Sandvine’s New Plan to Slow You Down

Sandvine, the company behind the devices used by Comcast and others to block BitTorrent, has just introduced a network management tool called FairShare that aims to address Net Neutrality concerns. FairShare is supposed to allow ISPs to manage their networks with a protocol- and application-agnostic approach, precisely what Comcast promised to switch to before the end of the year.

Comcast isn’t the only one that could benefit from FairShare. Sandvine itself has been looking for a way to win back customers that were scared off by potential policy implications. The company saw its revenue fall 46 percent in the first quarter of 2008, a downturn that it attributed to customers delaying purchases because of the Net Neutrality debate.

So what will FairShare mean for online video? Well P2P startups will no longer be singled out as the Internet’s bandwidth bogeymen. But your P2P-powered NBC Direct downloads won’t necessarily be any faster with FairShare. In fact, all bandwidth-intensive online video applications are at risk of being throttled.

Sandvine’s press release doesn’t reveal too much about the inner workings of the system. The company did, however, just publish a white paper entitled The Value of Traffic Optimization in a World with Network Neutrality, in which it essentially proposes to use its devices to capture individual usage profiles in real time and slow down the heaviest users during times of network congestion. From the paper:

“Data collected by Sandvine from broadband service providers shows that over a 24-hour period the distribution of heavy users to light users is bimodal, with two percent of the users consuming over 50 percent of the bandwidth.”

Heavy users like these would get punished by FairShare with traffic prioritization measures, meaning that their traffic would be handled with a lower priority than the packets from other users. ISPs might also impose temporary speed limits on their transmissions, a practice commonly known as “traffic shaping.” According to Sandvine:

“By encouraging heavy users to shift their usage to off-peak times, bandwidth can then be divided fairly among users throughout the day. The overall effect is an improved user experience.”

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. One troubling aspect about this is that ISPs could use FairShare to slow down bandwidth-intensive online video applications — like progressive HD downloads — and at the same time hit users of those applications with a double-whammy by also slowing down all of their other traffic. So to one user, it will seem like the whole network is kind of slow, while his neighbor will still be able to browse Lolcatz at full speed. Good for him, and good for the ISP as well, since it won’t have to upgrade its network. As Sandvine notes in its release,

“A FairShare policy that combines a short-duration quota and network congestion information maintains network neutrality while at the same time helping operators manage their capital expenditure costs.”

So how do you accommodate heavy users (a.k.a. early adopters of online video) in a network policed with FairShare? By abandoning Net Neutrality, oddly enough. Sandvine proposes that ISPs shouldn’t impose strict monthly bandwidth caps, but “collaborate with their subscribers to allow users to choose the applications that are important to them.” Translation: ISP offerings could soon look like cell-phone contracts. Get unlimited web and email for a base price of $30 per month, and pay $20 more if you want HD streaming on nights and weekends.

Enforcing these policies will be done completely application-neutral, thanks to FairShare. The result could still be a nightmare for the online video sector.