Whose bandwidth is it anyway?

An Internet storm has been brewing for some time now, and the latest bit of bad weather comes from across the pond in Britain, where a number of Internet service providers are warning the BBC that its new iPlayer streaming-video application had better not suck up too much bandwidth, or the ISPs will be forced to restrict the use of it, or charge customers more. Not that long ago, Google was getting a similar message from Verizon executives.

traffic_jam.jpgThe storm in question goes by many names — including “net neutrality” — but the reality is that it stems from a clash of two forces: the Internet providers whose pipes we all have to use, and increasingly bandwidth-intensive applications such as Bit Torrent and Joost. Internet providers have been selling the idea of almost unlimited bandwidth for years, but as more people try to use it the ISPs are finding their networks overloaded (and/or the “peering” fees that they pay are skyrocketing). That’s why almost all of them use some form of bandwidth or packet “shaping” to give some kinds of traffic priority over others.

If you’re an Internet user, this is going to strike you as an obvious cash grab. If you’re an ISP, however, the kind of ultimatum that British providers are giving to the BBC no doubt seems completely justified. As more than one observer has pointed out, streaming-video providers in particular are effectively offloading the cost of bandwidth onto ISPs — and that can only continue for so long.

At Last100, my friend Steve O’Hear makes the point that if it wasn’t for bandwidth-intensive applications like video, people wouldn’t need the high-speed accounts that the ISPs have been making so much money selling. And Om Malik makes a similar point in his post. Perhaps this one falls into the category of “Be careful what you wish for.”

Update:

Speaking of Joost, one of the problems with peer-to-peer streaming video apps like Joost and Babelgum is that they depend on users with fast upload speeds, and Jackson West at NewTeeVee notes that in the U.S. in particular this is a major issue. Meanwhile, one UK Internet provider has distanced itself from the iPlayer story.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.