IDC: ISP peer-to-peer fears are a boogeyman

Network service providers are moaning about the toll peer-to-peer file sharing applications are taking on their bandwidth, with Bell Canada and others insisting on the right to slow P2P apps during non-peak hours. But the author of a new study on deep packet inspection, the technology used by many Internet service providers to identify P2P traffic, says the concern is overblown.

P2P “is not the boogie man,” says Lawrence Surtees, vice-president and principal communications research analyst at IDC Canada. In fact, he argues that ISPs should embrace the strategy of U.S. carrier Verizon Communications, which is looking for ways to help its users share legal files faster and therefore not slow down traffic.

Verizon has been working with Pando Networks and Yale University researchers. In March it announceda test showed over 60 per cent improvement in download performance as well as a 50 per cent reduction in network costs. So far Verizon has been silent on when or if the technology will be used in production.

“A customer-friendly solution is not to block P2P file sharing but rather to intelligently manage and continue to allow P2P file sharing,” Surtees advises providers.

Bell and the Canadian Association of Internet Providers is engaged in a vigorous battle before the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission about the right of the telcos to slow the flow of P2P traffic. A decision is expected around the end of September. Bell isn’t the only Internet provider to control its traffic, the report notes. Rogers Cable also pinches down on heavy users.

But it may be moot. Over the long term video is going to replace P2P as the leading Internet application, Surtees said. According to an IDC chart in Surtees’ report, about it represented about 60 per cent of global Internet traffic in 2006. By 2012 it will have dropped to about 28 per cent. During the same time period video-to-PC will increase from about 11 per cent to 30 per cent of data flowing over the Internet.

Nor is it clear how serious the P2P problem is in Canada, Surtees’ report suggests. He writes that Canadian ISPs have not published their Internet traffic mix. Bell has said that last fall five per cent of its Sympatico subscribers accounted for 60 per cent of the traffic, and of that 60 per cent was P2P applications.

A Cisco Systems 2007 study of an unnamed North American ISP said 46 per cent of its traffic was taken up by P2P applications and 38 per cent by data On the other hand, when IDC aggregated data from several network infrastructure vendors of consumer Internet traffic by U.S. providers using their equipment – which represented about 10 per cent of the market there – it concluded Web browsing was the leading component of Internet traffic (37 per cent), following by P2P apps (31 per cent).

Peer-to-peer file sharing applications such as BiTorrent, KaZaa and others are highly popular among Internet users for sharing legal and illegal recorded music and video. But it’s also the technology behind Skype and is being used for legitimate purposes such as software patches.

More importantly, the report points out, mainstream TV broadcasters such as the CBC and NBC are starting to use P2P to distribute their programming. “While dramatic claims about P2P traffic taking over the Internet about,” Surtees write in his report, “in most cases it is only a handful of abusers on a network that cause havoc for the rest of consumers.” Most offenders work at non-peak hours so as not to draw attention to themselves, he argues.

Because providers are tired of paying to expand bandwidth at a rate faster than their revenues are increasing, some, such as Rogers, Shaw Communications, and, recently, Bell, are offering volume-based plans where consumers pay more for using more bandwidth. But the report wonders if the public will eventually object to what it calls “price discrimination between different classes of users.”

Instead, it suggests providers use deep packet inspection applications to learn what’s going on in their pipes, and then use technologies to prioritize resources between subscribers, applications, and content providers. Simple prioritization can occur today if network providers can arrange a deal where the traffic is fast-laned across multiple public networks, Surtees writes, but he admits that when this can be negotiated is unknown.

But he adds prioritization does not require significant additional capital expenditures.

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