Outwit obstructive telcos, NZ conference told

Want to prevent traffic grooming by providers? Money talks, says Natcom CTO

Customers' power to shift their dollar to other providers could deter any attempt by telecomms providers to obstruct features users want, according to panellists at the recent Wireless Forum Convergence 05 conference. But to be successful dissatisfied users would have to be willing to switch.

Don Prescott, chief technology officer of Natcom, suggested network operators were deliberately "grooming traffic" so as to reduce the efficiency of services like Voice over IP (VoIP) by deliberately dropping Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) packets. Prescott says he has only directly tested Telecom, finding "huge latency" on port 5060 used for SIP negotiation, but the "poke" was aimed at other providers as well. It was intended as a signal that "they had better not try this kind of tactic as an anti-competitive move". There is at least one case of a US company admitting to blocking SIP deliberately in this way, Prescott says.

In April, Computerworld reported the suggestion that Telecom was deliberately altering TCP packet interleaving to in order to discourage VoIP calls by its broadband customers, as reported by US Public Broadcasting Service commentator Robert X Cringley. Last week the Commerce Commission told Telecom to turn off interleaving should an access seeker request it. The Commission has also called on Telecom to ensure it offers its wholesale customers the exact same level of service it offers its own customers.

At the conference there was no reaction from Telecom’s Murray Milner and observers felt that in general the telecomms providers on the panel got off lightly on and could have been roasted if the floor had been more persistent.

"I'd have preferred Murray to say either 'yes, we're doing it' or 'no, we're not', but he said nothing and neither did anyone else [on the panel]," said Prescott. The apparent obstruction could have been ascribed to a temporary and unintended side-effect, but Milner did not attempt a defence on these grounds.

With regard to peering, Milner reckoned the market would shake out in a way that provided a “low-cost service” with peering, but “normal interconnect” would continue to have its place “to ensure security”.

If you think your provider is behaving in an inconvenient or even unethical way so as not to give you efficient service, then the answer is to get out the phone book and look for another provider, said Liam Venter of LAN1. His company had done exactly that.

Venter suggested it wouldn’t matter to the majority of users whether interconnect took place locally or in the US provided they got a good service at a reasonable price. This was a recurring theme in the session; that many users are not unduly concerned with the technical and political debates that occupy the industry as long as they get a tolerably good service.

Panellists almost got away with the assertion that broadband infrastructure was already substantially in place in New Zealand, with only one member of the audience reminding them that 512Kbit/s hardly qualifies as "broadband".

Ministry of Economic Development spectrum policy manager Brian Miller emphasised that the aim of initiatives like broadband introduction is, in the end, to improve the performance of the New Zealand economy. Panellist David Crown of Vodafone suggested that information that could improve performance dramatically in major industries such as dairying and forestry was a matter of a few Kbytes at the right time and did not need broadband.

WiMax was discussed as an important element of the future of wireless broadband, but it was generally acknowledged that the standard, and the equipment to go with it, is not ready for the mass market yet. If WiMax shows itself as a significant element of the future, “we will support it,” said Telecom’s Milner.

Panel chairman Steve Sims of Reach Wireless remarked that this acknowledgement of user needs as a technology driver was very different from telcos' historic “build it and they will come” view of the market.

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