Sprint, UUNet end free backbone ride for smaller ISPs

Is is the beginning of the backbone wars, or just another day on the Internet? Whatever, the decision by two large US Internet backbone providers to terminate traffic exchange agreements with several medium-size Internet service providers in an attempt to reduce costs is symptomatic of the Net's evolution away from being a 'free' resource.

Two large US Internet backbone providers later this year will terminate traffic exchange agreements with several medium-size Internet service providers in an attempt to reduce costs.

The move highlights the US Internet's continuing evolution from a government-subsidised resource into a money-making venture driven by business principles.

Sprint Corp. and UUnet Technologies Inc. recently informed several midsize ISPs that later this year they intend to terminate an agreement with the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX), an ISP industry association that maintains network access points, by which traffic was exchanged at no cost.

That practice contrasts with so-called peering agreements through which ISPs exchange Internet traffic with each other. Under these agreements, if there is an imbalance between traffic received and sent, one company - usually the smaller ISP - pays a fee to the other company as compensation.

But some backbone providers such as Sprint have been providing free access to some midsize ISPs, a practice that will end soon because of the rising cost of maintaining and upgrading Internet backbones.

"Right now, we have a T1 [line] connected to CIX," says Brad Hokamp, director of advanced data

services for Sprint in Reston, Virginia. "We've upgraded our backbone network to DS3 and

OC3 trunking, and we want all connections at our backbone to be at those speeds."

He adds that CIX is not able to operate at those speeds - 45M and 155Mbit/s -

and that because use of the CIX T1 line (1.5M bps) is low, it will be terminated today, US time.

Officials at UUnet declined to comment on that company's plans to terminate its interchange agreement

with CIX.

One midsize national ISP notified of the change by UUnet said that the action will

put UUnet's customers at a disadvantage.

"UUnet's customers are more affected by this than our customers," says John Russo,

president of GeoNet Communications, a California-based ISP. "It is as if Sprint would call AT&T to say,

'We are no longer routing your calls'."

Russo rejects the argument that smaller ISPs are trying to get a free ride.

"The concept that the little guy is getting something for free is just a trumped-up argument,"

he says. "We invested millions of dollars in our own backbone."

One industry observer said the issue should not be overplayed.

"It's no big issue, just a change," says Harry Fenik, vice president at Zona Research Inc. "Small ISPs have always been charged, while midsize ISPs haven't, since they deliver lots of traffic."

Fenik says the notion that the Internet is free defies economic logic.

"Major backbone providers need to harmonise both their economic and network resources, given the backbone expansion required to keep pace with growing demand," he says.

While some ISPs hope the government will eventually take a stand on the matter,

Fenik said he doubted the likelihood that this will happen.

"With the general drive toward deregulation, the government will not step in and try to

regulate," he said.

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