Net Neutrality Concerns May Soon Fade as P2P Improves ISPs’ Performance, Reduces Costs

Published May 1, 2008

Concerns about network neutrality as a policy matter may fade as a new approach to dealing with peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic emerges, according to a group of academic researchers, software developers, and Internet service providers (ISPs).

The group recently completed an initial field test showing the approach may increase performance for users by as much as a factor of six while reducing costs for ISPs.

The results of the research were presented at the Inaugural P2P Market Conference in New York City on March 14 by the P4P Working Group (P4PWG), which is sponsored by the Distributed Computing Industry Association (DCIA).

The P4PWG includes ISPs such as Verizon, AT&T, and Telefonica Group, plus major P2P software developers and service providers, including BitTorrent, Pando Networks, and GridNetworks. Other members include infrastructure providers such as Cisco and VeriSign.

Net Neutrality a Non-Issue

Although P2P technology reduces the costs incurred by content providers, it can place an increased burden on ISPs. (See sidebar.) That burden has resulted in network congestion that negatively affects the service of other users and increases costs for ISPs.

Some ISPs have responded by slowing or even blocking P2P applications. While that may solve some problems, it can backfire. When Comcast, the largest cable provider in the United States, began slowing P2P traffic, it drew complaints from users and content providers, raised questions about network neutrality, and prompted FCC rulemaking proceedings.

By contrast, “the intention of the P4PWG is to provide a win-win-win alternative to draconian network management techniques,” said Martin Lafferty, CEO of DCIA. “ISPs win by having P2P use fewer network resources. P2Ps win by having their content delivered more efficiently. Consumers win as a function of these two factors.”

In addition, the approach may raise less concern over network neutrality than other proposals have caused. “If the server’s just available for any application to use, using some sort of published interface, then it’s clearly not a network neutrality issue,” said Timothy B. Lee, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. “If they’re picking and choosing and saying ‘this company and this application can use this server and nobody else can,’ then I think that’s really a gray area.”

Legislation Could Stall Progress

Lafferty said concerns about network neutrality are not driving the work of P4PWG. “The concentration … is specifically on working jointly and cooperatively with leading ISPs, P2P software companies, and technology researchers to ascertain appropriate and voluntary best practices.”

According to Lee, network neutrality regulation might even discourage such work.

“If we had network neutrality regulation, … this would be a gray area because you aren’t degrading the performance of the network, but you are still playing favorites in some sense, and so you’d probably have a lot of litigation over, say, whether Verizon has to make this facility available to every application,” Lee noted. “Obviously if companies are spending money on lawyers, they’re not spending [that] money building out their infrastructure.”

Little Benefit for Cable

The successful field tests reported in March are not the first win for the P4P Working Group. AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said the company has been “working with researchers at Yale and Washington Universities, and the researchers saw the same promising results when they ran simulations modeled on AT&T’s network.”

Though multiple tests indicate P4P technology will be an effective solution for traditional telecommunications providers such as Verizon and AT&T, in its present form it won’t provide much help for cable ISPs such as Comcast. (See sidebar.)

Lee noted, “I think you’re definitely seeing a case here where the interests of the cable industry and the interests of the telephone companies really diverge because of these differences in architecture.”

Lee said the announcement should help reassure regulators and policymakers “there’s at least some competition going on. The reason Verizon is pushing this peer-to-peer stuff so hard is that they’ve got the capacity to do it. They’ve just spent billions of dollars to build this fiber-to-the-home capacity that really isn’t being utilized to its full extent.

“So if they can give Comcast and some other cable providers a black eye by saying, ‘Look, we’re not doing all this filtering stuff,’ that makes them look good and makes their competitors look bad,” Lee explained.

The advantage may not last long, however. According to Lafferty, “as one of its next steps, the [P4P working group] is exploring specific optimization to address shared last-mile carriers such as cable multiple system operators. We believe that P4P will offer comparable, if not even more vital, benefits to cable ISPs.”

Christopher A. Petro ([email protected]) writes from New York City.