How do you like that “unlimited” data plan of yours? Whether it’s on your phone or to your home, “unlimited” has some pretty major pitfalls. Oh sure, for folks like you and I it’s pretty great! All the data that we want for one “low” price. That’s really good if you have LTE or HSPA+ and a good signal! In many cases your phone’s data plan is faster than your home’s Internet connection — or close enough that you don’t care.
Back in the day, that wasn’t much of a problem. Other than downloading music, pretty much all we did was surf the web and get email. Today, however, we have podcasts, streaming music, and streaming video. It’s that last one that’s causing problems.
There used to be something called “Net Neutrality”, perhaps you’ve heard of it. Essentially, it was an FCC rule that said carriers had to treat all data the same. They couldn’t charge more for one type over another, and they couldn’t prioritize one type over another. I know, a lot of you are going to jump right down to the comments to tell me how wrong I am, and go into great detail about the ins and outs of Net Neutrality. Go ahead, we’ll wait, just keep in mind that we’re talking in general terms that a broad audience can understand, okay?
Sites like YouTube, Hulu, and especially Netflix started becoming more popular, and started eating up bandwidth. Services like these are unlike the web that we used to know. Traditional web traffic is “bursty”. You ask for a web page, it gets downloaded. Then you read the page for a bit with no data traveling in the background, and then you ask for another page and the process begins again.
Streaming, however, is a pretty constant inflow of bits — lots and lots of bits. As you can imagine, at 1080P with 5.1 Surround Sound, that’s a lot of data flying over the line! Any break or slow-down in the signal is quickly and obviously apparent. But you’re not alone in your streaming. Others in your neighborhood are doing it, too… maybe even others in your own house. This puts a terrible strain on the entire system.
That’s why carriers started lobbying to overthrow those pesky Net Neutrality regulations — and ultimately succeeded.
Shortly after the courts ruled that the FCC didn’t have the jurisdiction to create Net Neutrality regulations, let alone to actually enforce them, something strange started happening. Video quality and data speeds on Comcast and Verizon (among others) started to suffer. To an outside observer, what was happening was obvious: the carriers were throttling streaming video services — even though they denied doing so.
When you connect to the Internet, you use an ISP — an Internet Service Provider. This might be your cable company, your phone company, your cellular provider, or someone else. They give you a connection to the Internet. That provider has to buy bandwidth from someone else, sometimes called a “backbone provider”. The backbone providers are then interconnected.
On the other end, the company providing content to you has to have an ISP to provide them with access to the Internet. That provider is connected to a backbone provider as well. See how it’s all fitting together?
Bandwidth is expensive
Think about all those miles of fiber optic cable, all the routing equipment, and all the people who have to install it and maintain it. None of that’s cheap. Trust me.
When Provider A has to jump its traffic across to Provider B, somebody’s got to cut a check for the traffic. When Provider B has to jump its traffic over to Provider A, somebody else has to cut a check for that traffic. Instead of cutting so many checks, why not measure the difference in traffic that both are providing, cancelling out how much of the other’s traffic was taken? That way only one of the two has to cut a check, and it’s a lot smaller than either of the other two checks would have been.
That’s pretty much what Peering is. Think of it like carpooling data, rather than people. Everyone takes their turn, so nobody has to chip in for gas.
Verizon and Cogent Communications, one of the largest bandwidth providers in the nation, have been squabbling over Peering. To many the result has looked like Verizon was throttling Netflix and others. Verizon denies this. However, the CEO of Cogent says otherwise — sort of.
Peers not only pay according to bandwidth, they also pay per port. When one port fills up, providers usually open another port. “They are allowing the peer connections to degrade,” said Dave Schaeffer, chief executive officer of Cogent. “Today some of the ports are at 100 percent capacity.” So, no, Verizon isn’t throttling, they’re just not opening any new ports which would alleviate the traffic — which has the same impact.
Since all that started, Netflix has decided to go around the middle-man, and become a provider itself. By so doing, Netflix can negotiate directly with backbone providers and enter into its own peering agreements. Basically, Netflix is paying money to Verizon, Comcast, and others so they carry Netflix’s traffic at full speed, rather than at “not throttled, just crippled” speeds — which both Verizon and Comcast say they’re not doing.
Regardless of how you look at it, Netflix caved and is now paying a premium to get its content to you. Yes, carriers punishing providers based on the type of data they provide is actually happening, unraveling the very fabric that guarantees an open and accessible Internet for all of us.