Notes from the Online Video Underground

Elude Your ISP's BitTorrent Blockade

Notes from the Online Video Underground

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Future Mixed for File Sharers

If you hope that the federal government will enshrine a "right to download" any time soon, you're likely to be disappointed. Nevertheless, technical changes are in the works that could make using peer-to-peer apps easier, albeit more expensive.

Groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Vuze, a peer-to-peer software company, have asked the Federal Communications Commission to force ISPs to disclose any discriminatory network management practices they engage in. But the FCC has stated that it probably won't adopt any new regulations forcing ISPs to disclose or desist from any slowing practices, because it feels current laws are strong enough. Though the FCC has criticized Comcast for slowing peer-to-peer traffic, FCC chairman Kevin Martin seems most irked by the fact that Comcast and other ISPs aren't up-front about how, when, and whether they do it.

A new, advanced peer-to-peer technology known as P4P could help both ISPs and file swappers. Verizon and Comcast have expressed interest in Proactive Network Provider Participation, which reportedly can boost the delivery speeds of file transfers using the BitTorrent protocol by as much as 600 percent while simultaneously making it easier for ISPs to manage their bandwidth. Verizon ran tests using P4P earlier this year, and Comcast says that it will test the technology on its network in June. As yet, no ISP has announced that it will use P4P on its networks.

According to Pando Networks, which has tested P4P technology and is a member of the P4P Working group, the protocol permits smarter routing of peer-to-peer traffic by sending requests for a specific file within an ISP's own network first, before connecting to another ISP's network. This approach reduces bandwidth costs incurred by ISPs for connecting to a third-party network, and it allows ISPs to manage their bandwidth more efficiently. Essentially, the closer a file is, the less bandwidth the ISP needs to expend in downloading it.

There may be a catch, however. Since ISPs will ultimately be the ones to deploy P4P technology, they will decide which applications can use the technology. If an ISP believes that an app is generally used for illegal downloads, it may block its connection to the P4P network. At the same time, Comcast is pledging to become "protocol agnostic" by the end of 2008. According to Comcast's Sena Fitzmaurice, senior director of corporate communication and government affairs, being "protocol agnostic" is not quite the same as embracing Net neutrality. Rather, being "protocol agnostic" is a pledge to treat all protocols the same. Comcast could still slow BitTorrent traffic, but it would have to treat other traffic, such as bandwidth dedicated to YouTube videos, equally.

The change may still leave heavy file sharers singing the blues. According to Fitzmaurice, being "protocol agnostic" means that ISPs would stop managing specific types of traffic and instead would begin managing individual users. So people who download five high-def movies a day using BitTorrent (or a download service such as iTunes) are likely to be singled out as bandwidth hogs and "managed"--perhaps by having their Internet speeds slowed during times of heavy demand. Light users of BitTorrent, meanwhile, would see relatively speedy downloads.

It's too early to say what Comcast's usage limits might be, Fitzmaurice says. Industry experts anticipate that Comcast and any other ISP that adopts the protocol-agnostic pledge may impose monthly bandwidth consumption caps on users. Terms-of-service agreements would outline enforcement policies, which might include paying a penalty if you download or upload too much content. Time Warner Cable is currently testing a service plan that enforces overage charges in Texas. In Canada, bandwidth caps are a fact of life for many broadband customers.

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