Telstra says its plan to trial the “shaping”, or slowing down, of peer-to-peer file distribution traffic at peak periods has nothing to do with fighting copyright infringement. But cynicism abounds.

Telstra followed up its original announcement, as discussed by Crikey on Wednesday, with a response late Friday: “Trialling New Network Management Techniques — Myth Buster“. The telco stresses slowing down P2P traffic is just one of the options being tested in their traffic management trial, that this is solely about network management, and that while deep packet inspection (or DPI) will be used to identify the P2P traffic, they won’t be monitoring or tracking anything else:

“The key characteristic of BitTorrent peer to peer traffic that is relevant to our network traffic management trials is the fact that most such traffic is not time-critical — for example, compared with VoIP or video streaming — and so might be slowed without significant consumer detriment. Other types of P2P services (e.g. some gaming services, Skype etc) will not be targeted for shaping this traffic management trial…

“Telstra recognises that P2P has a range of legitimate uses.

“Our blog post on this trial included reference to piracy because of initial media inquiries about the trial which asked about intellectual property infringement.”

Is Telstra sharing information about alleged copyright infringement with rights-holders as part of this trial?

“No. Telstra’s priority is our customers. Telstra has consistently stated that the only circumstances in which we would (and in fact legally can) identify our customers to third parties is if required to by law.”

So why doesn’t Telstra simply invest in more capacity?

“We continue to invest in enhancing our networks to ensure our customers enjoy the best possible quality of service.

“This trial is about testing options to ensure that the investments that we are making are the most efficient way to ensure our customers enjoy the quality of service they demand.

“As we recently publicly told the ACCC: ‘Telstra’s goal is to optimise the customer experience by managing congestion on its ADSL network through price, investment and technical means. Traffic on Telstra’s ADSL network has on average doubled every 12 months for the past four years, driven to a large extent by growth in demand for real time entertainment. Without continued congestion management further growth in traffic will result in more congestion at peak times, negatively impacting on the customer experience.’

“This trial is simply about examining the potential technical means to assist in this task.”

Telstra’s ADSL network is the last-mile copper network the national broadband network is replacing. It’s reaching its limits — note that “more congestion” means there already is congestion. The rest, translated from management-speak, just means that they’re looking for ways to deal with this (“congestion management”) without capital expenditure.

There’s no reason to doubt Telstra’s word on this. It makes commercial sense. As commenter “gpon” wrote at broadband forum Whirlpool, with some cynicism:

“Read: We don’t want to spend any money, because we’re desperately hoping the existing gear will last until we can gratefully offload the responsibility of providing an access network to the NBN. In the meantime, we’re trying everything we can to avoid costs.”

Or, more bluntly from “Che5ter”, it’s “just a really pathetic excuse not to invest more money”. Particularly, as Crikey was reminded, Telstra’s UK equivalent BT is dropping all traffic limits because bandwidth is now so cheap — except for its cheapest internet plans.

There’s cynicism too about this trial having nothing to do with copyright protection. There’s no reason to doubt Telstra’s word that rights holders are not involved, but P2P file distribution is an easy target for negative PR.

“We’re [Telstra is] hoping that by demonising P2P as ‘illegal activity’ we’ll be able to take the moral high ground over any arguments against our little scheme,” wrote gpon. “In other words, we’re hoping to play on people’s lack of understanding.”

They’re right. I’ve been careful to refer to this kind of P2P technology as “file distribution” rather than “sharing”, because even that noble word has become tainted. But no matter how many Linux operating system installers, Blizzard game updates or Norwegian TV programs are distributed via BitTorrent, for most Telstra customers the term P2P means dodgy movie downloads — if it means anything at all.

Most opponents of Telstra’s trial will be easy to ignore. Reasoned arguments against DPI becoming routine will be outnumbered by ill-informed and easy-to-ignore scattergun rants with little more substance than: “How dare they touch my internets!”

“It’s bizarre the way everyone here thinks that P2P is going to be shaped to 0.000001kb/s rather than just deprioritised against other traffic,” wrote Heliotic at Whirlpool. “Could anyone here really argue that their bulk P2P file packets are more time critical than VoiP or streaming video?”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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