Level 3 accuses major ISPs of forcing internet traffic into the slow lane

Level 3 accuses major ISPs of forcing internet traffic into the slow lane

Summary: Slow internet? According to Level 3, it could well be that your ISP of deliberately throttling your traffic.


Ever see your internet connection slow down to a snail's crawl? Did you assume it was just your Internet Service Provider (ISP) having to deal with too much traffic? Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't. Or, maybe — according to Level 3 Communications, a Tier 1 ISP that provides internet services for many business and consumer ISPs in North America, Latin America, and Europe — your ISP is deliberately not giving you the best possible service. 

ISPs are not making customers happy, and according to Level 3, five of the worst are deliberately not providing the best possible bandwidth.

Mark Taylor, Level 3's VP of Content and Media recently wrote that there are six "large Broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market" that refuse to upgrade their service to deal with their users' traffic needs. The result is Michael Mooney, Level 3's general counsel for regulatory policy, explained, that "These ISPs break the internet by refusing to increase the size of their networks."

Level 3 believes that at least six major ISPs, which they refuse to name at this time, are determined to break net neutrality for their own profit. In a reply to a note on the blog, Taylor refused to name the guilty ISPs. "At this time, we have decided not to specifically identify the peers with significant congestion; however, we can say they are large incumbent broadband providers in the US and Europe." He didn't explain why Level 3 is not revealing their names.

Taylor did add, however, that " the companies with the congested peering interconnects also happen to rank dead last in customer satisfaction across all industries in the US [According to the 2013 American Customer Satisfaction Index ACSI] Not only dead last, but by a massive statistical margin of almost three standard deviations." ACSI's bottom six companies were, from worst to relatively best: Comcast, Time-Warner, CenturyLink, Charter, AT&T, and Cox. 

He also explained that Level 3 is still providing Internet services to these misbehaving ISPs "because if we terminated the connectivity we would damage the customer experience (for our customers and for the broadband provider’s customers) even more. We are not willing to do that."

Another issue, which Taylor doesn't mention, is that Level 3 provides Netflix's Content Delivery Network (CDN) services. Netflix is, of course, the internet's single largest consumer of network bandwidth.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wrote in March 2014 that by allowing last-mile ISPs, such as those Level 3 is accusing of not playing fair, these "big ISPs can demand potentially escalating fees for the interconnection required to deliver high-quality service. The big ISPs can make these demands — driving up costs and prices for everyone else — because of their market position. For any given US household, there is often only one or two choices for getting high-speed internet access and that’s unlikely to change." Netflix and Level 3 could be singing from the same hymnal.

That said, this is far from the first time Level 3 has accused ISPs of deliberately not meeting their customers' needs. In December 2010, James Crowe, then Level 3's CEO, told the FCC that Comcast was breaking network neutrality. Crowe wrote, "The question, quite simply, is whether Comcast and other residential broadband Internet service providers should be allowed to use their dominant control over access to their subscribers' eyes and ears in order to coerce payments from broadband backbone and independent content providers."

This fundamental battle over net neutrality and who in the end determines the quality and cost of internet service is continuing today. And, from where Level 3 is sitting, it's the end-users who are getting the short end of the stick.

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Topics: Networking, Broadband

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  • Surprised?

    Consumers get a pretty crappy contract from providers. We get "UP TO" speeds for upload and download numbers. If you only see 70 percent of 60 Mb/s up, 5 Mb/s down plan you pay for, the provider points to the contract that says the speeds are only "UP TO" speeds. Then, they suggest you go up to the next level of service (+$$$) to get better speeds...although they still can't guarantee you will.
    • marketing

      I always assume 'up to' actually means 'less than'.
      • more marketing

        ...and regarding pricing, 'from' means 'more than'
    • Pointless rant

      "Mark Taylor, Level 3's VP of Content and Media recently wrote that there are six "large Broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market" that refuse to upgrade their service to deal with their users' traffic needs."

      This is not throttling but capacity. Level 3 can't get all their data into the pipe and is complaining because ISPs won't spend money. This is a squabble between them. Net neutrality is them not allowing any Netflix data at all, even when they have bandwidth, with out fees and that is different.
  • not at ALL surprised.

    I live in a small rural village that for whatever reason has more broadband options than many locations in the U.S. And yet I feel that my 'bang for the buck' options range from dismal to miserable.

    I note that all my options are in the 'lowest satisfaction' list, either by direct contract or by contracting through a reseller who obtains connectivity through one of these culprits.
    Jim Johnson
  • That is what happens with local monopolies.

    Since you have no choice, there is no way to switch providers.

    Since the local ISP has a lock on all their customers, they get to threaten outside connections...

    And the larger the local ISP is, the more they gouge - both ends.

    The only thing customers can do is harass the local governing bodies to revoke the monopoly license due to "non performance". Failing that the only thing do is to not ever permit a local monopoly when it comes time to renew.
    • Interesting question

      Can a municipality revoke a franchise for monopolistic behavior with regard to premium services that are outside of the scope of the franchise agreement? Comcast holds franchises with regard to its cable services, but I doubt any of the governing contracts say anything at all about the Internet services Comcast can offer. The fact that it couldn't offer the latter at all without the cabling it was authorized to lay by those franchise contracts may or may not be relevant in the eyes of the law. And then we have the Telecommunications Act restricting the sorts of conditions that municipal franchisers can impose on franchisees (call it "deregulation").

      Would any lawyers care to comment?
      John L. Ries
      • It depends

        In many localities taxes were charged that were actually kept by ISPs telcos etc. for improvement of infrastructure and services. Any locality than allowed these companies to collect taxes without using the funds to deliver improvement should have leverage.
  • Traditionally, local monopolies have been "of convenience."

    Since it would be terribly inefficient for several sets of interleaved water pipes, gas pipes, electrical cables, or telephone cables to be built (and maintained) by several competing companies in the same geographical area, the practice of "franchising" one company to serve an area, giving them a legal monopoly and (in theory) regulating their profit margins and forcing them to spend enough to give everyone "adequate" service, has been entrenched. The push to allow competition, at least in who gets to bill each customer, led to allowing a PHYSICAL monopoly on the pipes and cables, but requiring that company to lease capacity to its competitors at "reasonable" wholesale rates so that they can compete for customers. Neither method will result in a competitive AND efficient marketplace by itself, because the regulators can be, and sometimes are, corrupted; and if not corrupted per se, they can be misled because the servicing corporations (no surprise) know more about the technical structures of their facilities than the customers (i.e. the public), and can argue more persuasively that the "facts" are on their side than anyone else can argue otherwise.

    The best solution is DE-PRIVATIZING the physical infrastructure; allowing the local authority that currently "regulates" private water, gas, electric, and communications networks that have monopolies to buy them out and BECOME the monopoly of convenience, but with a not-for-profit break-even mandate to lease access to that infrastructure on equal terms to all competitors, and no motive to favor one competitor over another. This agency, in each community, would have NO content of its own to deliver, and would be accountable to ALL the voters in the community. Then it will be the VOTERS' collective responsibility to keep the commission honest.

    If this be socialism, make the most of it. Capitalism is wonderful, but SOME MARKETS OUGHT TO BE SOCIALIST, under control of democratically elected officials, of course.
    • You're on the right track here

      We pay a fortune now relative to what it's costing ISPs to provide the service, and frankly we're much worse off in terms of reliability and service than we were in the days of POTS from Ma Bell. People ask me why I don't switch from A to B and I say it's not worth the hassle and effort to move from Tweedledum to Tweedledee. 1 gram less mediocre is still mediocre. I threaten to switch so that A keeps my rates down, and I go about my business. I have no way to influence this and it's frustrating.

      We've got such a phobia of "big government" (justifiably in some areas) that we fail to allow for situations where centralization might be a good solution. I agree that this is a candidate; been arguing this point for years. (Cell towers, too, in my humble. . .)

      If leasing were done in a totally neutral way, with equal rates for every carrier, and if the rates covered KTLO, administrative costs and the cost of upgrading/enhancing equipment, there should be zero expense to taxpayers. We'd start out with a level playing field and carriers would have to differentiate themselves by the software/hardware, services, and plan perks they offered.

      That sounds too reasonable, alas, not gonna happen.

      While I'm here a thought about POTS. It's dying and in my humble that's not so good now that we're in a global cycle of rising seas and dangerous weather events. After Sandy I didn't have cell service for over a week but my neighbor had POTS even when the power was out. Food for thought. . .
      • Totally Agree

        The free market is great when their are choices not for virtual monopolies.
        • If there aren't real choices...

          ...then it's not a free market.
          John L. Ries
          • An interesting choice

            In our town the electric company decided to get into the game and ran fiber to the house. Comcast took them to court for years and lost and lost and lost.
            I now have 90GB both directions! Comcast has had to play catch up and doesn't come close. Poor AT&T is a distant 3rd.
            Who would have thought a power company could get into ISP, phone and TV.
            We need to put a stop to all of the mergers and buy-outs and insist on competition. It's either that or de-privatize.
    • I've thought that for a long time

      I'm all in favor of private enterprise in a competitive market, but I'm not at all certain that a privately owned monopoly with the ability to hire lobbyists to influence regulatory decisions and to steer campaign contributions to friendly politicians is at all an improvement over a publicly owned one that can do none of those things. But a lot depends on how competitive the local political system is, as I'm much more willing to trust a municipal government based on regular competitive elections, than I am one serving at the pleasure of a party machine. In the latter case, public utilities will tend to become patronage engines.
      John L. Ries
  • Biting the hand

    This sounds like kind of a dumb thing for Level 3 to say. Not that they aren't correct, but in the sense that making a big public issue of this could seriously harm their business.

    Right now Level 3 has a presumably lucrative contract with Netflix to provide backbone services. But it isn't sustainable, because Level 3 also has peering arrangements with the residential ISPs that are turning into bad deals for the ISPs. That's because Level 3 is no longer a "peer," but a guy who makes a deal with you to swap data, but then sends you far more data to deliver for him then you send to him to deliver. Before streaming video became practical, there really wasn't any sort of network traffic that was so voluminous that it could turn a peering agreement into a seriously bad deal.

    We're already seeing Netflix "eliminate the middleman" by installing servers in places where residential ISPs have points of presence. This cuts Level 3 out of the deal entirely and lets Netflix and the residential ISP make whatever deal they want.

    Demonizing the residential ISPs is probably the fastest way to accelerate that trend and make the residential ISPs want to become Netflix's "backbone provider" for their customers. Netflix would probably pay no more, but the residential ISPs would be seeing revenue for carrying all that data. It's a win-win for everybody except Level 3.
    Robert Hahn
    • Backbone providers are not peers to local ISPs

      Never have been. But if the latter think that Level 3 is trying to "muscle into their racket", life could be interesting indeed.
      John L. Ries
  • PR Stunt

    If Level3 really wanted change, it would name-names or cut-off service. Level3 is probably using this as leverage in contract negotiations right now.