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Ace Internet hits traffic humps
Tuesday 13 June 2006 16:36:00 by Andrew Ferguson

Since almost when ADSL was first rolled out in the UK, service providers and resellers would periodically hit capacity problems, sometimes brought on by poor planning, delays in getting new capacity up and running or misjudging demand for a product. In the early days providers just let traffic hit their capacity ceiling and the end-user saw latency and a host of services become unreliable. In the last couple of years this has changed, with some providers employing pro-active traffic management to ensure spikes in traffic are handled gracefully, or some degree of management 24/7 to avoid spikes.

It is with this background that the news emerges that Ace Internet who use capacity provided by Mistral were caught out by the unannounced changes last weekend that saw P2P and Usenet (newsgroups) speeds drop significantly. Ace Internet lists No download limits, No hidden "fair use policy", No blocked ports, No redirected ports, No caches used, No off peak P2P restriction, No proxy servers, No long contracts, No hassle MAC codes' as key attractions to its service - and now with the traffic management going on, some customers are displeased. The observant Ace Internet customer may notice this list is slightly different to a week ago, as 'no traffic shaping' has been replaced by 'No off peak P2P restriction', and given that Ace Internet had no forewarning of this change in how the service was supplied then they've acted about as fast as they could.

A full statement on the traffic management can be read on the Ace Internet website. This highlights what has happened, and that the management is intended to be an emergency measure, and was brought about by the increase in bandwidth usage due to the BBC World Cup streams - though while the World Cup streams are getting lots of press coverage, we do not know how popular they actually are. The action taken at this time is that P2P and Usenet traffic is being channeled down a pipe around 1/5th of the size of the peak traffic flow. This means that contention may be more obvious on these traffic types - or put another way, will run slower at peak times than previously. The benefit being that capacity is freed for video streaming and other protocols. The restrictions are to be relaxed slightly from today, the traffic only being restricted between 9am and 6pm, and other measures are afoot to make the system more flexible.

The question for customers of the providers concerned is how long will this emergency measure last? There are two choices at the end of the day, take advantage of the Ace Internet offer which is shortening the minimum contract term to one month, and move elsewhere. The other option is to sit it out, and see how things develop. The choice is down to the individual and everyone has different priorities. Of course what may happen is that if those affected by the management all land at the same few providers, is the same problems are induced, but a few weeks or months down the line.

The future may see changes for Ace Internet customers, which is open for a degree of consultation as to what the provider will do in the future, but they are considering rate limiting or a cap to the service usage. Though while caps are good at spreading load out, even with a small cap there is the real risk that more people than a provider can handle will try to watch a popular video stream or other content at the same time. For example if during an England world cup match a large TV transmitter was to break, there may be a sudden rush of people to watch the streams, and it would take around 6% of customers to probably use all the available capacity (based on having 622Mbps of capacity, and 30,000 customers playing a 0.3Mbps stream).

What is clear is that any provider now pushing a clean unmanaged service at a low price to consumers, needs to make people aware of what will happen as loads increase. For example will they let the 30,000 customers who might share around 600Mbps of capacity to fight it out, and thus see packet loss and problems with simple stuff like web browsing, or will they have systems in place to manage things in a graceful manner.

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