Millions of U.S. Broadband Subscribers Are Experiencing Artificial Internet Brownouts

On the day of the FCC’s historic Open Internet vote, Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that in addition to enacting the strongest Net Neutrality rules ever, the agency’s order would contain important provisions pertaining to interconnection.

This was welcome news for consumers and businesses that have endured widespread Internet “brownouts” stemming from the artificial congestion Internet service providers have created at network interconnection points. Far too often, customers have been unable to access the content they’ve requested at the speeds they pay their broadband providers to deliver.

Last year’s highly publicized Netflix disputes with ISPs were not the end of the story. And the FCC’s language about interconnection is not a cure-all for these kinds of anti-consumer practices. In fact, real-world experience shows that the problem remains very real today. The FCC needs to take a close look at the dramatic impact interconnection issues have on broadband end-users’ experience — and it needs to follow through and act as quickly as possible.

Data from Measurement Lab, which Ars Technica highlighted just after the FCC released its Open Internet Order, show that these massive slowdowns are an ongoing problem for customers of the nation’s largest ISPs. Consumers are being held hostage while ISPs try to extract a ransom from other carriers and Internet content providers.

Interconnection Is What Makes the Internet Work ... Until It Doesn’t

Interconnection is the mutual exchange of Internet traffic between networks that belong to different carriers or companies. Without interconnection, there would be no Internet. It’s why a college student in Miami can access a webpage hosted in Vietnam, or a mother in Kenya can talk to her son in Boston.

No one provider connects to every single Internet user, or to all of the content on the Internet. Interconnection integrates many distinct networks into the single global communications system that we all rely on. While a diversity of networks make up the Internet, you likely subscribe to only one or two of them. This is your on-ramp. To get on the highway, you need to cross at least one interconnection point.

For your ISP to offer you Internet access, it needs to connect with many other networks. In recent years, the five largest ISPs (AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon), which serve more than 75 percent of all U.S. subscribers, have engineered a highly congested state at their interconnection points with certain carriers and content providers. It’s all part of an effort to extract payment from these other networks. That’s why so many subscribers to these ISPs endured sluggish access to millions of websites for months on end, most notably in 2013 and 2014. And they had to deal with that poor performance despite promises of broadband service with “consistently fast speeds all the time.”

The ISPs degraded their services to force connecting networks into paying them fees to deliver the traffic their broadband customers had requested. If you thought you already paid your ISP (dearly) for that service, you’re right.

Despite that, several well-publicized standoffs over the ISPs’ demands for more payments from the senders of the traffic lasted for months on end — harming millions of users and Internet startups in the process. For example, a business in Utah reported that in May 2013 its outgoing and incoming VoIP calls on Comcast’s circuits would not go through during afternoon hours. These outages likely were a result of service degradation on Comcast’s network, with such terrible disruptions during peak-usage hours that VoIP calls couldn’t be made.

Many other users complained about similar widespread issues that interfered with their use and enjoyment of the Internet. Verizon FiOS customers saw download speeds of 256 Kpbs (barely fast enough to load a basic webpage), Comcast customers were unable to play online video games, and listeners experienced problems when trying to connect to online music-streaming services via AT&T and Verizon.

Widespread Problems Didn’t End When Netflix Paid Up

New Measurement Lab data reveal that the big ISPs are still up to these antics. They were still degrading access to large swaths of the Internet long after the news of Netflix disputes with these ISPs had broken — and even as the FCC was in the process of adopting the Open Internet Order.

These charts show just how awful things are for many subscribers of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon. They show that the hourly median download speed — a key measure of Internet performance — plummets during daytime hours when Internet users are most likely to be online.

 

Since September 2014, connections between GTT — one of the world’s largest transit providers — and AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable have been so congested that people accessing certain websites and services have to live with download speeds that are a mere fraction of what they paid for.

During peak-usage hours, some users are experiencing download speeds below .5 Mbps. That is well below the FCC’s definition of broadband, far below what’s needed to reliably stream HD video, and hardly what ISPs promised to customers who are paying for speeds 10, 50 or 100 times faster than that. AT&T has even admitted that this congestion will continue for customers until the carrier delivering the content AT&T customers want pays the veritable ransom. This is happening even though those AT&T customers have already paid through the teeth to access that content.

And all of the major ISPs are engaging in the same tactics and slowing Internet speeds to a near halt. That leaves even the few users who might have an option to switch to a different ISP without a meaningful alternative. Why switch from Comcast to AT&T, for example, if you get the same artificially degraded and snail-like speeds from both providers?

This is the same type of behavior we saw in 2013 and 2014. As these charts show, the median hourly download speeds for traffic traveling across GTT connections with the four major carriers plummet in prime time. These steep drops in performance occurred for all of these ISPs during the same time period. This type of congestion would not happen if the ISPs managed their networks to deliver the traffic their customers have requested, rather than letting it get stuck at an artificially congested bottleneck.

The FCC needs to address these widespread harms ASAP, and it needs to determine whether consumers are able to access content and data at the speeds they pay for. ISPs claim these kinds of outages and slowdowns are just examples of the market at work, and they use this argument to justify their demands for extra payments. These are just ISP lies. The FCC must prohibit these types of harmful practices and ensuring that independent monitoring can detect any future harms.

To bring these abuses to light, ISPs need to follow the FCC’s rules about network-management transparency, and provide accurate information about how they manage their networks. Right now Internet users have no idea what’s going on, and when they complain to their broadband providers they’re simply told to reset their modems or check their Wi-Fi. The FCC needs to take action to ensure that Internet users know the source of these problems — and then the agency must take steps to bring these Internet brownouts to an end.

Natalie Nicol is an attorney focused on Internet law and policy, including Net Neutrality, intellectual property, online speech and privacy. Follow her on Twitter @natnicol.


Original photo by Flickr user Jonno Witts

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