news Telstra’s plans to kick off a trial that will see it throttle some peer to peer services on its ADSL broadband network have been met with an outraged reaction from its customers, with many instantly threatening to cancel their services and take their business elsewhere if the trial goes ahead.
Yesterday the telco notified customers that it would be undertaking what it described as “a limited trial of a range of technical solutions for better managing network performance”, with the aim of “maximising the customer experience”. The telco’s director of Consumer Wireline, John Chambers, published a post on the company’s Exchange blog noting that the objective of the trial is to identify options and pricing plans for Telstra customers that would “improve overall customer experience”, to ensure the telco continued to offer “the best quality service at the best possible price”.
“One of the variety of options being examined under this trial,” Chamber noted, “is the shaping of specific services (including some peer to peer (P2P) services) in certain circumstances, to determine what impact this has on total overall customer experience of time critical experiences for real time entertainment … The trial will be limited to a small number of ADSL customers in Victoria. All affected customers in the trial areas will be informed of the trial in advance and be given a choice of whether to participate in the trial.”
However, Chambers’ blog post was met by several dozen responses by customers outraged by Telstra’s decision.
“I will cancel my $350 worth of services if Telstra tries to implement this,” wrote one customer. “I joined them as the service has/had the least throttling.” And another added: “Very disappointed to hear that you are thinking of slowing my connection when I’m using P2P. We currently pay a premium for 100GB per month with BigPond. We only ever use about half of that download allowance per month but are happy to pay the extra BigPond costs for its superior speed. If you choose to slow my P2P traffic there is little advantage in staying with BigPond for me. I can get a similar download quota with another ISP for a fraction of the cost of your service.”
“Telstra does realise the stupidity of this trial right?” wrote a third commenter. “You will notify the participants that they are in the trial area and that their P2P downloads will be shaped unless they opt out. So all the people that use P2P will opt out leaving only non-P2P users in the trial thus resulting in no net benefit to the network as those it was designed to affect are not participating.”
Similarly, on the Telstra section on broadband forum Whirlpool, hundreds of posts were entered, with the majority complaining about Telstra’s planned trial or noting ways to technically get around it.
At the heart of the debate over Telstra’s plans is the so-called “net neutrality” concept. In the United States, Internet service providers have argued that they should allowed to classify different types of data on their network and treat them differently; giving video services they sell to customers, for example, a higher level of priority than services such as Google’s Apps platform, which runs on top of their Internet services but does not remunerate them for the privilege.
However, in Australia, ISPs — including Telstra itself — have long argued against the need to implement such features.
In a high-profile article examining the situation in September 2008, for example, then BigPond chief Justin Milne argued that the issue had only come about in the US because ISPs in that country offered unlimited data plans — as opposed to the ‘user pays’ download quota system predominantly used in Australia.
One of the chief arguments for implementing P2P shaping in Australia has always been that the medium — for example, protocols such as BitTorrent — is predominantly used for pirating material online. However, it is also true that many completely legitimate services — such as sharing legal content such as large ISO files of Linux distributions — also takes place using the exact same peer to peer protocols.
“Will you block legal p2p traffic? And how do you presume to know what is probable cause to inspect any such traffic? Just because it is a torrent doesn’t mean it is illegal,” wrote one Whirlpool commenter recently.
Historically, Telstra’s network has been among the best-performing when it comes to throttling of peer to peer services. A study published by US organisation Measurement Lab in October 2011, for example, found the consumer division of AAPT (which offered unlimited plans at that point) was the worst in Australia for peer to peer throttling, with Optus and iiNet coming in second- and third-worst, and Telstra coming in best. The Australian results also showed that in general, the nation’s ISPs throttle BitTorrent downloads less than ISPs in several other countries.
Clearly Telstra was trying to keep this one at least a little bit under wraps, and was taken a little aback by the fact that it was revealed yesterday by the Sydney Morning Herald. Quelle surprise. Telstra wants to quietly conduct a trial on its network to see if it can better utilise its network assets at the expense of its customers. We’ve been here before, and we’ll see this kind of behaviour again.
To be honest, I’m quite surprised that Australian ISPs haven’t already implemented this kind of feature on their networks. The days of the strong, independent mid-tier ISPs standing up for the little guys are clearly gone now (we miss you, Simon Hackett), and we’re now into the days of a handful of huge ISPs dominating Australia’s telecommunications landscape and doing whatever the hell they want, largely.
The best Australian proponents of net neutrality can hope for in this situation is that Telstra’s trial remains a small initiative; that it doesn’t force the rest of its customers to sign up for this kind of network technology compulsorily, and that the other ISPs don’t follow suit. I’m sure I speak for the majority of Australian Internet users when I say that we don’t want Telstra or any other ISP mucking around with our TCP/IP packets too much, thank you very much. Hands off the data we’ve paid you for.
Image credit: Telstra