ISP Spat Severs Connections

A financial dispute between two major Internet backbones has led to a dropped connection between their networks, a high-stakes game of chicken that is angering customers affected by the network disruptions.

Early Wednesday morning Level 3 Communications terminated its "peering" agreement with Cogent Communications, a step that Level 3 says it took after months of fruitless negotiations. Peering is a service agreement common among Internet service providers in which they directly connect their networks and exchange traffic without charge. On Internet traffic monitor Keynote Systems' "Internet Health Report" chart of traffic speeds between Tier One backbones, the link between Level 3 and Cogent has been colored bright red for the past day, showing no packets exchanged between the two ISPs.

The Companies Square Off

Peering is mutually advantageous when both partners exchange similar traffic volumes, but Broomfield, Colorado-based Level 3 says that it was carrying the bulk of the traffic in its deal with Cogent, based in Washington, D.C. "The larger company ends up disadvantaged because it ends up providing essentially free capacity," says Level 3 spokesperson Jennifer Daumler. "In Cogent's case, we determined that the arrangement was not reasonable or commercially viable."

Cogent chief executive officer Dave Schaeffer disputes Level 3's characterization and says the dropped peering arrangement is really Level 3's attempt at playing hardball with a rival that has been undercutting it on pricing.

"The root cause of this is Level 3's strong desire to pressure Cogent into raising our prices," Schaeffer says. "They have been very vocal and very upset [about] our gain in market share and our pricing policy."

Some Customers Cut Off

Large businesses and customers for which network connectivity is critical generally have redundant agreements with multiple ISPs. For them, the dispute between Cogent and Level 3 is an annoyance but not a major problem; they can rely on their other vendors to route traffic across Cogent and Level 3's networks. For customers who are "single-homed" solely to either Cogent's network or Level 3's network, however, the dropped connection can leave some Web sites unreachable.

"None of our users in the field who dial up can get their e-mail," says Steve Bernard, IT support technician for Creative Marketing Associates, a marketing services company in Shelby Township, Michigan. His company uses a Cogent T1 line, but its SBC Communications dial-up access for mobile users runs through Level 3 servers. Creative's IT staff is currently reconfiguring its network to provide an alternate route in for mobile users over its DSL connection, just installed last week as protection against an outage on its Cogent T1. Until that change is complete, though, its remote employees will remain cut off.

Examining Options

Crocker Communications technical director Matthew Crocker says that how well Cogent handles customer service during this outage will affect his willingness to re-sign with the company. Crocker calls himself a "reluctant" Cogent customer: His company, a New England telecommunications provider based in Greenfield, Massachusetts, signed its original contract with Verio, which later sold the contract to Cogent. Although Cogent's rates are much cheaper than Verio's, Crocker Communications is still locked into paying the higher rate until its contract runs out.

"If I was paying regular Cogent rates, I probably wouldn't be upset right now," Crocker said. "But if they're going to make me stay with the Verio contract, then I'm going to make them stay with the Verio SLA [service level agreement]."

Crocker is in discussions with his Cogent sales representative and would like the company to issue credits for at least a month of service, assuming this outage lingers.

Cogent Offers Deal

But Cogent CEO Schaeffer says that won't happen. "For our customers that are single-homed, we apologize, but we did not cause the problem. There is nothing we can do," he says. Cogent has left its connections to Level 3 turned on, he says; should Level 3 decide to resume its connection with Cogent, traffic would once again start flowing between the two networks.

Cogent is also offering to resolve the problem by picking up Level 3's customers. For any single-homed Level 3 customer in North America or Europe, Cogent is offering a year of free service at the same bandwidth Level 3 currently supplies.

"The idea is to take Level 3 as the gatekeeper out of the middle and let their customers connect directly to our [network]," Schaeffer says. "Also, selfishly, we believe that at our price point, their customers will decide to buy additional bandwidth and become paying customers for us."

Level 3 spokesperson Daumler declined to comment on Cogent's free service offer.

Seen Before

Cogent has long been willing to engage in brinkmanship with its peering fights. It has been through similar battles with America Online and with France Telecom, both of which ended peering agreements with Cogent and cut it off. Eventually, third-party arrangements let Cogent's traffic connect through outside networks, according to Schaeffer.

Customers expect Cogent's peering fights to continue--though Crocker, for one, says he'd be willing to put up with the spotty connectivity if he could also take advantage of Cogent's cut-rate costs.

"You kind of get what you pay for," he says.

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