Optical/IP Networks

AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths

As it grows in size and scope, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) says it will also be among those carriers building tollbooths for its last-mile broadband networks.

The telco giant's product development and sales teams are now busy designing “packet prioritization” products for sale to content providers that depend on AT&T last-mile networks to deliver services to consumers. Such products reserve a “fast lane” on AT&T's networks for the safe and speedy transit of traffic from whichever company is paying the toll.

Put more simply, AT&T’s new products will give preferred treatment to some Internet services over others. And defenders of network neutrality fear that the services of smaller content providers that cannot afford to pay QOS (quality of service) fees might become less available to consumers. (See QOS Fees Could Change Everything and Crocodile Tiers.)

“We're developing new IP managed services which will give content providers the high-quality, high-bandwidth transport they increasingly need to deliver video streaming and other bandwidth-intensive applications and services to their customers,” said AT&T spokesman Dave Pacholczyk in an email response to a Light Reading inquiry last week.

“I’ve got no specifics on what those product lines or those services might look like or anything,” Pacholczyk wrote. “We have had discussions with content providers, as we’ve said in the past, for these kinds of services.” (See Net Neutrality Debate Wydens.)

AT&T officials complain of receiving more and more Internet traffic from “originators” like Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT) while being compensated under "existing peering agreements,” according to a note from UBS Research . Like its phone company peers, AT&T sees the new packet prioritization products as a means of making back some of that lost revenue. (See Policy Control Heats Up.)

The carrier believes its offer of an “end-to-end” service-level agreement (SLA) will be attractive to many Internet content providers, especially those that deliver content to wireless devices. AT&T hopes the product will also increase uptake among content providers of its hosting and transport services, the UBS analysts write.

AT&T officials discussed its packet prioritization plans during its February 23 analyst briefing, and now that the company is striving to merge with BellSouth Corp. (NYSE: BLS), the implications of those products and services will be noticably broader. (See Ma Bell Is Back!.)

The telcos and their trade-group representation in Washington have long said they “have not and will not” block or degrade any type of legal Internet traffic. Their critics believe the new fees are but passive ways to control and monetize Internet traffic flowing over the networks they control. (See Light Readers Favor QOS Fees.)

“The BOCs... are looking for ways to make packet prioritization look legitimate,” says Voice On the Net (VON) Coalition president Staci Pies. “Creating artificial bandwidth scarcity by saying that the ‘new, upgraded’ fiber Internet is available only to application providers that are willing to pay for higher levels of quality of service is one way.”

Verizon spokesman David Fish says his company has no plans for setting up QOS fee arrangements with Internet companies, although Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg has come out in favor of the practice. AT&T has also made sharp statements about its right to the QOS fees, and is proving to be more aggressive than its peers in putting the words into action.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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Mark Sullivan 12/5/2012 | 4:03:17 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths What sort of packet inspection gear will AT&T use to set up SLAs for individual content providers? Is Cisco providing assistance here?
caggio 12/5/2012 | 4:03:15 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths RBAK has been touting SIP/SDP session monitoring for classification of Internet Traffic for QoS mapping over last mile network. Is this what is disccussed here?

What kind of classification will be required at BRAS?
materialgirl 12/5/2012 | 4:03:15 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths T apparently plans to get "too big to fail", then try to keep all our subsidies (universal service, E911, bla bla bla) while censoring our traffic and jacking up our rates. I just got a fee increase notice for "increased operating costs". The only extra fee they will get from me is the cost to move my line to another carrier.
Mark Sullivan 12/5/2012 | 4:03:13 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths As T gets bigger, it must be getting slower. How long until Project Lightspeed makes it into BellSouth territory? Wagers?
paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 4:03:12 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths

BellSouth already has an IPTV initiative equivalent to Lightspeed. However, if Light went at LightSpeed we would still be waiting for the dawn. My guess is the buyout will provide AT&T another reason to delay Lightspeed.

opticalwatcher 12/5/2012 | 4:03:11 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths "How long until Project Lightspeed makes it into BellSouth territory?"

The question is, how long until Project Lightspeed makes it into SBC territory (other than to employee's homes--people who won't complain if it doesn't work).
mr zippy 12/5/2012 | 4:03:11 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths Deep packet inspection by carriers verses Deep packet encryption by their customers.
Mark Sullivan 12/5/2012 | 4:03:11 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths Mr. Zippy - Please provide further detail on your comments. The monkey finds them profound, but cryptic.
Mark Sullivan 12/5/2012 | 4:03:10 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths I have been hearing positive intel about the progress of Project Lightspeed's video service. But nothing is confirmed. We are approaching a moment of truth with regard to the real scalability of the Microsoft TV solution.
fgoldstein 12/5/2012 | 4:03:10 AM
re: AT&T Sets Up Internet Tollbooths I think Mr. Zippy has a good point, though it may not apply to the mass market.

The key strategic tool for network discriminiation and censorship is "deep packet inspection", in which a filtering device (for instance, a system with content-addressable memory and elaborate pattern recognition filers) determines just what an end user is doing within the context of a well-known port, and either charges or blocks on that basis. But if the payload is encrypted, the filter will not see it.

The problems with this approach are twofold. One, a truly hostile network operator (and Big Ed certainly acts that way) could simply block all encrypted traffic, claiming, for instance, that it might not meet the "legal" test. Not that encryption is illegal (yet), but they could claim that the encrypted application might be illegal, and one must presume guilt until innocense is proved. (I hear they do that in Texas, where Ed is from.)

Problem two is that encryption is generally hard for muggles to use. Sure, web sites can use SSL, but unless it's built in to the application "out of the box", and has no end user key management, the average consumer won't be able to use it. Hence, for example, PGP plugins are available for email, but only a tiny fraction of users have them, leading to a very poor "network effect". Of course application providers can counter this. A game service or music store might sell an encrypting application, for instance, but the packet inspector could try to identify it. Hence the "arms race".
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