your Internet connection is slow just because lots of people are online at the moment, you could be wrong. You could be a victim of your ISP’s game of chicken.

"Because they can." How widespread is this "game of chicken"?

Observations of an Internet Middleman
Level 3 builds a route map of the Internet by connecting its tens of thousands of customers together and allowing them to communicate. So a Level 3 customer in Hong Kong can communicate with a Level 3 customer in Sao Paulo. But to complete the map we also need to fill in interconnection to everyone who isn’t a direct Level 3 customer, so that our customers can also communicate with those who are not our customers. We do that through connections to other networks and their customers. This latter sort of connectivity is often called peering. Peering connections allow for exchanges of traffic between the respective customers of each peer.

While Level 3 has tens of thousands of customers, it only has 51 peers[1]. That total set of interconnections enables our customers to “see” the whole Internet. And what is important here is the “distance” our customers see between themselves and any other part of the Internet. That is often referred to as the number of “hops”; or number of other networks a packet has to traverse to reach its destination. We strive to make that number as low as possible to offer our customers the best performance; more hops can introduce more delay and more potential for quality degradations when the other networks don’t invest enough in performance, redundancy and capacity.

Level 3 has 51 peers that are interconnected in 45 cities through over 1,360 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports (plus a few smaller ports). The distribution of that capacity with individual peers ranges from a single 10 Gigabit Ethernet port to 148 ports. The average number of interconnection cities per peer is five, but ranges from one to 20.

The average utilization across all those interconnected ports is 36 percent. So you might be asking – what is all the fuss about with peering? And why did we write the Chicken post? Well, our peers fall into two broad categories; global or regional Internet Services providers like Level 3 (those “middlemen” listed in the Renesys report), and Broadband consumer networks like AT&T. If I use that distinction as a filter to look at congested ports, the story looks very different.

A port that is on average utilised at 90 percent will be saturated, dropping packets, for several hours a day. We have congested ports saturated to those levels with 12 of our 51 peers. Six of those 12 have a single congested port, 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.

That leaves the remaining six peers with congestion on almost all of the interconnect ports between us. Congestion that is permanent, has been in place for well over a year and where our peer refuses to augment capacity. They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfil the requests their customers make for content.

Five of those congested peers are in the United States and one is in Europe. There are none in any other part of the world. All six are large Broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market.

One final point; the companies with the congested peering interconnects also happen to rank dead last in customer satisfaction across all industries in the U.S.[2] Not only dead last, but by a massive statistical margin of almost three standard deviations.

Shouldn’t a broadband consumer network with near monopoly control over their customers ["cable weasel"] be expected, if not obligated, to deliver a better experience than this?

Comcast's gilded pleasure dome in Philly?* That's the "infrastructure" they're building. Rent seeking parasites!

NOTE I'd swear I had a post on that monstrosity, but I can't find it.

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okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

How is this different from a national, heavy trucking company complaining that the roads into some of its customers in some towns are insufficient for their volume of traffic, but they don't want to pay the city to fix the road up to their standard? Seems like Level3 wants all the other customers in these areas to pay for the internet infrastructure Level3's clients need. It has ALWAYS worked this way, that is why private WAN/WLAN/LAN became industries. The public/consumer infrastructure didn't meet their client's needs. Of course it would be better if everybody had equal access, but who has to pay for it? If you have a city where one customer is consistently hogging all the bandwidth, should they not pay the lion share of network upgrade costs?

This is the kind of one-sided industry fud that has me sitting on the sidelines in the "net-neutrality" debate.