Have you ever tried to watch a YouTube video and found it painfully slow? Ever tried to watch a TV show streamed online and found it stopping and starting constantly? Or simply tried to download a file from your e-mail and had to wait ages for it to complete? Most of us at some stage have suffered from painfully slow downloads and the causes can be various. More often than not though, the biggest culprit is bandwidth throttling by your Internet Service Provider (ISP) particularly at peak usage periods such as evenings and weekends.
Bandwidth throttling is when an ISP purposely restricts the amount of bandwidth that you’re using in order minimize traffic congestion. As HD video and other bandwidth heavy applications demand more and more bandwidth, users are increasingly noticing the squeeze being put on them. That’s why todays announcement by Britain’s major ISPs that they are going to reveal exactly how they manage traffic and throttle bandwidth should be applauded and followed by ISPs everywhere.
This greater transparency reduces the threat to net neutrality – i.e. the temptation of ISPs to make deals with net giants such as Google that websites such as YouTube will be given bandwidth priority over smaller websites. How exactly this greater transparency will work is not clear though. Whether ISPs will be forced to publish reports of how they’ve managed traffic over a certain period or whether they will provide real-time updates on how traffic is being managed remains to be seen.
However, although transparency moves like this should be encouraged, it is no substitute for investment in infrastructure which is the main problem. One of the main reasons that South Korean Users can look forward to speeds of up to 1Gbps – 200 times faster than British average of 5Mbps – is that South Korea has invested heavily in its internet infrastructure. This is not only essential to providing a fair service for all but also for maintaining the innovation that makes the net so exciting. As John Naughton points out in The Guardian today:
The reason the internet has been such an powerful enabler of innovation is that it is, at its core, a meritocratic network which is not owned or controlled by anyone. All it does is take data packets in at one end and deliver them to their destinations at the other. And it was designed to be agnostic about the packets – to give them all the same treatment. In that sense, it was “neutral” towards applications. If you had a good idea that could be implemented in data packets, then the internet would do it for you, no questions asked.
That ISPs should seek to provide a more transparent service that continues to maintain a level playing field for innovation in applications is something all software developers and users should support.