2008: The Year ISPs Got Real About P2P Video

In 2008, ISPs started to really feel the heat when it comes to video file-sharing. Comcast got reprimanded by the FCC for blocking BitTorrent transfers and consumers rebbelled against P2P¬†throttling. Meanwhile the entertainment industry has been demanding harsher enforcement and HD-swapping users have been eating up more and more bandwidth. In other words: It’s been a big mess.

The good news is that the increased pressure from all sides has forced ISPs to come to terms with the reality of file-sharing and other forms of P2P video distribution, which is essentially: You can’t stop it, so you might as well find ways to make it run more smoothly on your network.

For most of the year, the spotlight in the debate about P2P and ISPs has been on Comcast (s cmcsa), and the cable operator has subsequently provided us with lots of headline fodder. The company was caught blocking the upload of files through the BitTorrent protocol in late summer of 2007, but denied any such actions well into the spring of 2008. The FCC started to investigate Comcast’s actions in January, and the company reacted by paying people to “save seats” at public hearings.

The company finally did a complete turnabout in March, teaming up with BitTorrent and promising to stop the blocking that it had previously denied. Comcast also briefly championed an ill-fated “consumer’s bill of rights.” Many of these actions were obviously designed to appease the FCC and avoid any federal regulation, something that eventually proved to be futile. But they also forced Comcast and other ISPs to look at technical solutions for the ever-increasing amount of bandwidth used up by P2P applications that didn’t involve sabotaging their customers’ Internet use.

One of the solutions that quickly gained traction within the industry was an idea developed by a handful of Yale researchers. What if, they asked, ISPs could actually help P2P users find the closest link to other users downloading the same videos? What if a BitTorent user on Comcast’s network exchanged bits with another Comcast customer in the same city, as opposed to someone in Tokyo? And what if there was a system that allowed P2P applications to access this type of routing information across the networks of multiple ISPs?

The idea, cleverly branded P4P, has been championed by P2P vendor Pando, and initial field tests with a number of ISPs show very promising results. A lot of the details are still unclear, however, and some P2P users remain wary of any involvement of ISPs. If the industry starts to meddle with their downloads, they fear, then what stops them from just accelerating licensed P2P and in effect slowing down unlicensed content?

The answer is simple: Licensed P2P traffic is growing, but it’s still not anywhere near the amount of bandwidth eaten up by torrents from the Pirate Bay and similar sites. In fact, even optimistic market researchers estimate that in five years, piracy will still account for more than twice the amount of traffic as legal P2P. Any P4P solution that does not include unlicensed content would essentially have no effect on the health of the network.

But in the meantime, ISPs finally got real about P2P video. They realized that TV torrents won’t go away, and that the only way to effectively deal with this traffic is to optimize it, instead of trying to block it. That’s a big blow for content owners that were hoping for ISP-based anti-piracy filters, but it’s actually a boon for content owners that embrace P2P technology. Just as pirated torrents run more smoothly over P4P-assisted networks, so will downloads from NBC Direct.

As for bandwidth caps, well, that’s another story. But you can’t really expect company’s like Comcast to learn from all of their mistakes in the same year, can you?