Virgin Media has today strongly denied a charge it is running secret tests with a view to introducing new bandwidth throttling hardware to target peer to peer and Usenet downloaders.
The claim was made on Friday at Cableforum, a message board often frequented by staff and former staff of Virgin Media, or its forerunners NTL and Telewest. User "TraxData" wrote: "[Application throttling] is, as far as one is aware going to be used for both in and out of peak hours for whoever they see "fit" as a heavy user... [It] is to be deployed across the VM network fully sometime either third quarter 2008 or first quarter 2009."
He alleged deep packet inspection equipment (DPI) provided by the Israeli firm Allot is currently being used in part of the Virgin Media network to restrict Usenet downloads to 512Kbit/s.
Contacted by The Reg today, a Virgin Media spokesman described the claims as "absolute rubbish". He sent us this statement:
Our policy does not discriminate internet traffic by application and we have no plans to do so. Whilst we do use equipment from Allot within parts of our cable network, this is used to build usage metrics and does not affect customers' service in any way. It is certainly not used to do any form of packet shaping or change internet traffic priorities.
In a telephone conversation, the spokesman said the Allot equipment is installed in a part of the national cable network formerly owned by NTL.
Many ISPs use DPI hardware from companies such as Allot to prioritise or restrict HTTP, peer to peer, Usenet and other traffic. BT has deployed Ellacoya boxes in its retail broadband network. The gear's ability to peer inside data packets has also attracted attention from marketeers and fostered the embryonic ISP-level adware business being contoversially pushed by Phorm and NebuAd.
Deep packet inspection technology is particularly popular with operators who compete mostly on price, such as Tiscali. It allows them to keep a lid on their upstream bandwidth overheads, especially at peak times in the evening. Many broadband subscribers argue the opaque way ISPs use the technology to apply "fair usage policy" restrictions to internet usage is unfair.
Any move to install DPI could prove particularly problematic for Virgin Media, as it markets its broadband service as a fast, premium alternative to ADSL rivals. It instead uses the more simple tactic of throttling bandwith to its heaviest users across all protocols at set times when the cable network is likeliest to be overloaded.
Virgin Media describes this policy as "open and transparent" and publishes the details of when and how tightly bandwidth is throttled. It says this maintains decent speeds for the vast majority at busy times.
The firm's CEO Neil Berkett was widely quoted in April describing the net neutrality debate as "bollocks" and arguing that networks will have to be reconfigured to cope with increasing bandwidth demands. ®