Consumer groups fear a trial by Telstra that will slow the speed of peer-to-peer (P2P) services could be the start of a trend that sees ISPs "interfering in people's online activities".
Last week Fairfax Media revealed that Telstra was planning to throttle, or slow, certain internet services during peak periods as part of a "trial" on its ADSL network that was, according to a source, likely to become permanent. Telstra has since published two blog posts explaining it.
One of the services Telstra labelled as being targeted by throttling was P2P, commonly used for distributing movies and music online. It named no others.
But despite its transparent approach following the trial's revelation, its customers, competitors, consumer groups and internet activists have all been quick to criticise the company and its supposed motive for wanting to trial a slowdown of services such as P2P on its network.
Many Telstra customers have argued on forums including Whirlpool that internet access should be given to them as is and that it should not be interfered with before it arrives at its destination.
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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the nation's consumer watchdog, has also chimed in, warning that if a telco chose to prioritise its own internet services (like Foxtel in Telstra's case) over other services like P2P, then it would be concerned and investigate.
“[We have] serious concerns about where this could lead in terms of the ISPs interfering in people's online activities,” said Elise Davidson, a spokeswoman for the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, the body that represents consumers on communications issues.
“Telstra says they are doing this trial to improve their network management but the only specific benefit to consumers they have identified is improving the customer experience of 'real time entertainment', which presumably means they want to encourage people into their own online entertainment offerings.”
Ms Davidson said ACCAN would like to know from Telstra “precisely what type of improved experience would be generated by this type of discrimination against peer-to-peer traffic”.
She added that she also had reservations about the throttling because it appeared to differentiate types of online activity in order to make people pay more.
“We don't think that a reliable, unshaped internet service is something people should have to pay a premium for,” she said.
To slow traffic, Telstra will use what is know as deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which identifies the types of traffic flowing through a network to “deprioritise” it accordingly.
P2P 'not time-critical': Telstra
In its latest post explaining the trial, to be conducted in Victoria, Telstra says that it is testing the slowdown on certain services such as P2P, which it believes are “not time-critical” and can therefore be throttled. It also says that it is conducting a separate trial “which will test what type of speed-based or alternatively application-based speed-tiered offers Telstra could take to market in future”.
In a nutshell, the separate trial could mean the company moves away from offering a service such as ADSL broadband with a speed download rate that is “up to” 20 megabits per second (Mbps) to having speed-tiers like those on offer with NBN plans (3Mbps/4Mbps/5Mbps etc). It could also lead to future plans crafted for those who are heavy users of applications such as P2P or social media sites like YouTube.
The post adds that research from the trials will inform future product and pricing decisions and help the telco serve its customers better. “[The trials] are intended to allow us to provide customers with the quality of service that best suits their needs for the lowest possible price.”
Congestion the real reason for throttling, say rivals
But despite this, engineers from rival telcos say the real reason the trial is being conducted is because throttling can be used as an alternative to upgrading parts of Telstra's ADSL network.
The engineers say Telstra's ADSL network has become congested from under-investment.
“There appears to be congestion into some exchanges at present and they're thinking, 'If we go after the very small number of users who generate a large amount of traffic, we could stave off that and maybe put it off for longer until the NBN'. It means that the investment is never needed.”
“This seems a bit of a nonsensical solution – [throttling] legitimate content delivered over P2P ... in order to manage a faltering and under-provisioned network,” added iiNet chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby in an email to Fairfax.
“Perhaps Telstra shouldn't be in this market if they don't understand their customers' needs or digital distribution and can't build a 21st century network capable of delivering both.”
Telstra CEO dismisses concerns
Telstra CEO David Thodey dismissed concerns about the trial last week at the telco's financial results, saying that reporting of it had been “a little bit overhyped”.
“... We really have only just [been] looking at how we can manage the traffic on the network a bit better,” Mr Thodey said.
“There isn't anything really heinous here at all.
“We get congestion points and we want to try and look at ways to manage it.
“It's absolutely standard for most ISPs. We want to be absolutely transparent about it. There's nothing to hide. And I think most operators around the world do a degree of shaping anyway.”
Mr Thodey added that the trial was about making “sure people ... all get a good service”.
“I'm not quite sure how it got to [be] such a heinous thing. But it did,” he said.
Controversial 'piracy' comments haunt Telstra
While Telstra has denied in its blog posts that the trials were aimed at combating online piracy that may be occurring over Telstra's network using P2P, a Telstra executive's comment at a telecommunications conference in Dublin from 2011 has come back to haunt the company.
At the time, Telstra executive director Michael Lawrey made it clear that the throttle plan he had in mind was about targeting those who downloaded "illegal content", whom he blamed for congestion.
The RCR Wireless article the comments were reported in no longer appears online but Mr Lawrey's quotes remain on the technology news website iTnews, which repeated them.
RCR Wireless quoted Mr Lawrey as saying Telstra would also take action against customers believed to be abusing the carrier's fair-use policies.
"We probably haven't even used our fair-use small print yet. But we will," Mr Lawrey reportedly said.
He was also reported to have said that if the carrier's proposed system "cut out 80 per cent of the non-value adding traffic – good".
According to the RCR Wireless article, about 80 per cent of Telstra's data was chewed up by high-bandwidth users.
"I'd rather not have those 80 per cent as customers. I'd rather someone else had them as customers," Mr Lawrey reportedly said.
He did not say whether he was talking about fixed-line, smartphone customers or both.
How Telstra's trial is different to what exists now
A study published by US company Measurement Lab in October 2011 based on ISP user tests found that many Australian ISPs appeared to be throttling, or interfering with, P2P traffic in some way.
But the type of throttling Telstra is testing is more targeted, according to independent telecommunications analyst Paul Budde, who said that Telstra's trial signalled that the nation's largest telco was now wanting to take a more closer look at throttling technologies to target 'illegal' P2P users, who use it to download movies and music that they haven't paid for.
“What the announcement looks like is that Telstra have developed a more sophisticated way of [throttling] (I assume more targeted) based on intelligence they gather (deep packet),” he said.
“This ... starts encroaching on areas such as net neutrality and privacy.
“What stops carriers to use this to slow down traffic from competitors such as Google?
“They can do this under the banner of 'network management'. With technologies such as deep-packet inspection, they can get very detailed information about the nature of the traffic from individual users and they could misuse that information for their own purposes.”
He said the Netherlands cornered this issue by making specific legislation that secures net neutrality. “This country has also put limitations on deep-packet inspection for privacy reasons,” Budde said.
Trial similar to what electricity companies tried
Network engineer Mark Newton, formerly of Internode, told Stilgherrian of Crikey that slowing P2P was similar to an unpopular plan electricity companies were trialling during peak periods.
“Electricity companies experimented with 'demand management' (where they'd remotely disable your air conditioner for a few minutes at a time during peak demand) in the early 2000s, and it was hugely unpopular,” Mr Newton told Stilgherrian.
“'Load shedding', where they invoke deliberate blackouts on random suburbs to constrain demand on hot days, is unpopular enough to be a major political issue in some states.”
Whether Telstra can do something similarly unpopular in today's world remains to be seen.
“For consumers it's another case of the carrier not respecting the boundaries between 'theirs' and 'not theirs', taking an unwanted ownership stake in the customers' data,” Mr Newton said in an interview with Fairfax.
With Asher Moses
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