As the amount of bandwidth we devour has skyrocketed, so has ISPs' need to police our appetites, even as they offer more bandwidth to whet it. We talked to the biggest ISPs around to get their official positions on traffic management and content filtering to see what's in store for your pipes. Here's where you find out which ISPs may screw you, and which ones swear to Giz they won't. Update: We've got new responses from AT&T and Speakeasy.
The scariest scenario is invasive "packet filtering," where companies look at what you're downloading and punish you for perceived misconduct. Comcast was the poster child for BitTorrent throttling before getting cozy with it to avoid an FCC smackdown, and AT&T infamously broached the idea of filtering its entire network for copyrighted content. Beyond packet filtering, there are two potentially more widespread ways big ISPs can try to bring down the Torrent mad: "Caps," already used by local ISPs such as BendBroadband and Sunflower, are set amounts you can download each month. Anything over that, like cellphone plans, means overage penalties. "Throttling" is the ability of the ISP to, any given moment, put the brakes on your connection when you're being too much of a resource hog. Here's where the ISPs stand on the tactics above and your pipes.
We have said consistently that AT&T will not allow itself to become a policeman or enforcement agent on the Internet. We have also made clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with P2P applications like BitTorrent, which are advanced, and legal, technologies that are used and welcomed on our network... We do not block or degrade any P2P application to manage network congestion. At the same time, we feel that any company involved with the Internet should be concerned about illegal activity, whether it is identity theft or intellectual property theft, and should be prepared to cooperate in legal means of addressing such problems while protecting fully the privacy of our customers.
Content filtering somewhat touchy, but there are indications they're backing off the idea after the huge outcry. When we pressed AT&T on the issue of throttling down overzealous pipe users, the company declined to comment. Hopefully that just means it is still deliberating the issue.
Update: AT&T wrote in with an additional statement: "We can't give you details on our specific network management techniques to handle times of high-volume" citing similar reasons as Time Warner, "but those techniques don't include degrading or blocking traffic."
Here's the statement we got pre-BT chumminess, though we now know that Comcast is moving to a more management style that'll temporarly slow all traffic, whether it's cracked copies of Final Cut Pro from your favorite P2P or YouTube, to a drip during congestion:
We have a responsibility to provide all of our customers with a good Internet experience and we use the latest technologies to manage our network so that they can continue to enjoy these applications. During periods of heavy peer-to-peer congestion, which can degrade the experience for all customers, we use several network management technologies that, when necessary, enable us to delay—not block—some peer-to-peer traffic.
When we pressed about filtering, we got:
Comcast is not currently using or testing any filtering technologies. We agree that copyright owners have a right to protect their content. We work well with them under existing law and will continue to work with content owners to find solutions to help support their efforts around piracy. We cannot speculate on what AT&T is doing or how its technology works.
We talked to Alex Dudley, Time Warner's PR VP. In addition to referring to us to TWC's acceptable use policy, he told us that "we both reserve the right to manage our network and try and explain to our customers and others that it's important that we manage the network." As to how the system works, he says, "We haven't been pro-active in talking about what we may or may not be doing because it's proprietary" and to stave off "another ISP go[ing] in and market[ing] against that." Content filtering "is not something we've discussed in detail here" but Time Warner "supports AT&T's right ot manage their network anyway they see fit."
This was most the straight up: "We don't manage our network by throttling, slowing or curbing service, either on DSL or FiOS." In reference to content filtering, we weren't given a new statement, but referred to earlier remarks by public affairs VP Tom Tauke that it is "reluctant to get into the business of examining content that flows across our networks," the most pro-active stance against content filtering. However, it's still no fan of the government stepping in: "These are decisions best made by network engineers and operators—not policymakers."
They got back to us after we went to press, but here's what they had to say on network management: "Our position on this is that [we] attempt to manage our network to account for peak usage so that we do not need to throttle bandwidth of customers pending applications in order to keep our pipes unclogged." And on content filtering: "Speakeasy does not currently do any content filtering, and at this time we have no plans to filter content."
Since BitTorrent became a rallying point for net neutrality advocates (and caught the attention of the FCC) ISPs have made a show of stepping back from P2P hampering to shield themselves from both nerd backlash and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's steely gaze. Verizon and AT&T, for instance, both pointed me toward their corporation-friendly "P4P" file-sharing development initiatives for more effective downloading (at an unknown cost), and Comcast has touted its R&D with BitTorrent.
All of that's a pretty effective smokescreen for moving to more hardcore capping and throttling, allowing them to cry "We treat all traffic equally, neutrally even!" while nuking all of your traffic without prejudice. Most people downloading the hugest amounts are probably not paying for all that content. And note that everyone except Verizon left themselves plenty of hedge space on the issue. Time Warner says it doesn't talk about it because it's afraid others will use it in marketing; well, Verizon is kinda sorta using their total lack of filtering as an underground marketing thing already, which is especially effective when coupled with FiOS's insane speeds.
Even with ever-higher speeds, bandwidth will remain an issue for ISPs as they try to cram more and more HD content down pipes you're using to download movies, swap music and other increasingly bandwidth-intensive applications. So more management is going to go hand and hand with more bandwidth, make no mistake.
But it doesn't have to be a bad thing, if they're smart about it. They make a genuine movement to smarter protocols and management techniques that don't hose anyone's broadband (like that P4P stuff, if it's really open), but instead help everyone squeeze every last bit out of it as efficiently as possible. We can only hope.