Is Telstra's P2P throttling really so bad?

Summary:We all know what happens when an entire suburb turns on their split-cycle air conditioners on a 43-degree day. This is the same thing that happens to shared HFC networks when a few fanatics set out to download every piece of data known to man.

Friday at 5pm may be known as "beer o'clock", but in my neighbourhood, every evening has a special name. I call it "BT o'clock", and it's that time after dinner when seemingly everyone on the street hits their computers to fire up BitTorrent and download what appears to be one massive Linux ISO file after another.

AugustusGloopTubes
Sure, chocolate is great, but does that make it OK for Augustus to block up the tubes? (Screenshot by David Braue/ ZDNet)

I know this because performance over my own link, which is a zippy Optus cable connection during the day, consistently drops to that painful level associated with 33.6Kbps modems. YouTube is a fantasy. Basic news pages can take a minute to load, or not even fully load at all. Apps that require internet complain they can't get any at all. I might as well be connecting from the moon.

Who would have thought that Linux could be so popular in your average suburban street — especially given its continuing dismal market share? But that's what seems to be happening on a frustratingly regular basis as quotas are eaten up with the massive files, access to which rabid BitTorrent fans demand to justify their use of the protocol.

These are the same people that will flip through an issue of Playboy and claim they're reading it for the pictures, or might have previously turned on Baywatch and said they were enthralled with the plot.

They are all, in a word, lying. And as the predictable uproar ensues over Telstra's decision to test the throttling of its customers' rampant downloading of — ahem — Linux ISOs, it seems we are destined to revisit long-held notions about net neutrality, that most excellent ideal in which ISPs should keep their nose out of their customers' business and just move the bits from point A to point B.

Presumption of net neutrality is a significant part of the reason iiNet has been able to stave off attacks from the media world over its supposed support of customers' downloading habits: iiNet argued, successfully, that its responsibilities as an ISP did not extend to meddling in the things its customers download. From this perspective, Telstra could be opening itself to litigation if it's taking an active role in policing customer downloads — and then does nothing about their consumption of illegal media.

Never one to miss (or create) a civil-liberties kerfuffle, the Pirate Party collectively donned its tinfoil tricornes and tried to paint BitTorrent as a naïve, innocent technology that's fault resilient, incredibly flexible, and being shamefully maligned by people who don't like… "Linux".

"Businesses, educational institutions, and the general public who rely upon the internet should not sacrifice the quality of their access because their service provider wishes to prioritise other traffic that it considers more financially lucrative," treasurer of the Pirate Party Australia, Rodney Serkowski, is quoted as saying. "The legitimate sharing of information, culture, and knowledge should never be discouraged."

Never one to miss (or create) a civil-liberties kerfuffle, the Pirate Party collectively donned its tinfoil tricornes and tried to paint BitTorrent as a naïve, innocent technology…. while [BitTorrent] is certainly useful for moving Linux ISOs at breakneck speeds, it's also incredibly efficient at eating as much bandwidth as it possibly can. It's like unleashing Augustus Gloop in the chocolate factory.

The party mentions Skype and World of Warcraft as heavily peer-to-peer dependent tools, although I don't recall Telstra mentioning plans to throttle use of either of those applications. Indeed, the only type of traffic I saw it trying to discourage definitely can't be classified as "legitimate sharing". And I'm not talking about so-called "Linux ISOs" here.

Here's the thing about BitTorrent: while it's certainly useful for moving big files at breakneck speeds, it's also incredibly efficient at expanding to suck down as much bandwidth as it possibly can. It's like unleashing Augustus Gloop in the chocolate factory: at full tilt, BitTorrent can download an entire Linux ISO in minutes with an average speed of around 10Mbps.

Talk about clogging up the tubes! It's important to note that this is continuous data usage, and not peak-usage-punctuated-by-lots-of-gaps as when Mbps is used to measure bandwidth. It is continuous peak demand, and not the intermittent usage on which ISPs base their capacity planning.

We all know what happens when an entire suburb turns on their split-cycle air conditioners on a 43-degree day. This is the same thing that happens to shared HFC networks when a few Linux fanatics set out to download every distribution known to man: some get their speed, and the rest of us stare at "No internet connection" messages until the penguins come home.

Is this really how the internet was supposed to be used? Like a drunk Pajero driver who drives 40km/h while swerving between the two lanes, oblivious to the kilometres of traffic behind him, Linux obsessives are ruining the experience for the rest of us.

Were they to be a bit more considerate, they could set a maximum bandwidth consumption in their BitTorrent clients, and wait just that little bit longer for that next version. Surely it would hurt nobody for their ISO to take a few hours to download, rather than a few minutes. But nobody actually does that — not on my street, at least &mash; so is it necessarily so bad to have Telstra stepping in to do it for them?

Fight for your rights? Is P2P throttling a gross violation of net neutrality? Well, yes. But is it a necessary one? The argument could certainly be made.

There are parallels with the gun-control debate currently playing out in the United States for the umpteenth time. The law there may ensure access to firearms, but does it necessarily ensure everybody the right to an AK-47?

Many Americans say it does, and many others say there is nothing wrong with applying societal expectations about what is reasonable to control, and not block, the use of guns. If you're allowed to buy guns, but just not ones that can fire 100 rounds a minute, is that really so bad?

Australians accepted John Howard's bold move to eliminate assault weapons in the wake of the horrific Port Arthur massacre. Sure, the downloading of a few hundred Linux ISOs over well-equipped broadband links pales by comparison in terms of the crime, but the broader questions are not that dissimilar.

Can we always claim the right to unfettered access to resources just because we feel we should have it? Is it really unreasonable for Telstra to single out those few Linux fanatics who can't seem to go one night without downloading a new distribution in the name of preserving the greater experience of everyone on the street?

Is net neutrality truly a civil right in Australia, where it has not actually been declared a civil right? And is it possible to consider such questions without being labelled as a stooge for the net-censorship brigade?

Time will tell on all of these points. But it's interesting to look back a few years to when Telstra Media group managing director Justin Milne blamed "truly unlimited plans" for the problems that were pushing American ISPs to consider throttling bandwidth traffic.

Now, Telstra is considering the same. Is this a sign that its not-unlimited plans are nonetheless generous enough that they are creating real congestion problems on shared HFC networks? Experience suggests that this is exactly what is happening; isn't it better to accept a few limits so everyone can have a better online experience?

Note that Telstra is not saying it will block peer-to-peer traffic entirely — just that it will shape it so that Pajero driver can't hog up the whole road. It's parking his car and putting him in a taxi: he'll still get where he's going, but it might take a little bit longer.

There is a slippery slope here... net neutrality ensures that media operators cannot sideline competing interests — banning, for example, the likes of Skype, which Telstra did actually try for years to ban. But does that necessarily require the maintenance of a bandwidth free-for-all?

Differentiated service is hardly a foreign concept; every utility is actively working to shape customers' behaviour to match resource availability. We have long paid more, for example, to use electricity during times of peak demand, and it's only recently that providers have moved to help us rein in these costs through the use of smart meters. Gas and water get more expensive the more you use. Petrol prices go up when demand is historically high.

Even Telstra, with its massive range of media interests, has been violating net neutrality for years by offering its own video streams as off-quota services, and nobody has been complaining. Of course, Telstra can afford this because that traffic is completely on-network; it is not paying peering costs, or consuming limited (albeit massive) trans-Pacific bandwidth capacity.

We complain about all of these, but we accept them because there are, like it or not, good reasons for them.

Don't get me wrong: there is a slippery slope here, and it has nothing to do with Linux ISOs. Net neutrality is an important concept, but not because it guarantees that Linux ISOs will always download at maximum speed. It is important because it ensures that media operators cannot sideline competing interests — banning, for example, the likes of Skype, which Telstra did actually try for years to ban.

But does that necessarily require the maintenance of a bandwidth free-for-all? Or should we leave that kind of behaviour to the ACCC and let ISPs do what it takes to turn the lights out on BT o'clock?

What do you think? Should there be protocol-based limits on broadband speeds? Is Telstra within its rights to target heavy downloaders? Will throttling improve the experience for the rest of us? Or is it just a slippery slope that we should steer clear of?

Topics: Telcos, Australia, Telstra

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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