I love listening to podcasts, yet I’m increasingly disappointed with popular tech news podcasts like CNET’s Buzz Out Loud, which despite being staffed by tech journalists, consistently fail to grasp the basic economics of the Net. The latest case of this arose on Episode 1360 of “BOL,” which took on the recent dispute between Comcast and Level3 over their peering agreement.
To provide some background, Comcast and Level3 have had a standard peering agreement for years, meaning the balance of incoming and outgoing traffic on either side is so similar that the two have simply agreed to exchange data without exchanging any dollars.
In the past, Comcast and Level3 had a different arrangement. Comcast paid Level3 for access to their network in a “transit” agreement. This sort of agreement made sense at the time because Comcast was sending a lot more traffic over Level3’s network than it was taking in from Level3, hence it was a net consumer of bandwidth and was therefore treated by Level3 as a customer, rather than a peer.
Now, the tables have turned thanks to Level3 taking on the huge tasks of delivering Netflix streaming video, which takes an impressive amount of bandwidth—up to 20% of US peak traffic, according to CNET. So, logic and economics compel Comcast to start charging Level3, as Level3 is now the net consumer.
None of this background was understand by the folks at Buzz Out Loud, which probably explains why the hosts acted as though this peering dispute was a sign of the coming Internet apocalypse, decrying the action on the podcast and summarizing their feelings on the action in the episode’s show notes by stating:
We break down the Level 3 and Comcast battle–no matter how you slice it, it’s still very, very, VERY bad for the Web.
No, it’s really, really, REALLY not.In fact, Comcast has actually been rather nice to Level3, according to Nate Anderson at Arstechnica:
Comcast “was able to scramble and provide Level 3 with six ports (at no charge) that were, by chance, available and not budgeted and forecasted for Comcast’s wholesale commercial customers.”
Anderson goes on to explain that Comcast then had to consider how this affected their agreement with Level3:
After providing these six additional ports, Comcast concluded that the existing settlement-free peering agreement with Level 3 was still (barely) valid, but if Level 3 really wanted another 21 to 24 ports, this was simply too much traffic. Level 3 would have to pay for those ports like any commercial paid peering customer.
To sum up, the two companies used to be exchanging bits at a roughly one-to-one ratio, that ratio has changed, so therefore one is charging the other for delivering some bits. Simple, right?
Yet somehow Buzz Out Loud has managed to turn this mundane non-news into a Chicken Little story and they even went so far as to suggest that Comcast may be scheming shut off Netflix traffic entirely in order to favor their own content, especially now that they’re in the process of merging with NBC. To say that this is a baseless theory is an understatement.
Buzz Out Loud often ducks criticism by noting that they’re just a podcast, that they’re reporting on “buzz” not hard facts, and that they’re really supposed to be entertaining. Fine, but if BOL is really supposed to be the Daily Show of tech podcasts, then they shouldn’t make grand pronouncements on what’s good or bad for the web, especially when the basic facts of a given situation aren’t understood.
But I’m sure this isn’t the last net neutrality doomsday scenario that Buzz Out Loud will concoct out of something humdrum. This sort of thing makes me wonder how much of the current debate on neutrality is grounded in a solid understanding of the underlying principles of the Net and how much is based on this sort of misinformed, ignorant, lazy “journalism.”