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Calls in US for all traffic to be treated equally
Friday 18 April 2008 13:51:23 by Andrew Ferguson

Managing traffic across millions of broadband customers is big business, both in terms of the potential savings broadband providers can make and the companies selling the hardware and software to make it possible. In Utopia there would be no need for traffic management as networks would be large enough that congestion would not be noticeable and issues like lag and jitter that affect VoIP and gaming would not occur.

Alas, back in the real world the UK has had a few years of traffic management practices and consumers have a poor view of it in general. The bad opinion many have of traffic management is because of the sometimes draconian or underhand ways in which it is used, and people will have many tales of support agents denying its presence for only a few weeks later a press release to appear explaining new traffic management techniques that it has previously trialled.

Move now across the large pond to the United States and you stumble into the big debate over net neutrality. On one hand we have some calling for all net traffic to be treated equally, the FCC saying management is OK so long as providers are open and explain it to customers, and broadband providers trying to balance network costs against profit margins and having to increase product prices.

The ideal of all network traffic being treated equally sounds great, but while this seems a good idea, it may mean that at the time of day when the networks are busy that providers simply implement blanket speed restrictions (not unlike the current Virgin Media system which appears to not analyse the traffic type). Alternatively providers may simply do no management and allow the network protocols to fight it out amongst themselves, causing gaming, VoIP and streaming traffic to get packets dropped when a network fills up.

It would be interesting to see UK broadband providers forced to come clean on what type of traffic management it carries out, and finally explain what they really mean by 'unlimited', i.e. to publish a usage figure that if you go over this amount of usage in a month your provider may contact you to discuss what is extreme usage in their view, or you may see your maximum download speed throttled back.

Current broadband product advertisements do mention things like fair use policy, but what proportion of the public read these, and more importantly understand them? For many when deciding between a number of unlimited packages it is simply a case of which one looks the cheapest or picking the top one from a comparison site search engine.

What the public is generally not told is that while you may see a broadband product advertised for around £5 to £10 a month with unlimited usage, the fact that many other providers with clear limits can only sell broadband for £10 or more with just a 1GB usage allowance reveals a lot about the sort of usage these unlimited products expect. In short, they plan their network on people only using about 2 or 3GB a month and if you go beyond this sort of usage you may find things slowing down for no obvious reason due to stealthy traffic management, or worse, their network is so congested that you find yourself staying up late just to get a bit of online gaming in.

Comments

Posted by jrawle over 8 years ago
Let's ban the term "unlimited" where broadband is concerned. Ofcom should force all ISPs to display a prominent summary box with all the features and limitations of their product in a standard format, as is currently the case for credit cards. Then it's clear to read about and compare products, rather than having everything hidden in the small print. Then everyone will be free to choose a cheap product with traffic management, or to pay more for a product with fewer restrictions.
Posted by keith_thfc over 8 years ago
jrawle - I would only ban the fake-unlimited ISP's from using that word. Some like SKY and O2 provide (at the moment anyway) a genuinely unlimited service.

"It would be interesting to see UK broadband providers forced to come clean on what type of traffic management it carries out, and finally explain what they really mean by 'unlimited'"

Shouldn't be using the word "unlimited" if its traffic shaped IMHO.
Posted by AndrueC over 8 years ago
If there was a way to monitor throughput we couple implement a traffic light based system or letter grades as is done with efficiency of white goods.

Alas if you can work out how to implement that kind of industry-wide and accurate throughput measurement you can probably build a congestion-free network.
Posted by herdwick over 8 years ago
"Some like SKY and O2 provide (at the moment anyway) a genuinely unlimited service." - not according to their terms and conditions they don't.

"Net neutrality" perhaps should mean that the same traffic types are treated equally regardless of origin - so you don't prioiritise Vonage over Sipgate VoIP services or iTunes over Tesco downloads, etc, but you do prioritise VoIP over downloads.
Posted by keith_thfc over 8 years ago
""Some like SKY and O2 provide (at the moment anyway) a genuinely unlimited service." - not according to their terms and conditions they don't"

That's why I said "at the moment".
Posted by herdwick over 8 years ago
So how is it "genuinely unlimited" when the Terms & Conditions say otherwise. A bit weasely I feel.

"Unlimited in my current experience while they have low user numbers" perhaps :-)
Posted by keith_thfc over 8 years ago
Its genuinely unlimited until customers hear the whirring of traffic shaping machines starting up.
Posted by Dawn_Falcon over 8 years ago
I know of no ISP who prioritises game traffic, Andrew. Obviously you may have a better idea than me... Are there?

Gamers usually get the shaft, despite games being far lower bandwidth than streaming or p2p.
Posted by adamtemp over 8 years ago
dawn_falcon look at plusnet they do do a package for gamers
Posted by andrew (Favicon staff member) over 8 years ago
In the past when BT Centrals used to get close to capacity and providers were waiting on more capacity giving UDP (gaming and VoIP) traffic a better priority was often used.

Plusnet is the one doing it day to day that comes to mind, and some others have claimed it, but names elude me (i.e. fairly small providers)
Posted by c_j_ over 8 years ago
What about other approaches not mentioned here? Eg didn't Enta try something like a protocol-independent "rate cap" imposed when traffic got near dangerous levels, ie customer speeds come down till the congestion risk goes away? How did that work out?
Posted by Kempy over 8 years ago
At KeConnect, we got fed up of trying to compete against people who hid behind claims of unlimited connections, but were secretly traffic shaping their network, so now we just sell unlimited (i.e. unshaped traffic) in chunks of bandwidth allowances. e.g. if you purchased 20Gb you can use it - you get what you paid for - but it is not shaped. None of our customers complain - they new what they were buying from the start.
Posted by mr_chris over 8 years ago
c_j - have a look for yourself: http://noc.enta.net/?page_id=166

As I write this, one of the centrals is down to 2.5Mbps, two of them down to 4.6Mb, etc.

I'd rather have prioritised traffic levels for my own use, rather than have my whole session restricted to 2Mbps - all depends on what your own requirements are I guess.
Posted by Dawn_Falcon over 8 years ago
adamtemp - where? It's not listed on http://www.plus.net/residential/broadband/?resindex=tab_broadband - all I can see is a deliberate block on gaming on the lowest package.

Andrew, it's a bad mistake to assume that modern games use pure UDP - most games (and all which use DirectPlay / 360 games) use a mix.
Posted by Neil_A over 8 years ago
@Dawn_Falcon
Have a look at PlusNet Broadband Your Way Pro
http://www.plus.net/residential/broadband/bbyw_pro.shtml

The cross next to BBYW Option 1 isn't a block on gaming, it just isn't prioritised on that package.
Posted by Dawn_Falcon over 8 years ago
I certainly read it that way for option 1, Neil. This is marketing at its finest, neh?

And right, a gaming package at £20.00 a month with just 10GB allowance, using a tech which prioritises *only* games from a few of the major publishers and is known to cause problems with Ventrillo (the issues with TS2 are unproven).

Even by their own stats, over 20% of their "gamers" would end up paying for additional charges on the service.
Posted by chrysalis over 8 years ago
blanket restrictions beat protocol shaping always. Entanet anti loss tool is far superior to any traffic shaping I have seen implemented. Of course decent contention ratios that dont cause congestion at all beat both.
Posted by Rroff over 8 years ago
UDP will be the main transmission method for gaming data in games where the timely arrival of data is important i.e. first person shooters - TCP might be used aswell for misc thigns like querying an update server - but its too slow (~200ms average) for time critical traffic.
Posted by mr_chris over 8 years ago
@chrysalis: quote "anti loss tool is far superior to any traffic shaping I have seen implemented."

Maybe that's best for you and your type of internet usage, I personally prefer traffic shaping. Given most users (those who don't know what kbps even is, nevermind what speed they're getting themselves) won't even realise there's anything going on. Users with some techy clue are able to make a choice between providers - Enta's system suits some, but not others.

However there's no way people can say "such-and-such IS better" as it's purely subjective, IMO.
Posted by chrysalis over 8 years ago
mr_chris I would argue web browsing on entanet is just as fast as someone who prioritises it like plusnet, likewise ukonline who dont traffic shapre at all is just as fast if not faster, just because someone says something is prioritised it doesnt mean it will perform better.
Posted by keith_thfc over 8 years ago
Sorry but I don't trust ANY ISP that has ever traffic shaped.

You simply have no way of knowing what the rules are from one day to the next.

Posted by mr_chris over 8 years ago
chrsyalis - web browsing, yeah, I'd agree, most people would generally notice no real difference between browsing at 2Mb and at 8Mb. I guess I was talking about my own use - the odd download here and there (programs, patches, microsoft trial stuff)... mostly HTTP - prioritisation suits me better than the Enta system would, simply because if I download something via HTTP, I normally want it ASAP because I'm sitting there waiting for it! If I get something via eg P2P or Usenet, I am able to set it off and leave it going, I'm not really bothered how long it takes.
Posted by mr_chris over 8 years ago
(continued) I'm not too sure about "just because someone says something is prioritised it doesnt mean it will perform better".

I do see what you're saying, but the finite capacity of an IPStream based ISP generally means something has to give. I've used Plusnet, and HTTP generally performed consistently at line speed, which suited my needs. Yeah, of course they messed up loads with their traffic shaping, specially at the beginning, but then again so have pretty much every other ISP who have tried it as well.

I wonder when the LLU unshaped bubble will eventually start to burst?
Posted by c_j_ over 8 years ago
There's a choice to be made between "protocol neutral, unmanaged (congestion limited)" ISPs (most of them), "protocol neutral, actively managed" ISPs (Enta and ???), and "protocol specific, traffic shaped" ISPs (pioneered by Plusnet)..

Under normal circumstances, any of them should work acceptably, unless the management is incompatible with intended usage (eg heavy P2P users vs most(?) Plusnet tariffs).

Then what happens when the inevitable occurs, and demand exceeds capacity (a big news event, or big BTwholesale outage). ISPs with no traffic management will likely be worst hit.
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