Level 3 Accuses Comcast & Others Of Abusing Their Power, ‘Deliberately Harming’ The Internet

If you’ve never heard of them, Level 3 is one of the world’s largest ‘Tier 1 internet service providers. That means they manage many of the direct connections between the millions of networks that make up ‘The Internet.’ So, when you visited this very website, the data on this page probably traveled across Level 3’s network.

They are integral to the efficient operation of the internet, particularly in the U.S., so it’s safe to say when they accuse five of the largest ISPs in the U.S. and one European ISP of “deliberately harming the service they deliver to paying customers,” people will sit up and listen – And that’s exactly what’s happening.

Level 3′s VP of Content and Media Mark Taylor wrote a blog post in response to ISPs shifting the blame for slower network speeds away from themselves and on to Tier 1 networks like Level 3 and Cogent Communications. In the post, he explains how Level 3’s networks work, and how ISPs are abusing their power refusing to upgrade their connections with Level 3.

You can read the full post here, but this is the important bit:

Level 3 has 51 peers that are interconnected in 45 cities through over 1,360 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports (plus a few smaller ports). The distribution of that capacity with individual peers ranges from a single 10 Gigabit Ethernet port to 148 ports. The average number of interconnection cities per peer is five, but ranges from one to 20.

The average utilization across all those interconnected ports is 36 percent. So you might be asking – what is all the fuss about with peering? And why did we write the Chicken post? Well, our peers fall into two broad categories; global or regional Internet Services providers like Level 3 (those “middlemen” listed in the Renesys report), and Broadband consumer networks like AT&T. If I use that distinction as a filter to look at congested ports, the story looks very different.

A port that is on average utilised at 90 percent will be saturated, dropping packets, for several hours a day. We have congested ports saturated to those levels with 12 of our 51 peers. Six of those 12 have a single congested port, and we are both (Level 3 and our peer) in the process of making upgrades – this is business as usual and happens occasionally as traffic swings around the Internet as customers change providers.

That leaves the remaining six peers with congestion on almost all of the interconnect ports between us. Congestion that is permanent, has been in place for well over a year and where our peer refuses to augment capacity. They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfil the requests their customers make for content.

Five of those congested peers are in the United States and one is in Europe. There are none in any other part of the world. All six are large Broadband consumer networks with a dominant or exclusive market share in their local market. In countries or markets where consumers have multiple Broadband choices (like the UK) there are no congested peers.

Without the tech-speak, this means that while most ISPs readily upgrade their connections to match consumer demand, just six ISPs (which are, incidentally, some of the largest in the world, refuse to upgrade their connections to deliver all of the data their customers demand.

This provides further evidence that the very network congestion that ISPs are using as an excuse to cut major peering agreements with large content providers like Netflix is being perpetuated by the ISPs themselves.

Although Taylor stops short of naming and shaming the ISPs in question (they are his customers, after all…) he notes that they “happen to rank dead last in consumer satisfaction across all industries in the U.S.” Incidentally, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, and AT&T all just happen to rank at the bottom of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index.

It should come as no surprise that almost every one of those five companies is currently in talks with Netflix and other major content providers about direct peering agreements, which they are being forced into to ensure their shared customers are able to stream content quickly and in the highest possible quality.

There is no excuse for this kind of behavior from ISPs. Ultimately, it their customers that are requesting this data from the wider internet, and as long as they are paying for that service it should be delivered to them. This a key reason behind a consumer-led campaign to force the FCC to classify the internet as vital infrastructure. If you open your tap and the water slowly drips out for several hours every day there would be outrage. So, why should we as consumers accept the slow drip of our data across over-saturated network ports?

The worst part of all of this is that it can be fixed very easily and for a relatively small amount of money.

In the comments section of his post, Taylor notes that each 10Gbps port only costs between $10-20k. This means Comcast, a company that raked in $6.8 billion in profits in 2013, could fix this issue for less than $1 million. Yet, they’re making the conscious decision not to.

As for why Level 3 doesn’t just cut them off for violating Level 3’s peering policies, Taylor wrote: “Because if we terminated the connectivity we would damage the customer experience (for our customers and for the broadband provider’s customers) even more. We are not willing to do that.”

We now officially know who is to blame for all of these issues, but as sad as it is, nothing will change until the FCC classifies the internet as ‘vital communications infrastructure,’ which they have already said they have no plans to do in the near future, or makes other meaningful steps towards protecting net neutrality.

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