Cutting the Throttle: US ISPs Loosen Up With BitTorrent

New research concerning ISPs’ BitTorrent throttling habits indicates Comcast took the FCC’s 2008 slap on the wrist seriously, dramatically reducing its practice of slowing BitTorrent data. Other ISPs such as Clearwire, Canada’s Rogers Communications and some overseas providers were found to be throttling BitTorrent users to a greater degree.

The report, released by Measurement Lab (M-Lab), looked at data from the second quarter of 2008 through the first quarter of 2010. Researchers wanted to find out which ISPs were limiting the speed of BitTorrent traffic and by how much.

M-Lab, founded in 2009 by Google and a group of partners including New America Foundation as an open project researching Internet connectivity, worked on the project. Researchers from Syracuse University compiled and analyzed the data.

To measure data throttling, the team used the Glasnost tool. The data was then made public.

“Because all of the data is required to be publicly available, teams like [this one] are able to access, analyze and reach important and interesting conclusions. In short, M-Lab enables a scientific ecosystem, in which a principal of openness drives good, peer-reviewed research into broadband performance,” Meredith Whittaker, program manager working on M-Lab, told the E-Commerce Times.

Best and Worst of Throttling

Previously, Comcast was well-known for its practice of slowing down BitTorrent traffic on its network. Until early 2008, the provider was throttling 49 percent of BitTorrent traffic, according to M-Lab. Following an FCC order, Comcast agreed to stop the practice, but the legal authority of the FCC’s motion is still in dispute.

A federal appeals court ruled that the FCC overstepped its authority with that decision, and the issue is still tied up in a legal battle.

Still, data from the M-Lab study found that Comcast appears to have taken the warning seriously and changed its practices to whittle its figure down to 3 percent throttling on BitTorrent users.

Another change is that Comcast is now more open about its policies.

“The mistake that Comcast and some others made is that they started implementing practices without notifying anybody. Then they were discovered, so there is some legal liability for consumer protections and the questions about a breach of contract,” Milton Mueller, principal investigator of the M-Lab report, told the E-Commerce Times.

Most Offenders Overseas

Comcast joined other U.S.-based ISPs in a mostly downward trend of BitTorrent throttling, with a notable exception of wireless provider Clearwire. It was the only U.S. provider to limit more than 10 percent of BitTorrent traffic by May 2010, throttling on average 17 percent of transfers.

While the M-Lab study might call attention to the practice, it’s unknown whether the BitTorrent throttlers it identifies will suffer the same consequences Comcast did.

“Clearwire is a wireless provider, and the FCC has clear distinctions between ISPs. They realize the bandwidth is more constrained for wireless,” said Mueller.

Other throttlers were mostly outside the U.S. Canada’s Rogers Communications, for instance, slows 78 percent of BitTorrent Traffic, according to the data. The most pronounced throttlers the study identified were Poland’s UPC Poland, South Korea’s KT Corp. and the Czech Republic’s GTS Novera, all coming in at 80 percent or more.

“In more developed countries like the U.S., there is a trend away from throttling, but we don’t really see it declining as much in Asia or some developing countries. There, they have different regulations and tend to have much more environments dominated by a single large player,” said Mueller.

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