Traffic Shaping: Are You Getting the Speed You Paid For?

Table of Contents

traffic ShapingTraffic shaping (a.k.a. packet shaping) refers to a bandwidth management technique that regulates network data transfer by boosting specified traffic flows and delaying the flow of less urgent/desired packets.

People pay internet service providers (ISPs) for an amount of speed they can get across the month. Internet speed is measured in bits per second (bps) or million bits per second (Mbps). It goes without saying that users should receive the speed they’re paying for. But is that actually the case? 

Key Questions to Consider

The Zero Theft Movement is committed to ridding the rigged layer of the U.S. economy. One by one, we need to pinpoint and democratically decide by vote which areas of the economy are rigged against the American public. In this article, we want to shed some light on traffic shaping to ultimately spark research and debate on whether this practice, if it is happening, should be considered as theft. 

  • Do ISPs use traffic shaping to give customers lower speeds than the customer believes they are paying for? 
  • Do ISPs target certain types of traffic more so than others? 
  • Are major U.S. telecom companies utilizing traffic shaping? 
  • Do YOU think traffic shaping should be viewed as theft? 

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What is Traffic Shaping?

DEFINITIONS

Traffic shaping (a.k.a. packet shaping) refers to a bandwidth management technique that regulates network data transfer by boosting specified traffic flows and delaying the flow of less urgent/desired packets.

A packet refers to a unit of data transferring from a sender to a receiver within the internet or packet-switched network. Everything flowing through a network is a part of a network packet.

Controlling the flow of packets into a network is called data transfer throttling, or bandwidth throttling. Regulation of the flow of packets out of a network is known as rate limiting.

ISP Throttling

If many ISPs are traffic shaping, that would mean most Americans (as internet users) have likely experienced some bandwidth throttling. 

Maybe after a long day at work or school, you wanted to unwind by watching a movie on Netflix. You settle into your couch, a big bowl of your favorite treats at the ready. The opening credits roll. The music swells. And the stream starts to buffer. Start, stop, start, stop. The only way to get consistent playback is to lower the resolution to 360p, in which the protagonist’s face is a pixelated mess. Slow internet ruins your plans, yet again. 

An ISP might want to employ traffic shaping in order to dissuade customers from frequenting a competitor’s site, for example. Alternatively, the provider might also try to reduce bandwidth expenditures (thus, boosting profits) by setting data caps.

How to Bypass Internet Censorship, an online manual, states, “If censors want to restrict access to certain services, they can easily identify packets related to these services and increase their latency by setting their priority low. This could give users the misleading impression that a site is inherently slow or unreliable, or it could simply make the disfavored site unpleasant to use relative to other sites. This technique is sometimes used against peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, such as BitTorrent, by ISPs that disfavor file sharing.”

Traffic Shaping in the U.S.? 

In 2011, Kevin J. O’Brien published an article ‘Putting the Brakes on Web-Surfing Speeds’ in the New York Times, exploring traffic shaping around the globe. O’Brien cites data collected through 121,247 tests by Glasnost, a software gauge developed to detect whether network providers are throttling your broadband service.

“In the United States, throttling was detected in 23 percent of tests on telecom and cable-television broadband networks, less than the global average of 32 percent. The U.S. operators with higher levels of detected throttling included Insight Communications, a cable-television operator in New York, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, where throttling was detected in 38 percent of tests; and Clearwire Communications, where throttling was detected in 35 percent of the tests…Throttling was detected in 18 percent of tests on Verizon’s landline network and in 30 percent of tests run on AT&T WorldNet Services, the company’s consumer broadband network. Throttling on AT&T’s business network, SBIS-AS AT&T Internet Service, was 18 percent.”

KEY QUESTION

  • Do ISPs use traffic shaping to give customers lower speeds than the customer believes they are paying for?

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Video Streaming Throttling

Dave Choffnes, assistant professor of computer and information science at Northeastern, led the development of Wehe, an app that tracks net neutrality violations. An article published in Northeastern’s official news source, News @ Northeastern, quoted Choffnes as saying: “Nearly every U.S. cell provider is doing throttling.”

The Northeastern article details how Choffnes collaborated with researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to conduct a global study involving more than half a million data traffic tests across 161 countries. 

Video streaming, they found, was given “a fixed amount of bandwidth—typically something in the range of one and a half megabits per second to four megabits per second…they don’t impose these limits on other network traffic…There’s no evidence that any of these policies are only happening during network overload. They’re throttling video traffic even when the network doesn’t need to. It happens 24/7, and in every region where we have tests.”

U.S.-specific findings

In 2019, the Wehe team released its data and conclusions on traffic shaping around the world. Below we have included a list consisting of direct quotes from Wehe’s executive summary on U.S. traffic shaping.

  • Nearly every US cellular ISP (CISP) throttles (i.e., sets a limit on available bandwidth)
    • No ISP…throttles all the video providers in [the[ tests, meaning some video providers may stream at higher resolution than others (potentially unfairly).
  • Throttling is not limited to content providers. [The researchers] found that Wehe tests for a video call using the telephone app Skype are throttled by Sprint and Boost.
    • This throttling was detected regularly over the course of the year, and spread geographically across the US. 
  • [The researchers] observed that T-Mobile has implemented what [the researches] call “delayed throttling” behavior that is targeted at specific video streaming apps. 
    • With “delayed throttling” T-Mobile removes throttling for the beginning of a video streaming session. After a fixed number of bytes have been transferred, T-Mobile throttles the connection. 
    • Different apps get different amounts of delayed throttling, and YouTube gets none.
    • [The researchers’] analysis indicates that such delayed throttling is detrimental to the video streaming session by causing network inefficiencies and confusing bitrate adaptation.

KEY QUESTIONS

  • Do ISPs target certain types of traffic more so than others? 
  • Are major U.S. telecom companies utilizing traffic shaping?

Alleged Comcast Throttling

Background

In 2007, The Federal Communications Commission (FEC), along with two technology nonprofits Free Press and Public Knowledge, filed complaints against Comcast’s internet service. According to the official court appeal, “Both filings argued that Comcast’s actions ‘violat[ed] the FCC’s Internet Policy Statement…’ Issued two years earlier, that statement ‘adopt[ed] the . . . principles’ that ‘consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice . . . [and] to run applications and use services of their choice.’”

Peter Svensson of the Associated Press reported: “Comcast Corp. actively interferes with attempts by some of its high-speed Internet subscribers to share files online, a move that runs counter to the tradition of treating all types of Net traffic equally…The interference…is the most drastic example yet of data discrimination by a U.S. Internet service provider. It involves company computers masquerading as those of its users.”

Resolution

While the FCC decided to sanction Comcast for its alleged actions, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit overruled it. Technology news outlet Ars Technica reported: “The question before the court was whether the FCC had the legal authority to ‘regulate an Internet service provider’s network management practice.’ According to a three-judge panel, ‘the Commission has failed to make that showing’ and the FCC’s order against Comcast is tossed.”

“As part of the proposed settlement, Comcast wants to pay up to $16 million (minus attorney’s fees) to class members who believe they were affected by the company’s practices,” claims an Ars Technica article published in 2009. 

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Recent Years

To its own admission in 2018, Comcast had a “congestion management system” in operation. The telecom provider states: “[the] congestion management system that was initially deployed in 2008 has been deactivated. As our network technologies and usage of the network continue to evolve, we reserve the right to implement a new congestion management system if necessary in the performance of reasonable network management and in order to maintain a good broadband Internet access service experience for our customers, and will provide updates here as well as other locations if a new system is implemented.”

According to a 2018 article on Ars Technica, “[T]he nation’s largest cable operator still imposes data caps and overage fees in 27 states, claiming that it limits the amount of data customers use each month ‘based on a principle of fairness.’”

KEY QUESTIONS

  • Are major U.S. telecom companies utilizing traffic shaping?
  • Do YOU think traffic shaping should be viewed as theft?

Ready for Part II?  

In part II, we will further our exploration into traffic shaping and internet speeds by checking out Google Fiber, a project with the goal of providing high-speed internet across the nation. 

Has it been a success? Have local governments or ISPs tried to obstruct its progress? Find out the story in part II. 

…Or Ready to Vote?

Believe you have a good sense of where you stand on traffic shaping as theft? Feel free to go ahead and voice your opinion by voting.

Your vote helps citizens figure out how much is getting ripped off and by whom. That gives us the power, based on strong evidence, to start holding those gaming the system accountable for profiting unethically. All of us must decide democratically, by a vote.

If you are still undecided, your fellow citizens have investigated the issue and presented their own cases for why they believe or don’t believe traffic shaping should be viewed as rigged economy theft.

Eradicate the Rigged Layer with the Zero Theft Movement 

The rigged layer of the U.S. economy rips all of us off, including YOU. Crony capitalists and officials who have succumbed to regulatory capture have created the 50 years of wage stagnation and violations of antitrust laws. 

The Zero Theft Movement seeks to end the corporatocracy and rid moneyed interests from politics. Our mission is, and will continue to be, on waking up 330 million American citizens to the truth. We can all profit from an ethical, powerful, and safe economy if we stand up against the crony capitalists.  

Will you refuse this call to action, or take action to eliminate the rigged layer of the economy? 

View how much is being stolen, according to the public

Investigate your areas of interest

All areas of our economy could be experiencing rigging by crony capitalists and corrupt officials. We need to systematically investigate each instance in order to find out if best evidence suggests it is truly rigged.

Alternatively, find an area that interests you most.

Commitment to nonpartisanship

The rigged layer causes all of us to suffer, regardless of our political allegiances. If we are to eliminate rigged economy theft, we have to set aside our differences and band together against crony capitalists and corrupt officials. 

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Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.