Is Telstra's P2P throttling really so bad?

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.

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, Telstra, Australia


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Linux fanatics!

    Ha Ha, funny, I know a few of these people who own 2 or 3TB hard drives full of "Linux" downloads. ;-)
    Mind you I feel streaming media is slowing down the internet more than P2P now days.
    • The answer is a very simple NO.

      I really expected better from you David, the problem isn't that they are slowing down P2P at peak times. It is the "Deep Packet Inspection" Infrastructure that they are putting in to do it with, the very same that is used in Countries like China to censor the Internet. In case you haven't notice, our Government doesn't have the cleanest record with Net Freedom Issues.

      I don't give a hoot about what speed people can download Linux Distros with but I will not have Telstra putting in infrastructural that could allow them to censor the Internet at a moments notice if such legislation should pass parliament. The UK is already on this very Slippery Slope toward Censorship, we don't want it here in Australia.
      • And yet 'Net censorship

        is exactly what Conjob Conroy is trying to implement.
      • Hmmmm

        I think my record shows I'm no fan of the nanny state but can we possibly be correct in resisting the introduction of basic technologies that would be useful for helping telcos manage their networks against actual usage? Will we always reflexively sacrifice the promise of better performance on the altar of concerns over hypothetical censorship? Or does the best solution lie somewhere in between?

        After all, one could argue that Telstra has already put such an apparatus in place: it is already filtering all Web requests against a watchlist of illegal content. So while I certainly appreciate your concerns, some would say that horse is already out of the gate. You don't say whether you are on Telstra or not, but if you are – have you already cancelled your Telstra account because of this? Or, Optus?
  • Yeah, it is ...

    really kind of wrong. People should be getting the speeds they pay for (Mbps x 60 x 60 x 24 x 30), and with quicker speeds they will be able to open up that capacity sooner for other users. If ISPs are overselling their capacity since they can't transmit to all of its subscribers at full speed, why are they punishing their customers for using the service they pay for? Because they can, or do they have some future project to improve their network?
    • I think that they get around it

      by using weasel words eg Maximum speed. There are good technological reasons for using those words, but you can bet that they will also rely on those words to justify these other, unreasonable speed reductions.
    • Exactly!

      If a company is offering a service at a certain level which the customer is paying for then the customer has every right to use the service that they paid for. If the customer has paid for 200gb at 100mbps then they have every right to use 200gb at 100mbps irrespective of whether it is peer-to-peer traffic or not. It is bought and paid for.

      If Telstra cannot offer the service they sell then they should be selling a different service or not offering it for sale at all.

      As for DPI, it's a bit like sending a letter via Auspost only for them to open it and decide whether it is suitable for the recipient to receive it.
      • I would humbly suggest

        It's actually like AusPost sorting the mail and deciding that all advertising mailouts should be delivered via ground mail rather than airmail, so that limited airplane space can be prioritised for other, more important communications. It will all get delivered in the end, just not all with the same priority. Nobody will know or care if their junk mail arrives a day later than it might have.
    • Stupid argument

      Your comment is ridiculous. No buisness in the world works like this and they shouldn't. It is not viable to have full access to everything for everyone at all times. You can have it if you want but that means youll likely be paying for a 128k connection. In your world, most of the countries bandwidth would never be utilised, tied up waiting, just in case every person wants to use their full connection at exactly the same time.

      For the type of "iso" traffic we are talking about, the capictity dosent get opened up, P2P users invariably have queues waiting to use every skeric of data they can.

      Aditionally, how do you want them to sell you an exact speed. With things like adsl that are distance dependant i have had everything from 22Mb to 3Mb from the same provider and same exchange depending on house location. They could lock everyone to 2Mb and sell it as a 2Mbit connection. Would that make you happy.

      Restraunts dont hire one wait staff per customer, electricty is not limited to supply/population, there is not 1 telephone line or road or toilet per person beacuse its a stupid waste of resources.

      On the topic of the article, i dont like the deep packet inspection, but i also know most p2p users have no idea about setting max bandwidths to not affect their own in house internet let alone others around them.

      Final point, why would anyone pay to expand their network now with the nbn 5-10 years away, would be no return on investment. If they had of installed the nbn back bone first, chargine everyone for use, then moved to FTTH, we would be in a much better place than this publicity stunt of trying to connect the urban sprawlsas quickly as possible, to many demographics taht cant afford the high cost of entry paying for a national system that wont be utilised for 10 years.


      We need to share resourses for society to to function.
      People need to change behaviour and be less selfish or suffer the limits.

  • Well Said!

    a great balanced contribution to the conversation David, thanks
  • Thanks for the balance

    Thank goodness for a reasonable voice in this hysteria. The electricity analogy is good. P2P is also designed to suck up all available network resources -- the whole point of it is to use 'spare bandwidth' on customer connections to help share files out to other users. But, as a result, it's a protocol that clogs networks on a vast scale.

    Also, all the people who argue that there are legitimate uses for P2P are clutching at straws to justify their argument. Yes, there are legitimate uses, but the vast, vast majority of P2P (I would imagine >99%) -- especially Bittorrent -- is piracy.

    About five years ago I decided I wasn't going to pirate any more; I want to put money back into the content ecosystem that I enjoy. Yes, there are frustrations in terms of local availability of content, but there's usually a way around that to get access to US content services. I feel much better about breaching a civil contract in order to pay a content owner in the US than I do about outright piracy.

    And the speed of direct downloads from well provisioned content distribution network servers is a joy compared to the frustration of P2P.

    The other question people should be asking in relation to the Telstra trial is: what other ISPs are _already_ doing deep packet inspection? The answer would surprise many. iiNet for example.
    • iiNet's DPI

      Ref: -- iiNet confirms it uses DPI already. (It characterises it as 'not deprioritising Bittorrent, but prioritising other more time sensitive traffic, which is another way of saying, "It's not that I hate [race], I just lerrrrve white folk!"
    • Allegations much, Lex?

      But lacking any sort of fact.
      • Which allegation?

        Which allegation do you not consider substantiated?
  • What proof?

    How do you know what your neighbourhood is doing on the network at that time in the evening? Correct me if I'm wrong but I didn't see any proof mentioned in this article. Sounds like a lot of assumptions to me. Maybe P2P isn't to blame at all.
    • Deluded

      yes, I want to see evidence that P2P is to blame for the bandwidth congestion you suffer at or after 5PM!

      As far as I understand, 5PM is prime time for kids to be getting home and turning on their computers, game consoles, tablets, and anything else that entertains and connects to the internet.
      And as for Fridays? What do kids like to do since its the start of the weekend?
      Sit there and wait for a bit torrent session to finish downloading? I don't think so David.
      I think you're dreaming if you think it's anything but Facebook, youtube, and games.
      Even the XBox and PS3 will get a workout with that bandwidth sucking for online video games.
      • Australia's BitTorrent proclivities are well known

        But if I am wrong, and this is the performance profile we get from normal usage of what is supposed to be the best broadband Australia has to offer, then we are all screwed.
  • And yet...

    You're probably one of those that thinks wireless makes a great NBN. How about some facts to back this up , rather than emotive stuff like 'beer o clock on a friday'?? - For instance, what percentage of broadband users are on HFC? And what other things use HFC? And that HFC is due to be turned off when fibre is rolled out?

    Your mention of Warcraft not being mentioned by Telstra is disingenuous, because Blizzard (aka Warcraft, aka Vivendi) relies on bitTorrent to roll out its software, so it is in fact affected, and mentioned.
  • HFC coloured glasses?

    It appears you are looking at this through HFC coloured glasses David. Sure, HFC performance is degraded by over use of the medium, but thats an inherent flaw in HFC architecture. If FTTH replaces HFC, that limitation is gone. It seems a bit daft to encourage a proposal to slwo internet traffic, when people are pushing so hard to put in infrastructure desgined to speed up access.
    We are told faster internet is important for our future prosperity. Why seek artificial means to slow it down? Telstra have imposed unnecessary artificial limitations on speed in this country for too long already. We shouldnt encourage them doign it intot he future as well, especially as there is no guarantee their service will solely only affect illegal bit torrent traffic. There is no way they can properly determine whether traffic is illiegal without some serious snooping.
    No one should be encouraging a company like Telstra to be doing that level of snooping.

    If the Coalition get in, this of course becomes more of an issue however, they are planning to retain HFC and make it open access, thus loading more people onto it. Degradation of speed from bit torrent will be the least of the problems for people in the HFC footprint then. Regular users streaming YouTube, catch up TV, movies etc - all perfectly legitimate, and increasingly popular uses of the internet will bog the HFC network down.

    Bottom line is Telstra should keep their noses out of peoples traffic, and also not seek to artificially limit speeds in a world of improving infrastructure.
    • FTTH is no panacea for P2P.

      HFC shares the infrastructure on the street level, but EVERY network shares infrastructure at some level. With FTTH, the passive optical network has a limited bandwidth (2.4Gbps) shared between a fixed number of homes, and without equipment upgrades, it can't go above this. And then there's the shared backhaul between points of interconnect, the contended uplink at ISPs, and so on. FTTH changes nothing in relation to whether P2P can clog networks. There are still distinct capacity constraints, even if they're higher than HFC. Put simply, the capacity constraint may not be as bad on the FTTH network, but back at the ISP the exact same capacity constraints will exist in their connectivity to the internet.