Monday, August 04, 2008

Bandwidth Hoggy

Mr. Kendal writes me about a story on Overlawyered:
Class action lawyers have sued Comcast for throttling users of the bandwidth-intensive P2P application BitTorrent, and the Federal Communications Commission by a 3-2 vote has declared the cable provider’s practice unlawful.
This was big news in tech circles and the kooks at SlashDot are always sure to run for cover under the idea that they won't be able to download their latest Linux distro if The Man is throttling their bandwidth. While true (bittorrent IS the best way to get the latest Linux distros) let's be honest, we all know what this about.

Is the case in question a money grubbing case brought about by leaching lawyers, a case that will be of no benefit to the consumers it seeks to protect? Undoubtedly. However, while I can see what Comcast's motivation was in throttling bittorrent traffic, I don't feel sorry for them.

The core issue here is that a consumer purchases a certain threshold of bandwidth from their ISP. Now if I purchase a plan that allows for 1500bps down and 500bps up, I may have the expectation that I have a 1500/500 personal connection to the internet. Unfortunately consumer level Internet simply isn't packaged this way; an ISP wouldn't have 100% Internet coverage for all their customers at once any more than a local government would build roads large enough to accommodate 100% of the residents vehicles all at once. Where Comcast got into trouble is that they discovered they didn't have nearly enough 'roads' so they arbitrarily started blocking people's 'driveways' without telling them. It was less of a bandwidth throttling and more of a sanctioned Internet attack.

Of course Comcast attacked bittorrent because hardly anything eats bandwidth like that peer-to-peer application and it's primarily used for illegal file distribution. It's really easy for ISP customers to have Azureus and whatnot run in the background while acquiring their ill gotten goodies, and since the customers pay for a 'buffet' style bandwidth package, they have little incentive to turn it off. John Dvorak has advocated a pay-per-bit model where a consumer pays for what traffic they use; but such systems have a myriad of technical issues that will probably never be solved. That leaves ISPs with the choice of either drastically expanding their costly infrastructure (which probably won't matter much since bittorrent will eat all it can take), or throttling the traffic, a process wherein bittorrent traffic is moved to the back of line. Given my choice, either one is preferable to Comcast's choice of "screw with traffic we don't like without telling anyone so that people will give up using it on our network".

No comments: