Optical/IP Networks

Vonage Hits ISP Resistance

In the latest expression of network operator angst at being relegated to a bit pipe for VOIP traffic, Washington-based ISP Clearwire Inc. has “port blocked” traffic to at least one Vonage Holdings Corp. customer, Vonage believes.

No one was hurt, nobody lost any customers, and Vonage has not cried foul; but the event, first reported here, may be an early dust-up in a conflict of interest that will only grow with the popularity of consumer VOIP.

Consumer VOIP providers such as Vonage make money by delivering their service over the last-mile networks of ISPs. ISPs do not share in that wealth. On the contrary, operators complain that VOIP service demands large amounts of bandwidth and can slow down the overall performance of their networks.

“As much as I want to see VOIP survive and thrive, I also don't want to bear the additional cost of my customers choosing to use a competitor's VOIP service over my own,” says Greg Boehnlein, who operates Cleveland, Ohio-based ISP N2Net.

“Without control of the last mile, we're screwed,” Boehnlein says, “which is why I can identify with Clearwire's decision and say ‘more power to them’.”

Meanwhile, VOIP providers like Vonage have insisted that voice services should be allowed to move over host networks untaxed and unencumbered.

Vonage CEO Jeffery Citron tells Light Reading that port blocking VOIP service is tantamount to censorship. "If they can examine the packets and tell that its VOIP traffic, then what are they going to do next?" Citron asks. "How long will it be before they are looking at the actual content and blocking what they don’t like?"

And so far the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been sympathetic to Citron’s case. The agency took only three weeks to stop regional carrier Madison River Communications from blocking Vonage’s traffic, as well as making it pay a $15,000 fine and agree to play nice from now on.

But some ISPs see Vonage’s refuge-seeking at the FCC and in the courts as anti-competitive. “Oh, yes, we should run screaming to nanny government and get permission to stop Clearwire if we don’t like what they do,” says David McClure, president and CEO of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, mocking Vonage.

McClure believes that operators have the right to dictate what types of traffic flow in and out of their networks. “Some people have the idea that if you go out and invest and build technology somehow you should just give it away to anybody who wants it,” McClure says.

ISPs can easily block VOIP at the edges of their networks by defining an access list that denies such traffic. It is the same method used to block inbound MS-SQL attacks. “We are still under investigation with Clearwire,” says Vonage VP of corporate communications Brooke Shulz. “We are aware of a couple things that happened, but they suddenly went away, so we are still trying to figure out what happened.”

In those cases, Vonage engineers simply changed the customer’s VOIP port number and the service was restored, Shulz says. The Clearwire case is just one of several run-ins Vonage has had with ISPs around the country, she said.

Clearwire and its lawyers seem to have anticipated problems with consumer VOIP traffic long before the Vonage incident. The ISP’s Terms of Use page reads: “You acknowledge and agree that the Service is not a telephone service . . . the Service is subject to different regulatory treatment than telephone service.”

In its Acceptable Use Policy, Clearwire states: “To protect its customers and its network Clearwire may, without limitation, block and allow traffic types as we see fit at any time.” This, the policy reads, can be applied to customers who “continuously” use high bandwidth applications such as file sharing and audio/video streaming.

These terms were probably written to give Clearwire the right to cap the amount of peer-to-peer traffic generated by its customers when using file-sharing services to download movies and music. Many P2P protocols dynamically shift port numbers to make it difficult for ISPs to identify and thus control this type of traffic.

Clearwire’s argument that VOIP traffic uses too much bandwidth is only half the picture. Clearwire’s own voice service, which is now being built for it by Bell Canada, is likely to consume just as much bandwidth as Vonage and its ilk. The difference of course is that Clearwire will feel a lot better about expending bandwidth on a VOIP service that will drive revenue.

“No matter how the press may spin it, it's Clearwire's investment money that built their network. What they allow people to do with it is their business,” N2Net’s Boehnlein says.

“If they decide to block VOIP, so be it; consumers will vote with their feet.”

Clearwire did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 3:21:07 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance

How can an ISP think such a thing! Only an evil RBOC could possibly think of blocking traffic that it is not getting paid for! Break up ISPs! They should be municipally owned! They should be forced to open their networks! Come on sing with me...We shall overcome...

rwelbourn 12/5/2012 | 3:21:06 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance I find the notion that a few VoIP phone calls would result in "excessive" bandwidth use to be ludicrous in the extreme.

Even using a non-compressing codec like G.711 is only going to result in around 80 kbit/s of bandwidth in either direction.

This is all about neutralizing a competitive threat by blocking access to a service. If ISPs can get away with blocking competitive VoIP services, what is next? Web search portals? Online gaming sites? Email services?
douggreen 12/5/2012 | 3:21:06 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance rwelbourn,

I would agree with you in most cases, but clearwire may be a slight exception as they are wireless broadband provider. I imagine that VoIP might have more of a network impact than it would for DSL or Cable. On the other hand, if you sell me a 256K link, you shouldn't complain if I use 80K once in a while. As you point out, there are many applications that use more.

If the ISPs want to move away from a pipe mentality and start charging by the bit, by the service, etc., I have no problem with that. It would be a dangerous bet as they may find that they loose business to the pipe providers. They should look at the failed history of such types of billing with Frame Relay and ATM.

IF, however, the ISPs are charging for a certain bit rate service, and both parties (end user and VoIP provider) remain withing the bit rate for which they paid, then I don't see that they have a leg to stand on.
paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 3:21:05 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance
doug and rwel,

The reality is that the Internet is not engineered to have everyone send lots of traffic. It is currently equipped for a very sparse traffic model. Typically, I have seen 15 - 20 Kb/s per sub as a bandwidth model. This is going up, but still there is massive oversubscription going on.

This oversubscription is not an access issue. 80 kb/s out of a 256 kb/s pipe - no big deal right? Then, why are ISPs so upset with P2P? It is becuase it encourages long term use of the bandwidth consumers thought they had paid for.

This is the crux of my argument that access is not our problem. Access is certainly a convenient scapegoat but it is not the issue. The traffic is not cogested at the access link. It starts being congested at the first points of aggregation.

rjmcmahon 12/5/2012 | 3:21:05 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance If ISPs can get away with blocking competitive VoIP services, what is next? Web search portals? Online gaming sites? Email services?

Clearwire doesn't seem to be a traditional ISP. They seem to be a private company using unregulated internet access to bootstrap their business. It wouldn't be in such a companies interest to build out the infrastructure for, let's say, Vonage to use.

Even regulated common carriage access providers have already started blocking things like email. SBC blocks email being sent over port 25 which doesn't go to their servers. They said they were doing so to reduce spam. They did give a way to opt-out of this filtering, but it hasn't worked for me. (I setup an SSH tunnel and redirect my email over that.)

But more to the point. If a private company pays for the infrastructure, shouldn't they have the right to decide who gets to connect to that infrastructure? It seems analagous to building a private road. There are no open access and common carriage requirments on a private road.

It's also worth watching the BrandX vs. FCC case being heard by the US supreme court. An independent ISP is arguing for open access to the cable infrastructure. I'm no lawyer but I wonder if Article I, Section 10 of the US constitution applies protecting private parties from a state's impairment of contracts. My guess is that the court will rule that the cable cos don't have to open their networks.

The lesson to me is that if a municipality wants to provide a modern internet structure it needs to do so in a way that it pays for the infrastructure out of "conflict free" funding sources. Private sources of capital seeking an ROI on their investment won't have an interest in separating content and services from network providers. I think the history of TV and the cable cos have shown us that.
aswath 12/5/2012 | 3:21:04 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance As the discussion at http://www.merit.edu/mail.arch... suggests, the concern is not bandwidth consumption; but handling of packets at the radio level. If this is the real reason, then I am not sure delaying packets will really help, excepting discouraging use of the service.

This also suggests that they should add this parameter in their service description.
turing 12/5/2012 | 3:21:04 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance Don't they already do that for p2p traffic? And ICMP (limit it)? Last I checked they own the network, and you pay to use it. Pay someone else.
It can get tricky to figure out how much they need to give to you. Should they provide IPv6, mcast, and other services to everyone without a fee? Obviously that's a different transport, but still you'd think it could get into gray area.

If ISPs can get away with blocking competitive VoIP services, what is next? Web search portals? Online gaming sites? Email services?
turing 12/5/2012 | 3:21:04 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance I don't know why they're so simple minded. Blocking the traffic is a bad move, as everyone finds out fast, and it smells of censorship.

Better to delay the traffic, like by setting it's ToS/DSCP to something that your routers use to put in the lowest priority queue. Many routers can be setup to do that for specific flows at the edge. (like via ACLs or policy routing or whatever)

That makes it real hard to figure out and finger-point, and you can have your own voip service using ports/addresses that you can set to high precedence.

These guys are such simpletons...
rjmcmahon 12/5/2012 | 3:21:03 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance this case is "VOIP service degrades our connection for all of our users."

Can one extrapolate from this that Clearwire will never be offering a VoIP service of their own?
paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 3:21:03 AM
re: Vonage Hits ISP Resistance
Well, normally I would make some snide remark. Except as I thought about this, I have concluded (and I have heard them for years) that statements like yours about our education are hogwash. I need to do some digging as to why.

But let me put it this way....I have heard such horror stories since I was a kid. In fact, I can not remember a time where our students were not falling behind non-US students. Now, I have yet to see the impact of this. So, my conclusion of this is that the way the data is collected is bunk. I have no way of backing it up at the moment, other than 30+ years of hearing it with no way to see it impact the adult population.

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