What Are the True Causes of Broadband Congestion?

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shutterstock_188978396Issues about broadband congestion, caused by business agreements between broadband suppliers and backbone providers, have been raised in a study published by the Measurement Lab Consortium (M-lab). The study focuses on service providers in the U.S. but it is conceivable that the findings could affect Australian users as the Internet is a global network.

The findings in this study focus on the major players who provide Internet access to individuals and businesses worldwide.

The “Internet backbone” encompasses the companies that provide the routers and cable networks that enable the Internet to function. These providers are “upstream” from the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who connect users to the network. Backbone providers include organisations like Verizon, AT&T, Netflix, IBM and quite a few others.

The M-Lab study has drawn comments from Vint Cerf, a Google vice president and Internet pioneer, who said it was “the first work of its kind, using open data and reproducible methods to expose complex performance issues at scale”.

The M-Lab findings

The study identifies traffic congestion and major performance degradation from early 2013 until early this year.

  • Traffic congestion was found in situations where specific broadband providers were connected to specific backbone providers.
  • The study concluded that congestion was caused by the negative impact of business relationships and not by technical problems, and that ISP interconnection has a major impact on consumer service standards.
  • Broadband providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon saw major performance degradation during this period, with download speeds less than 0.5 Mbps for periods of several months.
  • In some cases, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon customers in New York City suffered drops in download speeds from 20 Mbps down to 4 Mbps for long periods.
  • In Dallas and Los Angeles, clients of five large broadband providers experienced severe traffic congestion for a period between February 2013 and February 2014, while clients of other providers saw no degradation.

Reaction and comments by industry leaders

The major reaction to the M-Lab study points to the fact no specific business relationship was revealed. Broadband providers dispute the findings and claim the study failed to clearly identify the cause of congestion.

  • Verizon’s VP of Public Policy stated that while the study points to backbone business relationships, it failed to identify any particular relationships as the root cause of the problem. He also pointed to claims by broadband providers that refer toother studies. These studies point to business deals that involve Netflix.
  • AT&T has asserted that a commercially negotiated traffic peering agreement must be balanced. Their Senior VP for federal regulatory policy issued a statement which said “If the sending party refuses to take steps to bring balance back into the arrangement, congestion can result” and further that congestion “can only be addressed by a new commercial arrangement involving steps to either reduce the traffic flows, route the traffic in a more efficient way, invest to augment capacity, or some combination of all three”.

The study claims that the traffic congestion in New York and other cities abated as from February this year for all broadband providers.

Finally, industry experts assert that the solution to this problem rests with the implementation of neutrality regulations (net neutrality), a legal proposal which rests on the principle that ISPs and governments should treat all Internet data equally, and without discrimination against users, content, sites, platforms, attached equipment, and mode of communication.

The need for neutrality regulations is supported by The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, M-Lab, Netflix and Google.

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