Monday, 27 February 2012

The net neutrality debate, with a difference

In a twist on traditional discussions about bandwidth use, Korea Telecom recently restricted internet access for Samsung connected TVs. This isn’t a new discussion: the net neutrality debates in the US over the last couple of years are covering many of the same issues. However, what’s different this time is that it’s about devices rather than applications.

In the US, the discussion was largely about how VOD services such as Netflix were saturating the networks of many large ISPs – Netflix and YouTube between them account for over 40% of peak bandwidth use in the US according to a report last year form Sandvine. In Korea, it’s the devices running those services that are drawing the ire of the telcos. It may not seem like much of a difference, but this is a core shift in the discussion.

Traditionally, PCs have been the main platform for these services, but the action by Korea Telecom has shown that consumer devices are gaining enough market share for telcos to be worried. And it’s the type of IP traffic generated by these devices that’s causing this worry.

Unlike a PC, TVs and consumer devices are almost exclusively used for streaming video and audio. Use of VOD services is growing at a phenomenal rate, and so as consumer devices gain market share they will probably be one of the fastest-growing sources of IP traffic worldwide. The Sandvine report showed that PCs were only accounting for 45% of video traffic by volume in the US, and this is why the focus of the net neutrality debate has started to shift from services to devices.

It’s still not clear how this will play out – bringing the device manufacturers into the net neutrality debate can only complicate it, especially when (like Korea Telecom) a telco has their own IPTV service that could be seen to compete with the OTT services offered by smart TVs. One thing is sure – the issue needs resolving. ISPs and telcos need to find a business model that can cope with the changing way the Internet is being used.


Update - 3 March 2012

Following up on this post, we see that it’s not just Korean ISPs that are suffering from traffic problems caused by streaming video. Be Broadband, a UK ISP owned by O2, admitted yesterday that demand for iPlayer saturated its available bandwidth and left many users struggling to access web sites and iPlayer content.

What’s different about this case is that the problem wasn’t caused by issues in Be’s network itself: in this case, the culprit was Be’s link to the Akamai content distribution network. The Akamai CDN is intended to accelerate delivery of web content belonging to its partners by transparently mirroring web sites on its own worldwide network of servers and intelligently routing requests for that content. So that end-users access content from servers that are closest to them, rather than always having to access the original version of the content.

The BBC uses Akamai to deliver iPlayer content in an attempt to avoid bandwidth bottlenecks – in this case, the bottleneck was Be’s connection to Akamai, which became saturated when there was heavy demand for iPlayer.

Be have partially resolved the issue by working with other network providers to act as peers for connecting to Akamai, but this is not a permanent solution. With a full fix not due until the end of April, Be customers may be looking at slow access to iPlayer for several weeks.

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