Level 3 Communications and the perpetual game of ISP "Chicken"

Level 3 Communications recently published an excellent article on their blog titled "Chicken". The article scratches the surface of a well-known problem whereby ISPs abuse their monopoly power controlling the "last-mile" of Internet connectivity, or the connection from a regional fiber backbone to a neighborhood or house.

Since ISPs have so much market power, they deliberately allow their networks to get congested, which harms bandwidth intensive services such as Netflix. When their customers begin to complain, they demand a toll from Netflix to upgrade their network. Customers can complain, but they usually don't have a comparable service in town to switch to. With this spectacular display of arrogance, ISPs can then collect money from their customers who pay for quality Internet access, but not actually deliver any such thing. They then wait until Internet content creators such as Netflix and Amazon pay an extra toll/bribe/fee before the ISP expands their network pipes.

A few hours ago, Level 3 posted a very in-depth follow up article about this issue. One excerpt from the blog post about Level 3's peering connections is particularly damning:

A port that is on average utilised at 90 percent will be saturated, dropping packets, for several hours a day. We have congested ports saturated to those levels with 12 of our 51 peers. Six of those 12 have a single congested port, and we are both (Level 3 and our peer) in the process of making upgrades – this is business as usual and happens occasionally as traffic swings around the Internet as customers change providers.

That leaves the remaining six peers with congestion on almost all of the interconnect ports between us. Congestion that is permanent, has been in place for well over a year and where our peer refuses to augment capacity. They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfil the requests their customers make for content.</blockquote>

The section presented here refers to peering connections, or ports, between Level 3 and consumer broadband providers, such as Comcast Xfinity or AT&T U-Verse. Level 3 avoids mentioning the ISPs by name, presumably for legal reasons. But I'm sure you can use your imagination to figure out who at least one of these companies are.

Level 3 is stating as a fact that six major ISPs (five in the U.S.) are allowing their peering connections to the greater Internet to become congested on purpose. The ISPs aren't making any effort to address the problem and are therefore allowing the congestion to become "permanent." This leads to dropped packets and a poor Internet browsing experience for consumer broadband users, especially for streaming video or music. Level 3 then goes on to say that "All six [companies] are large Broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market." But that part shouldn't come as any surprise to American ISP customers.

These two Level 3 blog writeups are definitely worth a read, since they offer an insider's take on the whole peering issue, and additionally, one that cannot be disputed. The revelations should also fan the flames of the public outcry resulting from the FCC's recent decision to throw in the towel on Net Neutrality.


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