It’s easy to assume that the Internet is unbreakable: that it’s a collection of overlapping networks so resilient that universal connectivity is simply a given. It’s not—as a battle between two large carriers of Internet traffic could soon remind everyone.
The feud began soon after Netflix hired a company called Level 3 to deliver its TV shows and movies over the Internet. Level 3 runs the biggest and most interconnected of the 36,135 autonomous networks that collectively make up the global Internet, but even Level 3 can’t deliver shows directly to couch potatoes who want to watch The Tudors on a Wednesday night. For that, it needs to hand off Netflix’s digital bit streams to Internet service providers such as Comcast. And that’s where the problems start.
By one estimate, Netflix now accounts for over 20 percent of U.S. Internet traffic into homes during prime time. Other network experts doubt that number, but everyone agrees that video downloads are a huge and growing source of Internet traffic. Seeing the surge in video traffic, Comcast told Level 3 in November that it deserved to be paid for delivering the shows to viewers who get their Internet access from Comcast. Although Comcast didn’t explicitly threaten to cut its subscribers off from Netflix unless it got paid, it technically could do that as a negotiating tactic.
“It’s a new world emerging,” says Andrew Odlyzko, a University of Minnesota math professor and expert on the inner workings of the Internet. “Comcast is beginning to swing its weight around.”
Level 3 argues that it shouldn’t have to pay Comcast, because the only reason it puts the traffic on Comcast’s network in the first place is that Comcast’s customers ask for it.
While this is an unusually public fight, spats like it are as old as the Internet. Normally, the private networks that make up the Internet strike confidential deals to trade traffic. Those deals determine the routes that information travels as it moves through the Internet. If AT&T and Sprint, for example, strike a peering deal, then traffic can flow between their two networks directly and quickly. Otherwise, AT&T might hand a Web page off to Verizon, which would then deliver it to Sprint. Money often changes hands, too, with smaller and weaker networks paying, and the bigger networks generally collecting money to grease the flow of data.
The history of fights between big networks indicates that one of two things will soon happen in the Comcast-Level 3 fight. Either the two companies will privately settle their differences, or they will start an all-out war that balkanizes the Internet—what is known in the trade as “depeering.”