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Do Telcos treat VoIP Traffic differently?

Updated on June 28, 2011

Traffic Discrimination by Telcos

Many of us already view our telecom companies as pipes. They provide us phone service and charge us based on how many minutes we use. They provide us an Internet connection and charge us depending on the bandwidth provided as well as the speeds. Because of this, we have a certain expectation that they play fair. That they don't treat certain types of traffic differently depending on what that traffic is.

To expect otherwise would be like expecting your electricity company to charge you differently for two devices which consume the same amount of current. Or like expecting your water provider to charge you more for taking a bath than washing your clothes even if the same amount of water is used. In other words, we expect them to just provide their services and not look at anything else. Internet companies are expected to do something similar - just provide the bandwidth and not charge us extra depending on what we use it for. To become what we call "dumb pipes."

Unfortunately, it's a label which they themselves assiduously avoid. They would prefer to be able to discriminate based on content and either slow down or charge more for various types. In some cases, it's led to governments cracking down on them via net neutrality legislation like it happened in the Netherlands. However, recently even a company like Vonage was using deep packet inspection to treat different types of traffic differently.

P2P, VoIP and Deep Packet Inspection

Curiously, Vonage in Australia was not charging people for VoIP traffic and P2P traffic at all. Apparently it was under plans which promised customers free social networking - meaning that any data transferred to and from your telco because you visited Facebook was free. And because of faulty implementations, P2P and VoIP traffic also got a free pass.

Though that little loophole was closed, it's a scary reminder of the powers which telcos have. If they can give us social networking data for free, they also have the ability to charge customers extra for VoIP services which they feel threaten their regular phone business like KPN did. This is precisely the reason why we need net neutrality laws. Deep packet inspection can be used to discriminate against traffic in innovative ways. For example, all VoIP services except those provided by the telco will be charged extra. The possibilities are limitless and this is the reason why net neutrality is gaining more and more acceptance in the United States. Even companies like Apple and AT&T discriminate based on the type of Internet connection. Till recently, Skype worked on Android phones only over wifi and not 3G.

VoIP with SIP proxy server PBX services for example is a prime target for discriminatory action. Robust HD voice PBX systems present a grave threat to the traditional telephone models of the carriers and they must be protected from actions which would threaten their competitiveness.

The Internet has been a transformative force in the world precisely because of net neutrality principles. It's time we took measures to safeguard it before we end up slowly strangling one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century.


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