Level 3 accuses Comcast, other ISPs of 'deliberately harming' broadband service

Internet backbone provider Level 3 says Comcast and others are slowing Net speeds, but details of the spat show Net neutrality isn't all black and white

At first glance, the widely publicized spat between Comcast (and other ISPs) and Internet backbone provider Level 3 looks like a cut-and-dried case of evil greedy telecom versus a noble provider of Internet goodness.

But a closer look shows the issues aren't as obvious as they might seem, and sheds some light on how Net neutrality is often far simpler in theory than in practice.

Yesterday in a blog post, Level 3 called out a number of major U.S. ISPs for what it described as "deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers." The problem revolves around "peering," or the sharing of networks to allow a given network operator to deliver traffic in places where it doesn't have a network. The peers agree to swap a balanced amount of traffic or, failing that, work out some kind of agreement.

When such agreements don't get worked out, the end result is something like the brouhaha between Level 3 and Comcast. Comcast wants to charge Level 3 more for the privilege of allowing Level 3 to deliver more content from providers like Netflix. The video-streaming company has been one of the noisier protestors in this matter, since the lack of an agreement between Level 3 and Comcast means degraded Netflix speeds for Comcast customers.

But something else lies under this dispute: Over the last several years, Level 3 has gone from being a mere network provider to a content delivery network akin to Akamai -- and one that undercuts Comcast's own businesses.

As Cnet pointed out, Level 3 has been evolving in this fashion for some time, getting into the game of caching and delivering video content for companies like Netflix. Comcast originally peered with Akamai to deliver cached Netflix content, so Level 3 and Comcast are now at odds for two key reasons:

  1. Comcast is getting less revenue from its peerage and caching arrangements with companies like Netflix, since more of the heavy lifting is now being done by Level 3.
  2. Comcast now has to carry more traffic from Level 3 to Comcast's users.

What's also crucial is that this clash is not new -- it's only the latest flurry of punches thrown in a fight that's been going on between Level 3 and Comcast since 2010. At that time, Comcast argued that Level 3's traffic-carrying arrangement with Netflix would create an imbalance of traffic between Level 3 and Comcast, on the order of 5:1.

Daniel Golding of GigaOm took a look at the spat, and depicted Level 3 as a debt-saddled company doing whatever it could to become profitable and stable again, including setting up potentially lucrative peering arrangements with big-content companies like Netflix.

But Comcast isn't entirely blameless, since a common criticism of its business model is that it has focused more on rent seeking and fee extraction than offering better service. The depiction of Comcast as a rentier was echoed by Adam Rothschild at Internap when he analyzed the 2010 dispute: "Where other access providers would be content with merely the 'settlement free' exchange of traffic -- an arrangement where both content originators and recipients exchange traffic at no cost, both avoiding having to pay a middleman to carry their bits -- Comcast has made it clear it wants to collect money anywhere and everywhere possible."

The upshot of all this is twofold:

  1. Back-end peering arrangements between ISPs, backbones, and content providers are the real unsung Net neutrality story. Many of those squabbles take place outside of public view, and when word does leak out, it's often misinterpreted.
  2. The number of parties involved -- and the conflicting motives for each -- means there's no single hero or villain. But that doesn't mean all parties can be absolved of villainy, or that they won't do whatever they feel is required to protect their interests.

As for Netflix, it has better things to do than wait for Comcast and Level 3 to work things out; the company recently struck peering agreements with both Verizon and Comcast. The bits, it seems, will continue to flow -- one way or another.

This story, "Level 3 accuses Comcast, other ISPs of 'deliberately harming' broadband service," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.


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