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June 09, 2006

WildBlue and Skype – Network Neutrality Issue?

It does appear that Skype can be made to work through WildBlue.  It is also possible that WB or Skype changed something on or about May 15 which made this work much worse than it used to in the US.

Last weekend I installed WildBlue satellite broadband at a summer cottage where neither DSL or cable is available.  As I posted previously, quickly tried Skype to see whether I could make VoIP calls. The test failed.  Could logon to Skype but not connect to anybody or anything.

This being the blogosphere, there was an almost immediate comment on my post suggesting that I look at WildBlue Uncensored! forum for user-to-user help.  When I looked there (did a search on Skype), I found what appeared to be a disturbing pattern: users reported uniformly good experience with Skype allowing for the latency you’d expect with a satellite connection UNTIL May 15.  Then they all started getting the same error message I got when they tried to connect to anyone.

Incidentally, gamers reported similar symptoms starting at the same time when they tried to connect to online games.  And, to add to the mystery, users in Canada reported continued ability to use Skype through WildBlue even though users in the US couldn’t.  There are separate beams from the satellite which service different geographies so it is possible for service to differ from location to location.  In fact, one forum member reported that a satellite tech told him that packets are prioritized differently on the Canadian beams with the result that VoIP packets are likely to experience more delay in the US than up North.

The prevailing theory on the WildBlue forum was that WildBlue started blocking VoIP packets or at least communication with Skype on or about May 15. This date is significant because it is about a week after AT&T announced a deal to resell WildBlue service. Moreover, it was on May15 that Skype announced it was making SkypeOut calls within the US and Canada free meaning that Skype users in these two countries can call any number, landline or cell or VoIP, within those same two countries for nada.

Calls to WildBlue tech support go on a long hold queue (I’ve never gotten to the end) so I started a text chat with a WildBlue CSR (less than a minute wait for that).  CSR Richard told me emphatically that WB doesn’t block any packets.  He checked with his colleagues and his Network Operation Center and said they were not aware of any problems. (Note: people on the forum say that they HAVE contacted WB support on these issues.) I asked him how we can test and he told me that that he couldn’t work on a VoIP problem.  It is true that the official WildBlue site says that VoIP is not supported so hard to fault Richard for this.

Emailed WildBlue corporate two days ago asking about packet blocking and the problem but have not heard back yet.

Emailed Skype tech support (they don’t have phone or chat support).  Got back an email saying I may never hear back from them on a technical problem.  So far, they’re right.

So I went on the Skype forum and did a search for WildBlue.  Same suspicions about blocking EXCEPT Ely who reported being able to use old Skype version (available from http://www.oldapps.com/skype) with WildBlue.  I Skyped him (I’m not on WB at the minute so Skype does work for me).  Reached him through his WB connection so it is clearly working.  There is latency as expected and quality is awful at the beginning of a call but rapidly stabilizes to usable.

Ely is technically proficient and told me that he was able to see the packets going back and forth to establish a call.  Use of a geostationary satellite means that a packet and its response will take at least half a second – two roundtrips at the speed of light to a satellite which is 22,000 miles away.  It looked to him like most versions of Skype lost patience with the slow response and just reported an error.  But the version he is using is more patient.

I won’t be able to test with this version until tomorrow when I’m back to my satellite dish.  However, this DOES convince me that WB is NOT blocking Skype or VoIP packets.  It also leaves me with the suspicion that priority for these packets was lowered on or about the significant date of May 15 for US users.  I’d welcome a comment on this one way or another from WB management.

To be fair, it is also possible that Skype changed something on or about May 15 or even that Microsoft changed something via a security update (would be interesting to hear from Mac users of Skype and WildBlue).  However, the anecdotal evidence that Skype/WB works fine in Canada seems to suggest a difference in WB service as does the reports of problems by gamers starting on the same date.

BTW, it seems to me that it would be in Skype and eBay’s interest to pursue reports of possible blocking AND to provide users with tools that analyze the cause of failures.  Blocking may become a huge issue.  Deprioritization of certain packets which implement competition to services offered by an ISP is EXACTLY what proponents of net neutrality legislation are worried about.

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