The Importance of Transparent Internet Access

Those of you following the UK tech press, or are affected Virgin Media customers, will be aware of an issue that had been affecting some VM users’ access to the Internet.

There was no apparent rhyme or reason to the websites which failed, and in some cases, the site itself may have been working, but made very slow because other collateral hosted on third-party sites (e.g. performance measurement and marketing tools) were unreachable, or very slow.

One of the most memorable articles is the one which contained the comment “The people in the call centre are extremely dumb and it’s like talking to a tree.” (ISP Review).

Much speculation has been directed at some new or changed traffic management, traffic shaping, filtering, or deep-packet inspection (DPI) going awry inside Virgin Media’s network. It’s well known that Virgin Media apply traffic management in their network, such as “clamping” the bandwidth available to super-heavy users who use more than what VM consider a fair share of the bandwidth.

The concern many (especially the various public rights’ groups) have is that the desire some authorities have to increase the amount of monitoring, blocking access to “undesirable sites”, and logging and retaining things such as email conversations, will only serve to increase the amount of unusual, irregular, and hard to trace, service problems such as these.

One thing to bear in mind is that the technology being used in DPI is still an evolving science. This means it has warts and all. I’ve seen DPI devices mangle packets in transit – including packets which shouldn’t have been touched by the DPI, but allowed to pass unhindered – so badly that they were undeliverable to their intended destination.

It seems likely that this is what’s happened here, so it’s not a load of arm-waving about a hollow concern that’s being raised by those who don’t believe in DPI. There’s a real threat here – of unreliability and incorrectly filtered traffic – to legitimate Internet use.

Which brings me on to every cloud having a silver lining, as they say.

In this case, privately owned North West-based provider Zen Internet decided it was time to highlight the Zen approach to Traffic Management – No Throttling, No Squeezing – issuing a news release explaining how they operate a transparent network, with no DPI, and an open, fair and easy to understand pricing policy for internet access, with no complex rules or hidden gotchas.

Good for them.

Disclosure: I am a (happy) Zen Internet customer, they keep my folks’ home online, and do a very good job of it. It just works. I’m also potentially moving to an area where it seems the only high-speed broadband available might be Virgin Media. I spent about half-an-hour trying to work out how their obtuse and opaque pricing structure worked and which was the right “bundle” for me before giving up and hitting the bottle. I’d rather know that what I’m paying for is reliable and unfettered, if slower.