The very model of a modern internet service provider

The very model of a modern internet service provider.

The ISP Nanny State. I've become interested in the wireless ISP business, partly because I'm tired of the “half-fast” Internet served up by the telcos and cablecos, and partly because the cost/quality ratio of radios has improved to the point that it's plausible to consider establishing a wireless ISP business in some of the growing, but under connected, areas where I live. So I started prowling several industry web sites and mail lists to get a feel for the landscape.

One of the first things I came across did not make me feel good. Going through the [isp-wireless] list archives I came across a disturbing, 35-message thread on P2P blocking. Over two dozen people made comments after a wISP in Sioux Falls, SD posted the following:

Last week I installed a Mikrotik 2.8beta box configured as a bridge after the router. We are blocking P2P file sharing and the results have been very entertaining. People will not actually call up and tell you that Kazaa is not working. It is the “Internet” has stopped working… Or I cannot get to the sites that I need.

This ISP has instituted arbitrary packet blocking without notice to customers and seems to think it's a joke. A number of other wISPs expressed interest in just how this was being done, what equipment was being used, and how they could serve up the same QOS. There was a fair amount of discussion of how and why to block P2P, how much to choke it down, and whether or not customers who think “the Internet has stopped working” could figure out what was happening. But not much about the blatant stupidity of this policy. Only one participant called this outright foolishness and asked how the wISP was getting away with it, though in fairness there were a few others who voiced some disapproval or suggested smarter alternatives such as more flexible billing or blocking only the outbound P2P packets.

To some extent this conversation isn't surprising. There is a real need to manage bandwidth usage and costs and with the wireless ISP industry still nascent, and with a disproportionate number of small-time (and likely unsophisticated) operators, it's not surprising to see this sort of talk. But it is still sad. And worse, these guys apparently think this sort of thing is going on at larger ISPs:

This type of filtering is the EXACT same thing that cable companies are putting into place nation wide. Here in Mass, Our local cable company is putting caps on the kazaa downloads and uploads using this type of filter but because it only effects that application, web browsing and email are totally unaffected. Although they are not admitting to doing this, we have confirmed via actual trials that this is indeed what is going on. The trick is to figure out what a good speed ratio is and cater to that figure. For us, the 1k/s per person is perfectly acceptable since it doesn't impact downloading. Less then that would affect search packets and thus be noticed.

I do not, at present, use any of the P2P file sharing packages. I wouldn't know if my ISP, earthlink, were blocking outbound Kazaa packets. But I do know that once the ISPs start down the path of arbitrary packet monitor they have stopped being an ISP and become the worst kind of nanny — a nanny who hides behind the cloak of technology and does in secret what could not be done in public.

Some of the ISPs fall back on the “NO SERVERS” clause in their customer contracts — a brain-dead paean to the half-fast “consumer” Internet model of the media conglomerates (you know, those people who think the purpose of a roof is to keep rain off the television set.) Others don't see any need to justify what they're doing, proving they don't know what they're doing at all.

I won't argue with an ISP who wants to become a hall monitor as long as they disclose what they're doing (AOL makes billions selling the Internet with training wheels.) I certainly won't argue with one who wants to bill for excess bandwidth usage. But I wonder if this business of approving some content while preventing others doesn't start the whole ISP industry down a slippery slope of legal liability for messages that pass across their pipes.

What I do know is that there is a lot more at stake here than just some backwater ISP's backhaul bill. Secret packet filtering is neither good ethics nor good business. [b.cognosco]

Good post Terry.

I have a real problem with ISP's selling bandwidth with their left hand and then taking it away with their right.  If they can't afford for all their users to actually use the bandwidth they've paid for then perhaps they're in the wrong business.  I have no problem with being charged in accordance with my usage (which is not to say that I advocate per-byte costs or anything like that, just that I think I am heavy internet user and would expect to pay for it) but don't sell me something and then not deliver it!

I also agree that ISP's should have no business messing about with what I can or cannot do with the bandwidth I have.  I totally agree that this no servers business is a load of old crap.  If it's because they are afraid of bandwidth use – deal with that problem!  If it's because they think it will undercut their over priced business packages – get a clue!  But don't try and tell me what I can do with bandwidth I've paid for.  It's none of your business!

I should also say that Telewest Blueyonder are a great ISP and I would recommend them for their service and aftercare.  They do have an AUP but so far I've had no cause to read it and complain.  [Curiouser and curiouser!]

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