Friday, November 30, 2007

Comcast Does Block BitTorrent

BitTorrent logo I have attempted to stay out of the discussion of whether Comcast blocks BitTorrent because it has been thoroughly discussed in many other forums.  This blog is about insight into the industry not jumping onto the  bandwagon slamming Comcast for disrupting BitTorrent traffic.  This evening I have chosen to reverse my decision because I believe that Comcast has overreacted in restricting BitTorrent and can do a better job implementing traffic shaping that can benefit all users.

There is no question that Comcast is blocking my BitTorrent downloads in Boulder.  Comcast logo At home I am a Comcast High Speed Internet subscriber dutifully paying $44 per month while complying with their Terms of Service agreement.  The video programs I am trying to download with BitTorrent are freely available in MPEG-2, MPEG-4, QuickTime, and Windows Media without DRM or copyright restrictions.  I just want to Miro to use the BitTorrent protocol to download the streams that I am subscribed.  For a couple of months, I have not been able to download these programs legally through the Comcast network.  I had no problem last week on Verizon's FiOS network downloading anything I wanted with BitTorrent.

I decided to call Comcast's technical support line to hear the "official" version of the story.  I expected to hear that they don't block BitTorrent but a technician stated that they block BitTorrent transfers because of copyright issues.  Apparently that person did not read the "official" company position on BitTorrent blocking.  I asked whether downloading up to 1 GB per day was considered excessive and they said no.  So I am not excessively downloading too much content and I have the right by the copyright holder to download the material.  Why is Comcast blocking BitTorrent?

Comcast believes that P2P consumes too much bandwidth and prevents other user from a satisfactory experience.  By preventing BitTorrent traffic, they have crudely implemented traffic shaping on their Internet service.  Personally I believe traffic shaping has its place in managing network performance.  In private networks managing applications and setting QoS parameters are legitimate tools to tune the network for optimum performance.  The use of traffic shaping and QoS on Internet services is a bit trickier.

Users of Internet access services expect that they can run any application that they desire over their connection, and they expect that they will always get adequate performance.  The two expectations can be mutually exclusive at times.  Whether you are on a DOCSIS or DSL connection, it is a shared medium.  ISP oversubscribe their networks to maximize utilization of the resources and keep costs down.  If everyone continuously floods the network with traffic doing anything they want, then everyone will not get the performance that they expect. 

This situation is why ISP utilize traffic shaping.  We cannot expect everyone on the Internet to behave as we expect so we need some policing to ensure that all users receive a consistent experience.  Just like in society, it is a question of how much policing is necessary.

Comcast has chosen to take the heavy hand and block all BitTorrent traffic.  Apparently they believe that any P2P traffic is too much.  I disagree with their conclusion.  I appreciate the fact that they are keeping my neighbors from running servers and excessively file sharing so I cannot stream decent video, but they do not need to block all legal P2P traffic.  If managed correctly P2P, like BitTorrent, can actually decrease traffic on their network.  P2P protocols have legitimate and practical uses.

Comcast should set their policies to limit the amount of bandwidth given to P2P protocols during times of congestion.  The Sandvine system has very granular controls to prioritize and manage protocols and applications based on available bandwidth, time-of-day, user, individual usage, and other parameters.  They can easily implement a policy that slows down the amount of available bandwidth for P2P traffic during peak times and let it fly at night when usage is low. 

Most P2P applications are working in the background sharing a file while the user is doing something else.  For instance, Miro could easily wait until network usage is low to start downloading the 700 MB "GigaOm Show."  Most of the time I watch it a day or two after it is first released.  Likewise, it could seed to other computers during quiet times at night.  Comcast could easily set policies to achieve the benefits of P2P protocols like BitTorrent without negatively impacting other customers.

Comcast's situation gets at the heart of the Net Neutrality discussion, and gives ammunition to those that believe that the Internet should be free of any QoS or traffic shaping.  When implemented appropriately, traffic shaping and QoS mechanisms should actually improve the performance of applications running on the network not impede it. 

This situation is a public relations nightmare for Comcast, but it will not hurt them financially because of our duopoly in the U.S.  The worst outcome will be some class action law suits and/or FCC fines.  If users had more of a choice, such as what open-access municipal networks bring, then you would see customers leaving Comcast.  Then again I would not be paying $44 per month for only 8 Mbit/s down and 768 kbit/s up.  Hopefully Comcast will change their policy on P2P protocols and implement more sophisticated traffic shaping through the Sandvine equipment before any wild eyed Congressmen or more lawyers get involved.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Verizon Wireless Punches Hole in Walled Garden

image Verizon Wireless (VZW) was all over the news yesterday with its announcement to open its network to third-party devices and applications.  While the media was focused on the ability to unlock handsets and use other CDMA compatible phones from Sprint and global carriers, the real news was that they were punching a hole in the walled garden of the Verizon Wireless network by allowing third-party applications to run on their network.  Previously only Verizon approved applications designed with Qualcomm's BREW ran on their phones.  This situation allowed Verizon to charge and control the content that ran through their network.  You could not listen to streaming audio from Pandora because it was not a Verizon approved BREW application.  Coincidentally, Verizon and Qualcomm received a piece of the action for every approved BREW application.  It worked out well for everyone except the consumer.

According to the VZW announcement, early in 2008 third party application developers will be able to submit their applications for approval to Verizon to ensure compatibility and security.   Verizon is not being altruistic with this "Any Apps, Any Device" initiative.  They read the writing on the wall from Apple, Google, and the FCC towards open access networks and phones.  As Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T become part of the Open Handset Alliance, Verizon Wireless stood to be the only major U.S. wireless carrier with a completely closed network; not a good P.R. move.  They are trying to give the impression that they are being forward thinking while in reality it is just another "me too" move.  Remember that in September they filed a law suit against the FCC's decision to open up a third of the 700 MHz spectrum to be auctioned in January.  Last month they chose to drop the law suit only to let the CTIA continue the pursuit.

In general, opening up their network increases the value of the network because more devices can be connected through more applications.  On the other hand, third-party applications could eat into some of Verizon's revenue for voice, music, and video.  Content and service providers can offer VZW customers competing services.  Voice over mobile allows subscribers to make voice calls over the flat-rate data network without using plan minutes.  International calls can be made at a fraction of the cost VZW charges for them.  Skype users now have their buddy lists to communicate with other Skype users or use SkypeOut.  Wi-Fi enabled phones can jump between Wi-Fi hot-spots and the Verizon network minimizing the cost to the subscriber and improving coverage while inside buildings and the home.  In the short-term there are significant opportunities for Skype and other similar companies to take advantage of mobile bypass to reduce international toll charges.

Video services are fairly costly through Verizon.  Open source video streamers will quickly come on the scene that can play video podcasts and other programming.  How long would it take before iTunes videos are available on Treos, Blackberrys, and J2ME capable devices?  Video will be the test of how open the network is because of its extreme bandwidth requirements.  Expect tiered pricing for different bandwidth levels.

In the short-term, the loss of revenue will drive down ARPU for VZW subscribers.  Competition will cause subscribers to seek content from alternate providers, and VZW will have to respond by lowering prices of their content.  New companies will sprout up around this new opportunity. The Net Neutrality argument will also arise just as it has on broadband access because the new content entrants will feel that they are being slighted.  In the long-term as applications and devices proliferate, VZW will see greater usage of their network; therefore, driving up revenue overall.  Also, it will drive them to develop unique and compelling content to woo customers back.

The complexion of the wireless market in the U.S. is beginning to change.  The inertia to open mobile networks has begun which will have profound implications on we communicate and digest our content.   When fully implemented, our mobile devices will be just another form factor for how we communicate.  Applications will allow seamless movement of data and content between devices.  Imagine watching a football game while on the train from work, pausing it to drive home.  Picking it up on the HDTV in the living room and finishing it on the computer in the bedroom while finishing up some late e-mails.  This is just one example of the new services we have in store via open-access networks.  In the end, wireless service providers and consumers will be better off.

Note:  There are several excellent articles that detail the VZW announcement.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Consumers Fall for "Cyber Monday"

Well, consumers were sucked into the marketing of "Cyber Monday" by retailers marketing arm  It seems that a record of single day retail sales was set at $733 million up 21% from last year according to Comscore.  It probably didn't hurt that Amazon, Apple,, Dell, Overstock and many other on-line retailers offered pretty good deals on Monday.  Once again the herd mentality proves accurate.  Consumers flocked to the Internet to avoid the rush of the crowd.  It seems that the crowd caught Yahoo! off guard when their merchant solution servers crashed for a while.  Personally I saw some great deals, but I'll probably wait until the last minute to buy anything...after all I am a man.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

80% of Americans Use the Web Daily

Happy Thanksgiving readers.

A Harris Interactive poll finds that 80% of all adult US citizens regularly use the Internet.  Almost 200 million Americans spend an average of 11 hours a week online.  The demographics of online Americans are beginning to mirror our population in general.  With broadband penetration nearing 50% of the population, a little over 30% are still using dial-up and mobile phones as a way to access the Internet.

This upward trend demonstrates the pervasiveness of the Internet in American life.  As more people have access to the Internet from multiple rooms in their homes, office, and even on-the-go, this number will increase further;  thereby, driving the need for greater bandwidth and innovative applications. 

I am writing this article from my over 65 year old mother-in-laws home connected to FiOS.  Nine percent of people in this age group are regular Internet users representing 16% of the total population.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bye, Bye Sprint Airave

A month ago, I was excited to install Sprint's Airave to boost my signal strength in and around my house.  I was excited about its potential to further eat into traditional POTS sales.  This type of service is ideal for T-Mobile and Sprint to increase ARPU since their companies do not own any wireline networks in North America.

After a little over a month of using the Airave, I had to take it back.  Once the unit was activated, it worked well except for the occasional dropped call.  Airave technical support in Fort Worth, Orlando, and Overland Park diligently worked to determine why the unit kept dropping calls.  They determined that the IPSec tunnel was restarting every several minutes which caused the unit to restart.  This was the source of my problems.  I was delighted that Sprint was actually securing my connection, but why was my VPN tunnel dropping?  The technician confirmed with Samsung that my Netgear WGT-624v2 router was not handling the computation/translation of the IKE key correctly with NAT.

During the course of troubleshooting, I could no longer receive any incoming any calls or text messages.  I could still make outgoing calls though.  Sprint could not explained what changed to make my unit worthless.  My solution was to buy a new router or take the Airave back.  I am perfectly happy with my router and do not plan on replacing it for another couple of years.  I suppose that I could put a Ethernet switch on my cable modem as long as I could get another IP address from Comcast, but I really do not want to keep troubleshooting the problem.

In the mean time, I received my second bill since activating the Airave.  The charges were almost incomprehensible.  I was charged a $26 activation fee that was supposed to be waved plus double charged for a month of service.  I took back the unit last weekend and tried to have the retail store give me credit.  They pushed me off to Customer Service.  My first call to customer service was a failure and the second was not much better.  I still have not been completely credited for my one month plus experiment with Airave.  It is not hard to see why 337,000 customers fled Sprint last quarter.

Sprint's Airave initiative is a bold move to capitalize on the trend for younger people to exclusively use their cell phones whether at home or on the go.  At the moment it is superior to T-Mobile's service because users do not need a new cell phone.  Once again their execution of the service is lacking and customer service makes the experience a nightmare.  I know that the purpose of the limited introduction is to work out the kinks.  I just hope that they can work out all of them before the mass market launch.

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