Why Shaping Traffic Isn’t Just a Comcast Issue

[qi:051] Recently, a brouhaha has broken out over Comcast (CMCSA), the second-largest U.S. broadband provider, and its policies regarding the management of peer-to-peer traffic. The company contests that it doesn’t block traffic to P2P services, web sites and other applications, but rather that it tries to “manage” traffic in times of congestion on various parts of its network where clogging is most acute. Semantics?

From what I understand, the company delays the P2P packets in order to decongest the network, but P2P applications by nature are set to autodial and try again. Is this an infinite delay or just a temporary management issue? Regardless of what you might think about Comcast and its policies, the issue is not limited to the Philadelphia-based broadband and TV services company. [digg=http://digg.com/tech_news/Why_Shaping_Traffic_Isn_t_Just_a_Comcast_Issue]

Comcast, according to published reports, has been using network management tools from a Canadian company called Sandvine, which is publicly traded on both the London Stock Exchange and the Toronto Stock Exchange. And if you dig through the documentation on Sandvine’s web site, it becomes pretty clear that there are other carriers out there indulging in traffic shaping and management.

Carphone Warehouse, a UK-based service provider well-known for its broken promises over free broadband, is listed as a customer of Sandvine. In a recent investor presentation, Sandvine said it had 51 cable and 38 DSL providers as customers as of the end of the third quarter, including, it bragged, 13 of the Top 100 service providers. Nearly 89 percent of its revenue came from North America.

If you correlate these facts, you know there are other big North American companies using their gear as well. In another publicly available document, Sandvine claims that “eight of the Top 20 broadband service providers in the U.S. are Sandvine customers.” Now while Sandvine has a whole slew of products, the company’s real value proposition is helping carriers make money and better manage their networks.

Growth in network traffic continues to stress network capacity due largely to the mass market popularity of bandwidth-hungry applications, such as file-sharing and streaming video from
popular sites like YouTube…By accurately identifying various “conditions” that are occurring on its network, a broadband service provider can then apply “actions” (i.e. policies) based on those conditions to pursue the broadband management objectives sought by that service provider.

Sandvine doesn’t identify its customers; it refers to them as Company A, B, C or whatever, but never by name. I guess that’s because this is potentially sensitive information and a potential PR disaster. I have left a message for their PR spokesperson, but so far no response. I am also checking with some of the major broadband providers. An AT&T (T) spokesperson emailed with this:

AT&T does not treat P2P traffic any differently than other Internet traffic. And, we are not a customer of Sandvine. Beyond that, we do not comment on vendor relationships outside of product announcements.

We will update the story as we hear from others, but one thing is becoming quite clear — this won’t be the last time you’ll hear the phrase “traffic shaping.”

Update: A spokesperson for Cox Communications’ high-speed Internet division said, via email:

As with any ISP, Cox uses a variety of tools to make sure all our customers have the best possible customer experience with our high-speed Internet service. However, to protect the integrity and security of our network, we don’t disclose specific methods or vendors used.