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Internet Traffic Exchange: Time to Look under the Hood

by: Julie Knapp and Walter Johnston, Office of Engineering & Technology

June 18, 2014

No one company defines your personal Internet experience. The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that sell you Internet access are only one part of a complex ecosystem that also includes backbone providers, content delivery networks, and other Internet traffic actors. The connection points between and among these groups have many names: peering, transit, proxy services, interconnection, or traffic exchange.

Here’s why those connection points matter to consumers: let’s say you’re trying to watch a video on YouTube. To get from YouTube servers to your computer, the video has to traverse a number of networks in order to get to your ISP, and ultimately to get to your computer. If the video can’t stream efficiently from network to network along its way to your ISP, your viewing experience may suffer as a result.

It has become clear from consumer complaints to the FCC—and even in some comments consumers have filed for the Open Internet NPRM—that consumers are frustrated by recent trouble with their Internet experience for certain services and content providers. The recent disputes between Netflix, Cogent and ISPs such as Comcast and Verizon are an example of this issue.

We need to get to the bottom of this.

Last week, Chairman Wheeler announced that he has directed the Commission staff to obtain the information we need to understand precisely what is happening in order to understand whether consumers are being harmed. Commission staff has begun requesting information from ISPs and content providers.

Today’s release of the Measuring Broadband America report provides even more evidence that there are problems here worth examining. This annual report measures broadband speeds in a sampling of subscribers to 14 ISPs across the country serving over 80 percent of broadband consumers. While internet traffic exchange issues were not the focus of the report, we found notable anomalies as we collected speed data. In particular, we found significant drops in broadband performance during a period when Cogent, an Internet backbone provider, reportedly was having disputes with various ISPs.

Unfortunately, our speed test for the report only measures our sample of consumers connecting to a few other points on the Internet, and it cannot accurately gauge the scope of a network congestion problem. As far as we can tell, this problem only appeared in tests using Cogent links. Furthermore, our research indicates that the issue was “path specific,” i.e., it only affected users when they tried to access certain content or data over certain network paths. However, this problem was still quite significant for those consumers affected.

These experiences confirm that the way ISPs exchange traffic with other networks on the Internet is critical to the consumer Internet experience. We need to understand better what is going on and what exactly these issues mean for consumers.

The data in this report confirms that we need more information, and we’re taking a number of additional steps, including:

  • Releasing the full raw data set to the public today so others can analyze our findings. 
  • Taking steps to better understand the issues; including taking a deeper look into causes of congestion and by analyzing network impact on video service providers such as YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix and others.
  • Working to develop tools that measure and validate how these types of congestion issues affect the consumer experience. We expect to have instituted additional testing methodologies providing more information on network congestion and peering by winter 2014.

Bottom line: traffic exchange matters to all Internet users. It’s time for us at the FCC to take a look under the hood and learn whether Internet traffic exchange issues are putting up a barrier to continued innovation and investment on the Internet.

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