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Net Neutrality: Did Airtel Broadband throttle video startup Ogle?


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Last week, Harsh Sabale, the founder and CEO of Ogle, a recently-started video streaming company backed by Pritish Nandy Communications, wrote an email that he, in his own words “had hoped I wouldn’t have to write ever in the life of Ogle.” Ogle, which was only available for beta users and a few who signed up during short limited registration periods, is currently shut for “at least two weeks”, and is giving its users free merchandise, credit time twice the services downtime, and a refund if they want it, before the service comes back up.

Here’s how it came to this:

Earlier in December, Ogle found that of its  75 early adopter users, those 4 who were on Airtel* Broadband were facing issues with accessing content.

Ogle apparently rebooted their services, to “get around the ISPs blocking us“, “Added another cluster and some bad ass network virtualisers“, and told users that:

In the email sent a couple of weeks later (read it here), Sabale told customers that

Unfortunately, doing business in India as a startup in an industry controlled by “giants”, is bound to be fraught by unexpected twists and not-so-pleasant surprises which we have to respond to. And we will.

ogle-video

Later in the email, the company detailed what it was working on, and why:

  • A completely new network cluster spread across 3 cities providing multiple points of redundancy and, hopefully, making it much more difficult for ISPs to throttle our services. The Internet is yours and no one has the right to control how you should enjoy it. We strongly support net neutrality and will do whatever we can within our resources to keep fighting companies that look to benefit from coming in the way of your enjoyment of a uncontrolled Internet.
  • We’re tying up with one of India’s largest telcos and ISPs to provide an Ogle optimised network which will guarantee absolutely no throttling, maximum streaming efficiency and dedicated Ogle flat data plans on wired (in-house) and mobile broadband.
  • In the first of its kind deal in India, we are entering into a tie up to launch dedicated Ogle public hotspots at a leading coffee shop chain and other public spaces across India (starting with the metros and major cities) to allow you to watch Ogle unlimited without ANY data charges (yes, you read that right!). For those that aren’t Ogle subscribers, there will be special 24 hour Ogle packages that can be purchased at these hot spots as well.
  • We’ve closed several reseller franchises with a number of last mile ISP operators across India who will also optimise access to Ogle as well as provide flat Ogle data plans at some extremely reasonable prices — needless to point out, this further reduces the potential to throttle our services if you’re on one of these reseller networks. Our reseller network will continue to grow across India so I’m quite sure that within a few months, we will have tied up with a reseller(s) close to you to give you the option to use the Ogle optimised network.

Why is this important?

That note about tying up with ISPs is particularly noteworthy, given that just earlier this year, Comcast had allegedly throttled speeds for Netflix customers in the US, a clear violation of Net Neutrality, thereby forcing NetFlix to partner with Comcast.

Airtel is the second largest wireline ISP in India, with 1.4 million broadband (512 kbps or faster) connections, behind BSNL (9.97 million), and ahead of MTNL (1.13 million).

Update:

Airtel says it wasn’t throttling

Since these users were on Airtel Broadband, we asked Airtel, a company which recently caused an uproar when it violated Net Neutrality, four questions:
1. Was Airtel Broadband throttling Ogle?
2. (If Yes) How does Airtel throttle video services specifically?
3. (If Yes) How does Airtel decide which services to throttle? Beyond what bandwidth considerations does Airtel decide to throttle services?

Apart from that, we also asked Airtel if it had inked any partnership with Ogle, and asked them to elaborate on the nature of that partnership, if it did indeed exist. Airtel’s response:

“Airtel does not throttle bandwidth towards any websites. In this particular case, we are given to understand that 4 amongst 74 users of Ogle are reportedly experiencing service related issues while accessing the website. We are awaiting details of these 4 users from Ogle to investigate this unusual problem.”

An Airtel representative also told us that they haven’t partnered with Ogle.

Ogle’s statement to MediaNama

A few of our users wrote us and tweeted that they were unable to reach the web login page of Ogle a few weeks after using our service. The users were from different parts of India so we first assumed it was an issue with our CDN. We moved these specific users to new servers (although on the same IP cluster at the data centre) and the problems continued. What was unique was that from all our users, only these few users seemed to consistently face an issue. On further investigation we discovered that all these users (across India) were on the same ISP which is Airtel. We then contacted Airtel who informed us that they do not have the ability to throttle a specific site or service or to differentiate between ‎various data packets on their Internet services. While I cannot comment on whether Ogle was only facing an issue on the Airtel network, the only complaints we received were from users who were on Airtel.

Like VoIP, media streaming services also use the UDP port for ensuring quality delivery. Consequently, it’s quite simple for an ISP to throttle the UDP port which would then create issues for VoIP and media streaming services but web browsing and email which use the TCP port‎ would work absolutely fine. We could use the TCP port to stream and avoid the throttling but the quality of services would drop. You can read more about TCP vs UDP here:

http://www.cyberciti.biz/faq/key-differences-between-tcp-and-udp-protocols/

‎As of now we can’t name the ISP we have tied up with but we will be able to do so by mid Jan when we will be doing a joint press release.

MediaNama’s Take:

1. Even if Airtel did not throttle Ogle, that doesn’t mean it can’t: Airtel’s statement to Ogle, that it doesn’t have the ability to throttle a specific site or a service, is disingenuous. If they have the ability to carve out services from Internet traffic, as is evident from the fact that they created a separate pack for VoIP, then they have the ability to throttle it as well. Ogle indicates that VoIP and media streaming services use the UDP port, so it is possible for Airtel to throttle video traffic. Imagine the implications for, say, NDTV.com which streams its own videos on its website.

2. It’s not about just 4 users: While Airtel has emphasized (twice) that only 4 users were impacted, it is worth noting that those were all the Airtel Broadband users that Ogle had. If there had been more, it wouldn’t have surprised us if those were throttled too.

3. Impact on startups: Ogle is just a few months old, and still setting up its service for a larger base of users. Imagine if all ISPs started throttling its service: it would have to go from ISP to ISP to get its service enabled. I’m reminded of  a Mobile VAS situation, where each company had to go from telecom operator to telecom operator to get its short code enabled.

Throttling violates rule 2 of the three rules of Net Neutrality:

Rule 1: All sites must be equally accessible: ISPs and telecom operators shouldn’t block certain sites or apps just because they don’t pay them. No gateways should be created, in order to give preferential discovery to one site over another.

Rule 2: All sites must be accessible at the same speed (at an ISP/telco level): This means no speeding up of certain sites because of business deals. More importantly, it means no slowing down (throttling) of some sites.

Rule 3: The cost of access must be the same for all sites (per Kb/Mb or as per data plan): This means no “Zero Rating”. In countries like India, Net Neutrality is more about cost of access than speed of access: all lanes are slow.

Disclosure: Airtel owned Wynk Music is an advertiser with MediaNama

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  • TCP and UDP aren’t ports, they are distinct protocols on top of IP (along with the lesser known IGMP for “ping” requests and a few others).

    That technicality aside, even the most basic router is perfectly capable of manipulating traffic per protocol, port, source or destination, so Airtel claiming it can’t do that is a poorly informed spokesperson at best and an outright lie at worst.

    • Harsh Sabale

      Indeed. However, the protocols do operate off specific ports. In any case, I really don’t think Airtel’s person was lying. I think the people we met were giving us the stock answer, possibly. It’s really tough to imagine that they would knowingly lie about something like this.

  • Tanmoy

    I am one of the six users that Ogle has identified as suffering from this mysterious problem. Being a journalist myself, I thought I should check with Airtel first before indulging in breast-beating. But this article has convinced me that there are enough loopholes that can help game the system for me to write to TRAI, as Nikhil suggested on Twitter a moment ago. My ID is goswami.t@gmail.com, and I would be grateful if someone could please guide me to the right person to address this to. Thanks.

  • Srikeit

    This is investigative journalism at its very finest. Bravo Nikhil!

  • Chintak

    Wonderful Nikhil !!