Tuesday, October 5, 2010

US ISPs, Throttling, and the Coming War on VoIP.

Throttling and bandwidth capping are a hot topic amongst forums devoted to bandwidth and ISPs. Both ISP defenders and attackers get heated up and give justifications as to why capping and throttling is acceptable or unacceptable, and why it should be allowed or disallowed by regulators.
There are good reasons for both, however as a whole ISPs are blowing the "P2P is destroying the network" horn a bit too loud. The fact is that P2P is not destroying anything, on the contrary- it is just giving modern-day ISPs a great excuse to become traffic-cop and control what we can and cannot do with the connection we're paying them for. This will have grave consequences and haunt consumers for years to come, in my honest opinion.
One critical aspect which will be affected greatly in the not-so-far future is independent Voice over IP. Independent VoIP is competing against VoIP-over-Cable (AKA "digital voice") offerings which typically cost 3-4 times what independent VoIP providers charge, and almost as much as a regular phone would. In today's internet situation, consumers barely feel the difference between indy VoIP and cable-provided VoIP. It's pretty much all the same quality-wise.
Recently however, an alarming news came from a major cable internet provider when it circulated the following message among it's users:
"As part of our ongoing efforts to continuously improve the quality of our service, we are switching to a new network congestion management technique by the end of the year. It is focused on managing network congestion only when and where it may occur. It will also replace the current technique and will help ensure that all of our customers receive their fair share of network resources..."
Their FAQs proceed to indicate that their VoIP Service will NOT be affected by this "network management" technique. So far all good, right? Wrong. What happens if you're using an independent VoIP provider? you guessed right - it's your problem, not their's! If you get flagged for throttling, not only will your internet connection slow to a barely-usable state, should you dare to use a competing independent VoIP provider, your phone will also be affected and range from terrible quality to completely unusable.
Now, what exactly is stopping ISPSs from sniffing your traffic (a practice they've already mastered), and once they figure out you are running VoIP applications over your connection just flag you for throttling? sure, you're not using a lot of bandwidth, in your opinion - but then again ISPS neglect to indicate what "a lot" actually means. There's nothing stopping them from arbitrarily deciding that 180kbps usage (the amount of total bandwidth required for a typical two-way VoIP conversation) over more than two minutes is "excessive". You'll end up getting great quality calls for the first two minutes, followed by terrible quality for the rest of the call.
In essence, US ISPs, hold way too much power in their hands, and all signs show they intend to use it. Cable and DSL providers are a monopoly in the US. Even if there is some minor competition it is typically between one cable provider and one DSL provider, which is not real competition as they BOTH will "shape" your traffic - which is just another word for "control what you can and can't do with the bandwidth you're paying for". Today it is P2P applications. Tomorrow it is your Voice over IP, Video over IP, and any other applications which your ISP decides to ban.
And don't think you're safe if you don't use an independent VoIP provider, either. Every used Skype? how about video chat over MSN Messenger or Yahoo! Messenger? given the higher bandwidth these applications consume they are much more likely targets for the ISPs to start with. Now let's continue.. online gaming? no online gaming here, takes too much bandwidth! And how about YouTube? surely YouTube would be alright... right? wrong again! YouTube too consumes far more bandwidth than VoIP and even some P2P applications - which makes it a prime target for the I-want-to-control-your-traffic power-hungry modern ISP.
I think I've said enough, surely you too - my dear reader - can see where this is going, and what type of challenges businesses operating over the internet are going to have in years to come. For competition's sake and for the sake of a free market and a free internet - this needs to be stopped, and stopped fast by laws and regulations - and the sooner the better. America is turning into a third world nation when it comes to internet connectivity, and you and I will suffer the consequences while ISP CEOs buy another yacht and private plane while ensuring shareholders that the competition is gone!
I wish you all a very happy, unthrottled experience with your ISP, VoIP, and other applications!
Nitzan is the CEO of Future Nine Corporation - a leading provider of VoIP Phone Service and Cheap Calling Cards

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