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Cable broadband ISP's QoS enhancement surcharge draws Vonage's ire

 As I posted last week, more than a few Vonage customers are suspicious that Comcast is crimping the quality of their voice calls. Vonage denies the charge, but the subject is still a red-hot issue on the Vonage Forum.
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Written by Russell Shaw on
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As I posted last week, more than a few Vonage customers are suspicious that Comcast is crimping the quality of their voice calls. Vonage denies the charge, but the subject is still a red-hot issue on the Vonage Forum.

But now we have concrete proof of another strategy broadband cable is taking to discourage their customers from using competing services over that network.

In Canada, I see Shaw Communications (no relation) has just instituted something called "Quality of Service Enhancement" for its broadband customers. Update: Shaw Communications has been doing this since May, 2005, but as I explain below, the fuss about this program is just starting to hit a fever pitch.

The deal is: you pay Shaw an extra $10 a month, and you get what the company calls "a qualityof service feature that will enhance (Internet telephony) services when used over the Shaw High Speed Internet network." 

This morning, Vonage Canada has issued a statment saying it has asked the Canadian Radio-Television & Telecommunications Commission (Canada's counterpart to the FCC) to investigate.

More about that complaint in a moment, but first, it would be useful to explore just what this "Quality of Service Enhancement" offering is all about. 

On Shaw's site, the main page for this feature explains how Internet applications can trigger "intermittent bandwidth shortfalls."

Third-party VoIP services are singled out for special treatment.

Shaw says:

With Internet telephony, voice data is treated like regular data. Under peak loads voice frames will be dropped equally with data frames. Regular data, however, is not time sensitive and dropped packets can be corrected through the process of retransmission. Dropped voice packets, which are time sensitive, cannot be corrected in this manner.
Quality-of-service (QoS) issues that are unique to Internet packet networks are a major concern with providing Internet telephony service at acceptable performance levels. Delay is the big issue with voice-over-packet services that operate over the public Internet.

But if you stick with Shaw Digital Phone, well, then, you don't have to pay the surcharge. According to Shaw:

Quality of service issues do not apply to Shaw Digital Phone because Shaw Digital Phone operates on its own separate, managed network. Voice traffic distributed along this network is never shared with public Internet networks, so you can be confident Shaw Digital Phone will deliver the service reliability and performance you expect. As an added safeguard, Shaw Digital Phone includes its own QoS Enhancement feature.

 
To say that Vonage is perturbed about this offering is putting it a bit mildly.

Vonage Canada says that in its request to the CRTC, they are requesting that the regulatory agency investigate the following issues:

  • What does Shaw's so-called 'enhancement' service consist of, from both a technological and service implementation perspective?
  • What evidence does Shaw have to prove its 'enhancement' service actually delivers on the promise of enhancing a customer's use of a non-Shaw phone service provider and to what extent?
  • What is the justification for a recurring charge to the customer for a service that it appears may consist of a one-time configuration of the Shaw-approved cable modem used by Shaw's high-speed Internet customers?
  • What is the take-up rate - past, present and likely future - of Shaw's enhancement service, and what is the likely effect of the service on competition in local VoIP services?

Make no mistake about it. Fee-happy, U.S.-based cable broadband ISPs will be watching this one real closely. If no net neutrality law is enacted, and Canadian telecom regulators allow Shaw to implement this "Quality of Service Enhancement" business model, it will become pervasive in the U.S. as well.

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