Hard News by Russell Brown


It would seem counterintuitive - absurd, actually - that the Internet in New Zealand could become more expensive and less efficient, but that's an entirely likely outcome of the way its two biggest players, Telecom and TelstraClear, seemed poised to take it.

Juha Saarinen broke the story last week in the Herald:

Internet backbone providers TelstraClear and Telecom are changing their policies around "internet peering", spelling profound changes for the internet industry.

Peering is internet jargon for the exchange of similar amounts and types of data between networks, usually free.

For New Zealand internet providers, peering allows traffic to be kept within faster and cheaper national networks instead of leaving the country and returning via slow and expensive international links.

But TelstraClear wrote to internet providers last week telling them that from November it will stop exchanging traffic with other providers nationally without cost.

Instead, a "commercial agreement for national transit" must be negotiated to access TelstraClear's networks, the company says.

Paul Brislen followed it up in Computerworld:

ISPs are up in arms over TelstraClear's decision to cease "peering" with other ISPs at the country's two peering exchanges, based in Auckland and Wellington. Typically in New Zealand ISPs and network operators swap traffic from one network to the other without charging an interconnection fee, however TelstraClear says it's now time to begin charging.

"There are several different charging models left over from the Clear and TelstraSaturn days and it's just taken us this long to sort them out," says a TelstraClear spokesman.

Saarinen picked up the thread with a column yesterday in which he said that both Telecom and TelstraClear were using peering, "a cheap and effective way to boost the performance of the Internet" by using well-connected Internet exchanges, as a "business weapon".

Puzzled? You're not the only one. It goes like this: for years, most Internet providers with a national presence have been exchanging traffic via the country's two Internet exchanges, the Wellington Internet Exchange (WIX), established in 1997, and the Auckland Peering Exchange (APE) installed in the Sky Tower in 1999. Both are owned by Wellington's CityLink and operated, CityLink co-founder Neil de Wit told me yesterday, "for the NZ Internet environment."

The system has worked well - as it has in other parts of the world. The Indian government recently announced that it was seeking to improve the function of its national Internet services by establishing four such Internet exchanges.

But peering is, at least nominally, about a roughly equal exchange of traffic, and the two big players feel that it is weighted against their interests. Content providers in particular - people with websites, that is - are freeloading by connecting to the exchanges and then having Telecom and TelstraClear do the job of taking the data to users. Those users being, of course, customers of the two companies who have requested the data.

Telecom blocked about 90% of the traffic passing through its Wellington router from the WIX last week because of a problem that was essentially of its own making. The router was apparently mistakenly advertising (making available as a path to all comers) a route to Auckland via Telecom's own network. Various service and content providers (notably TradeMe and the Telstra Clear-owned ISP Paradise) had discovered the route and were directing their own traffic through it where, in at least some cases, they ought to have been paying for their own circuits to connect with Auckland. So why did Telecom not simply reconfigure its router instead of almost wholly withdrawing?

I spoke to Chris Thompson at Xtra, who put it to me that, as such "gaming" of the peering process indicated, it wasn't the same old Internet any more. And that while Telecom was philosophically supportive of peering, it was time for it to be done through specific bilateral contracts covering costs and traffic levels, and not simply connecting to the exchanges and getting on with it. Although Telstra Clear has, as he notes, a more "overtly commercial" approach (translation: it doesn't really have a plan and is desperate for revenue, and will cease peering altogether in November), there's not much between them on the belief that other providers should pay to deliver traffic into their networks. Can you say "duopoly"?

The country's big geeks disagree, strongly. They say there is no engineering justification for TelstraClear's decision, and that Telecom's problems could easily be fixed technically. And given their long commitment to a well-engineered Internet in New Zealand - it's no exaggeration to say that some of them actually built it - I'm inclined to go with them. The implications of this look horrible: hosting companies will need separate circuits and separate business arrangements with the two giants, raising the risk of the absurd situation where you can't see a certain website because you're with a different ISP from me. At the least, it will raise costs and divert money from everyone else to Telecom and TelstraClear, and encourage hosting companies (as ours has) to relocate servers to the US, where bandwidth is very cheap. In engineering terms, the Internet will function less well.

It is complex, but you might divine some more from a backgrounder by Simon Blake, and various discussions on the New Zealand Network Operators Group list.

Internet NZ has promised some quotes today, and the spectre of regulation has already arisen. De Wit says: "I still hope pressure will drive sense into TCL & Telecom. Do they actually want regulation? Does central government want the voice interconnect issues replayed over several years? I hope not. I suggest content producers still have some control if they get their act together to lobby strongly."

Last night's All Black trial at Eden Park was thoroughly absorbing; a game in which the alleged second-stringers very nearly upset the shadow test side. There were no sterner questions asked than in the front row, where our number one tighthead prop Greg Somerville was put through the wringer for an hour by Kees Meeuws, and his propping partner Deacon Manu could make no impression on Carl Hayman. The dominance of the Possibles scrum was underlined when Xavier Rush scored that rare thing in modern rugby, a bona-fide pushover try.

Both Rush and the Possibles captain Jono Gibbes went a long way towards securing themselves a test match run-on, and the shadow test No.8 Mose Tuiali'I seemed to show that he wasn't quite ready for prime-time. First five was interesting: Spencer went well enough behind a pack that struggled for parity (and a halfback having a bad hair day with his passing), Nick Evans moved forward effortlessly for the Possibles after Mauger was injured and then, with 15 minutes to play, Andrew Merhtens took the field to the delight of the big crowd and surely made everyone wonder what the hell has Robbie Deans been thinking?

The trial has had its impact: the 26-man squad announced by Henry this morning includes Merhts and Evans (giving us four players who can play first-five!) and not Manu, Thorn or Thorne. Sam Tuitupou was rewarded for a very strong match, but given his lack of utility value, it's hard to see him included in the playing squad against England. I'll look forward to seeing what front row takes the field on the 12th.

There are two riveting pieces of autobiographical journalism on the wires today. One is by Alex Polier, the young woman falsely claimed during the Democratic primaries to have had an "affair" with John Kerry. Her story for New York magazine about the Drudge rumour that changed her life - part shocked memoir, part investigation - is one of fixers, leakers and desperate journalists.

The other story is one not best read before going into a meeting today, because it will prey on your mind. In the Anchorage Press David Holthouse writes the testament of his life: how he was raped by a family friend at the age of seven, how he carried that with him and, as an adult, made detailed plans to kill his rapist and how, having confronted the man, he didn't. Since the publication of the story he has been arrested on stalking charges.

Right. Radio show to get ready for. And can I say that as I listen to Linda Clark talk to retired Maori Land Court judge Ken Hingston, I am very glad that he is, in fact, retired …