Innovation on the Net Relies Heavily on ISP Cooperation
This past week has seen two major service announcements in IP voice and video communication that challenge the telcos. Internet big boy Google rolled out voice and video chat integrated with its Gmail webmail service, and FreeRinger announced PC-to-phone calls in partnership with GTalk2VoIP and Talkster. Both services are free, ad supported and share no revenue with telcos like AT&T, Verizon or Comcast.
Google has brought bandwidth-hungry video chat into an environment in which many users already spend much of their time, and have made it available without a standalone application. Users may forgo the more time consuming and less personal text chat or email if they can quickly jump into a video chat from their email environment. To enable voice and video chat in Gmail, users must firstinstall a plugin. After that, the user simply hovers over a friend's name and invite them to video chat. This will prompt the recipient to download the voice and video plugin for herself. In tests, video chat required no port forwarding or other router trickery; it just worked. It has a pretty good frame rate, though the picture isn't as clear as iChat's. For email junkies who rarely bother to fire up MSN or iChat to video chat, this opens the door for more frequent, and casual video communication. For telcos, it's a Pandora's box of increased bandwidth consumption.
Following industry deregulation with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, telcos agreed to build out their networks to penetrate rural and underserved areas and upgrade bandwidth capacity, but compared to other countries, the US broadband infrastructure is antiquated and underpowered. In the ITIF broadband report, the US has dropped in rank each year since 2001. Telcos have dug this hole themselves, and use bandwidth scarcity as an excuse to justify filtering peer to peer traffic, throttling users' speeds during high traffic periods, and instituting bandwidth caps that limit the amount of data users can transfer each month. (Currently, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner have publicly announced bandwidth caps.)
FreeRinger's free PC-to-phone service presents a different threat to telcos. While compressed voice data doesn't utilize nearly as much bandwidth as video, VoIP services like those offered by FreeRinger directly challenge the mobile and home phone service supremacy of Verizon, AT&T and the like. Telcos have a business interest in degrading VoIP services to make their own services more appealing, and they have done so in the past. Earlier this year, Comcast announced it was working with Vonage to ensure quality of the VoIP service. This is, itself, a problem though: upstart technologies and competitors should not need to establish a significant presence in the market before they can get telcos to play nice. Network Neutrality laws would help competitors enter the market, and ensure users can build communities with new technologies, regardless of whether telcos profit from them. While Google is an Internet giant, it still relies entirely on reliable user access through ISPs, so it's no surprise they recently sponsored a conference in DC calling for broadband reform the includes network neutrality. In the Obama administration, it looks like net neutrality will be a priority, so nerds across the country may soon be able to breathe a sigh of relief, broadcast over Gmail video chat.
If you think your ISP is blocking certain ports, check on canyouseeme.org.
If you think your ISP is injecting data packets to disrupt your P2P or other services, follow thiscomprehensive guide from the EFF to run some tests from your machine.
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