The BBC, BT and Net Neutrality

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Huge fan of Auntie that I am, the technology coverage from the BBC has always been of variable quality. News editors do seem to downgrade anything IT or Internet related to ‘filler’, and assume that (a) they can re-badge traditional journos as “Technology” correspondents without making sure that, in the transition, these old lags understand a little of the patch into which they have blundered, and (b) the one-sided opinions and single-item agendas being pushed by those they turn to for expert comment do not need to be countered by alternative opinions.

The second point is neatly illustrated by a news item today via their (otherwise excellent) online service concerning net neutrality and BT’s launch of their Content Connect service. This service “allows Internet Service Providers that use BT’s network to charge content firms for high-speed delivery of video”. The Beeb goes on to say that this ‘… could spell the end of so-called “net neutrality” where all traffic on the net is treated equally.” The piece is ‘informed’ by a quote from Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group who suggests “This is a sea change in the way that content is delivered by ISPs”.

It isn’t and illustrates the paucity of informed comment that can be safely passed off as fact in news reporting of internet and related technology today. What BT has done is launch what is known as a Content Delivery Network or CDN. This is, in effect, a set of technology that sits above the internet and provides capacity for high-quality services such as video. Sounds very much like a two-tier internet, then, but it is nonsense to suggest that what BT is doing is either new or threatening to us ordinary net folk.

“Net Neutrality” is  concerned with the selective routing of internet traffic by an ISP – who may charge the ‘owner’ of such traffic for the privilege – or where that ISP decides to discriminate against traffic being routed across its network by, say, a competitor. In other words, its handling of traffic on its network is not neutral, but selective and potentially anti-competitive. The issue has arisen from threats by some large internet companies – including ISPs who effectively ‘run’ some of the capacity that forms the internet – to block traffic from services or companies they do not agree with. To be fair, there is also an element of wanting to penalise users of bandwidth-hungry and illegal filesharing services – which those of us who pay to use the internet might possibly welcome. These issues have nothing whatsoever to do with the service that BT has launched.

CDN’s have been flourishing for years, and are essential to avoid the internet being overloaded. They typically involve the ability for, say, an online games provider, to put copies of a downloadable game at locations around the internet. When you or I attempt to download that game – rather than all our requests being served from the company’s own servers in America – it is delivered from a server much nearer our location. Some are run by carriers – like BT – who have the capacity available on their global network and have installed the caching servers necessary to provide the local content delivery. CDNs are essential to avoid the internet grinding to a halt every time Microsoft launches a new update, or You Tube has a hit video that is requested around the globe by millions. CDNs are not free – the providers charge for them – and they are for routing specific content. It is easy to point to them as an example of failing net neutrality but it is wrong to do so. Big CDNs such as Limelight (not to be confused with the filesharing system, LimeWire) and Akamai are relatively well known. Big carriers with large and successful CDNs include the nordic PTT, TeliaSonera, and the global carrier Level 3. These are thriving businesses and BT has been typically lethargic in launching its own solution, given its incredible global infrastructure.

It is important to fight for ‘net neutrality but not by confusing threats to it with large-scale commercial CDNs. BBC’s wonderful iPlayer is a service which is screaming out for a CDN delivery model (it may use one but I have not seen any reports on this) but of course, this would cost money. I am not suggesting that this article is an attempt by Auntie to keep up pressure on ISPs to deliver iPlayer content without charging the Corporation, but maybe I am doing them an injustice and the item is precisely that – an inspired piece of manipulation designed to forestall the cost of a proper CDN for iPlayer ? The challenge for the Beeb of course is that, like millions, I love iPlayer but I don’t want to pay for it. Still, whether intelligent propoganda or misinformed reporting, the Beeb does not do itself any favours in the industry as a whole by publishing this kind of rubbish.


SimonJanuary 5th, 2011 at 5:57 am

Update: the same article goes on to say that BT Retail will be using the Content Connect service to deliver BBC iPlayer content to its retail video (“BT Vision”) customers; further confirming that the service is indeed a CDN and not an attempt to apply traffic prioritisation to BT-controlled sections of the internet !

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