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Opinion, Telecommunications - Written by Renai LeMay on Tuesday, February 12, 2013 13:14 - 60 Comments
Reality check: Telstra’s P2P trial is no big deal
opinion Those panic merchants jumping up and down screaming blue murder over Telstra’s P2P shaping trial need to take a chill pill and go sit in the naughty corner until their blood pressure sinks a few points. The reality is that the trial isn’t a big deal and it’s certainly nothing out of the ordinary in the context of the Australian and international telecommunications sector.
Over the past week I’ve watched, absolutely dumbfounded, as Australia’s technical community has tied itself in incredibly angry knots over a small trial of peer to peer shaping technology and a few other network management techniques which Telstra is planning to conduct with the assistance of a small clutch of its customers in Victoria.
I’ve watched, amazed, as groups such as the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network have come out of the woodwork to demand answers from Telstra on the situation, claiming that the trial could lead to a “second-class Internet connection” being sold to customers … or even that it could lead to prices rising to the point that some might not be able to afford to buy broadband services at all (what?). I’ve watched, chuckling under my breath at the audacity of the claim, as iiNet’s chief technology officer claimed that the whole initiative represented “purely a business decision” on the part of Telstra to avoid upgrading its ADSL network.
I’ve watched as technical commentators who should know better have posted extensive guides to circumventing Telstra’s trial … despite the fact that it’s completely voluntary. And I’ve watched as the head of Australia’s competition regulator threatened to investigate Telstra over the issue, despite the fact that there is no suggestion of illegality in Telstra’s trial.
I’ve watched as the conspiracy theorists have come out, even normally sensible commentators such as networking engineer Mark Newton, who appears to have told music site Tone Deaf that Telstra’s next step could be to “molest Skype sessions”. That same article makes the headline claim that Telstra wants to “stop illegal music downloading” through its trial. And check out this piece by the generally calm-headed Stilgherrian, who opines that Telstra’s trial is the perfect way to segue into letting “the copyright industry’s investigators loose on their customers” … despite the fact that Telstra explicitly denied this was the case, and has in fact had a strong history of withholding customer information from litigious film and TV studios unless forced to hand it over by law — even going so far as to support iiNet in its recent High Court case regarding online piracy.
Yes, yes. As Telstra chief executive David Thodey said at the company’s regular financial results briefing session last week, news reports around this issue are more than “a little over-hyped”. In actual fact, they’re flat out insane. And that’s not even mentioning the dozens of pages of forum postings and hundreds of other comments published by regular joes online. People are literally tearing each other to shreds online debating this one.
So what’s happening here? Well, frankly, there’s a dominant industry narrative going on here which has remained in place for the past decade or so (Telstra being the ‘big bad’), and journalists starved of interesting stories in the slow days of a new year are whipping themselves into a frenzy over any little bit of controversial content they can find, in a desperate drive to generate page impressions and justify their feeble existence.
The only problem is, the reality doesn’t match the hype. Telstra’s trial isn’t the end of the world or even really that unusual in the broader context of the Australian and international telecommunications industry.
For starters, it’s a small trial. Telstra executive John Chambers, explaining it last week, states (emphasis mine): “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.” So you’re probably not even going to be invited to be part of the trial to start with.
Secondly, if you are on Telstra (god only knows why), and you happen to be invited into its shaping trial, then you can opt-out. Wow. What an incredible concept.
That’s right. Don’t go on Whirlpool screaming about Telstra’s appalling network management practices. Don’t write opinionated articles on your personal blog damning Telstra for its all-round, eternal evilness. Don’t hold satanic rituals in your back yard in an attempt to sabotage David Thodey’s love life. Just tell Telstra you don’t want to be part of its trial, and that’s it. You’ll probably never hear anything about it ever again. It’s voluntary, people. You don’t want to be part of the trial? Don’t be. Incredible. Just incredible. It’s almost like we still have free will.
Sure, the trial may eventually extend to Telstra’s wider customer base. It may become part of Telstra’s standard offering. It may even become compulsory. So what? Don’t care for Telstra’s network management practices? Well, for starters you’re probably more technically aware than the average joe and likely not using Telstra to start with. When any of my friends and family ask me for advice on which broadband ISP to go with, my first comment is usually “anyone but Telstra”, and my second comment is usually “iiNet or Internode; TPG if you’re a cheap-ass bastard”.
For every telco like Telstra that has shitty network management practices (hell, why this that even news?), there’s going to be another major ISP which takes a different path; a better path; a path more aimed at actually delivering good outcomes to customers, which if you’ll think for a moment, has never really been a strong suit of Telstra’s (apart from with respect to its Next G mobile network of course, which is stellar). If you hate P2P shaping, vote with your feet and find another telco. It’s a free capitalistic world out there, not that you’d know from all the whining Australians do about how the Government should save us from everything.
Next, have you considered the fact that Telstra’s P2P shaping trial may not actually be that unusual? In fact, that most other ISPs globally do something similar on their networks?
In the UK, for example — the market usually most compared to Australia (the US is quite different as it has a number of geography-specific telco monopolies) — this kind of practice is basically bog normal. ISPs like Talk Talk, Orange and BT (click the links for the details) all conduct some form of shaping and traffic prioritisation on their network, and as long as they disclose it up-front, most customers have no problem with it. Industry regulator Ofcom even issued a formal discussion paper on the issue back in November 2011 (PDF), and found that the key ingredient here was information.
As long as all of the ISPs disclosed precisely what they were up to, and left enough room in their networks for acceptable speeds for services regardless of shaping, it wasn’t that big a deal. After all, as we’ve mentioned previously, it’s an open market, and as long as customers have all the information, they’re able to make their own choices about which ISP to pay for broadband services.
In addition, one factor that I don’t think many Australians commenting on this debate have really examined is that Telstra’s not the only ISP to run sophisticated network prioritisation tools on its network. Take this statement by iiNet customer service representative Matthew Jones in August 2010, when an international study found iiNet’s network one of the worst in Australia in terms of BitTorrent speeds.
“We don’t throttle BitTorrent – what we do is manage congestion and give priority to interactive and time sensitive traffic – think VoIP and other “must be there in time” style traffic. The testing that this study has used is looking for evidence of the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology. This is used by all major ISP’s (including iiNet) to manage congestion and to combat events like DoS attacks.”
Or, alternatively, take this paragraph directly from iiNet’s Customer Relationship Agreement (PDF):
“Applications will be prioritised based on whether the performance of the application is time-sensitive (i.e. the need for real-time usage of the application) and whether it requires a minimum throughput speed. Applications such as streaming video, voice, mail, web, Virtual Private Networking (VPN), Gaming, Video on demand (VoD), Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) and other similar applications will therefore be prioritised over non-time sensitive applications such as File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and file Downloading. For example, your Netphone1 service will be prioritised over any Downloading you do, thereby maintaining the quality of your Netphone1 service.”
This statement is extremely similar to what Telstra said about its P2P shaping trial this week:
“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.”
So one telco doesn’t explicitly shape P2P services on its network, but does de-prioritise such services when other more “time-sensitive” (read: ‘latency-sensitive’) services need the access, whereas the other will actively shape P2P services to help ensure other time-sensitive services always work. It sounds like the intention of what iiNet and Telstra are doing is in fact very similar.
Of course, there are two key differences between the two approaches of the two telcos. As many have pointed out, Telstra is explicitly planning to trial what is called ‘Deep Packet Inspection’ technology on its network — which lets it look very closely at the content of Internet data as it passes through its network, and deal with it accordingly. This is part of how the company plans to throttle P2P services, and it’s what has gotten privacy advocates up in arms this week, even though Telstra explicitly stated that while it will be able to identify discrete packets as constituting P2P material, for example, it will not “know or record any of the content or information that it contains”.
And there’s also another difference: Assuming there is no other network traffic on a certain broadband connection, that broadband connection, under Telstra, might still have its P2P functionality shaped, while under iiNet it would not be.
However, if you think about it, the second case is relatively unlikely; what are the odds that the broadband connection of your household is explicitly only pulling down P2P files? In most households with multiple occupants, it’s a relatively small percentage of the time, perhaps only in the middle of the night. If you are a heavy downloader and keep the BitTorrent fire lit 24×7, you probably weren’t using Telstra to start with. And what is explicitly wrong with Telstra conducting deep packet inspection on its network traffic for the purposes of network prioritisation, if it is not aware of the content of the information it’s processing?
For almost all Australian broadband consumers, assuming Telstra only minimally throttles P2P usage, the difference between these two scenarios is actually very minor in their effect to the end user; and I would suggest that in practice, most won’t even notice it’s going on.
These, are, of course, precisely the sorts of differences which technically aware people will notice and know of; as I believe I’ve mentioned, I wouldn’t personally touch Telstra’s broadband network with a stick, because I had pretty much already assumed that if Telstra wasn’t already using these kinds of techniques on its network, then it eventually would be, and I didn’t want any part of this. As a technical user; I want my technology to be pure; unsullied like the driven snow. This, I believe, is is why I spent quite a few years as a Linux systems administrator; I didn’t want to admit the impurity of a flawed system like Windows into my life. My ideals have since sunk to the extent that I’m now almost fully complicit in Steve Jobs’ reality-controlled Apple environment; but I digress.
The difficulty with technology, of course, is that even those systems which we perceive as pure, are actually anything but.
Network neutrality? Don’t make me laugh. Every time you download a packet over virtually any broadband service in Australia, your ISP prioritises it in some way, shape or form. iiNet openly admits its FetchTV service gets priority over everything else on its network (hell, it even requires you to use its own ADSL router to facilitate even greater control by the ISP), Telstra has done the same thing for years and years with its own IPTV services, and I’m 100 percent sure that others such as Optus, TPG and even that God’s Gift to Broadband, Internode, does precisely the same thing. All Telstra revealed last week was a trial that would take that already entrenched that environment just one step further. And it’s even voluntary.
But the technology industry loves dichotomies. Microsoft is bad, Apple is good (despite the fact that most people use Windows). No wait, Apple is bad, and Linux is pure. No wait, Telstra is bad, and iiNet is pure as the driven snow. No wait, iiNet is the real big bad, and Internode represents the one and only holy broadband saviour. Until they were bought by iiNet. Oops.
The truth is always more complex. However, if there’s one thing I have learned in my more than three decades of life, it’s that people don’t always want to hear the truth. Screaming at each other about manufactured controversy is usually just so much more interesting.
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