news The nation’s largest telco Telstra claimed over the weekend that BitTorrent-style peer to peer traffic on its network was “not time-critical” and so could be slowed on its network “without significant consumer detriment”, in an extensive statement defending highly controversial plans to trial several new network management practices.
Last week 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, and since that time, groups as diverse as the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network and iiNet have severely criticised Telstra over the trial, which raises network neutrality issues similar to those which have been extensively discussed in other countries such as the US.
In a new post on the company’s Exchange blog on Friday, Chambers followed up his initial comments by attempting to address what he said were the “common questions” raised since his last post. In response to the issue of why Telstra was targeted peer to peer networks in the trials, Chambers denied Telstra was targeting any one specific form of Internet traffic.
“We’re testing a range of different options for a range of classes of traffic services under these trials,” Chambers wrote. “One of the options being examined under this trial is the shaping of specific services (including some P2P traffic types including Bittorrent) in certain circumstances and within certain times. The key characteristic of Bittorrent peer to peer traffic that is relevant to our network traffic management trials is the fact that most such traffic is not time-critical – for example, compared with VoIP or video streaming – and so might be slowed without significant consumer detriment. Other types of P2P services (eg some gaming services, Skype etc) will not be targeted for shaping this traffic management trial.”
“Our sole objective in this trial is identifying options for improving our network management to ensure that all of our customers enjoy the best quality service for their needs at the best possible price.”
In one sense, Chambers’ comments are accurate, in that those setting quality of service policies on networks generally consider services such as IP telephony and video delivery to need much higher network priority than P2P services, which are generally used for file-sharing purposes (whether legitimate or not).
However, the idea of shaping certain types of network services on a broadband connection, even P2P services has been rare in Australia historically, with ISPs and consumers generally believing that the full capacity of a broadband connection should be able to be used at any given time. This belief has a conflict with Chambers’ claim that P2P services were “not time-critical”.
Other answers which Chambers provided to commonly asked questions about Telstra’s trial were not as controversial.
For example, the telco noted that it recognised that P2P technologies had a range of legitimate uses, and while it did not condone copyright infringement, it was not collecting information about copyright infringement as part of its trial, throttling P2P traffic at the request of copyright rights holds, or sharing information about alleged copyright infringement with rights holders as part of the trial.
“This trial isn’t about piracy, it’s about getting smarter about the way we manage our networks and better matching the characteristics of our products and services with our customers’ diverse needs,” wrote Chambers. “Telstra has consistently stated that the only circumstances in which we would (and in fact legally can) identify our customers to third parties is if required to by law.”
Chambers also denied that the trials raised the kind of ‘Net Neutrality’ issues which had been raised in the US, as ISPs sought to give priority to certain kinds of content running over their networks.
“The Australian telecommunications landscape is very different to America,” the executive wrote. “The absence of infrastructure access regulation in the United States means that consumers have few alternatives should their ISP adopt network management practices that do not suit their needs. In Australia, access regulation means that customers are able to choose from a large number of ISPs with a wide range of network management practices. Competition will ensures that ISPs offer products with network management practices that best meet customer needs. If an Australian ISP applied network management practices that were not in customers’ interests, these customers would vote with their feet and move to an ISP with different network management practices.”
“In countries with access regimes like Australia’s (eg the UK), regulators have generally not seen a need to regulate these practices as the discipline of the market protects consumer interests. The key issue for policy makers and network operators in the Australian context is ensuring effective transparency of network management practices to allow customers to make an informed choice about the network practices applied to the services they buy. Telstra is committed to giving our customers all the information they need to choose products and services with the characteristics that best meet their needs.”
According to Computerworld, Telstra chief executive David Thodey also defended the trial in a press conference with journalists last week associated with Telstra’s financial results session at the time. “It’s been a little bit over-hyped because we’re really only just looking at how we can manage the traffic on the network better,” Thodey said, according to Computerworld. “There really isn’t anything heinous here at all.”
I’m thinking of posting my extended thoughts about this Telstra trial in a separate article perhaps later today or tomorrow, so I’ll hold off from publishing opinion/analysis here until I can get those thoughts in order.
Image credit: Telstra