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July 11, 2006

Skype and WildBlue – A Case for Citizen (Network) Journalists

Suddenly I can log on to Skype and even connect calls over WildBlue’s satellite-delivered Internet access service; Skype chat works fine.  However, the quality on both Skype-Skype and SkypeOut calls is unusable – much worse than would be expected just because of the long time it takes packets to get to a geostationary satellite and back (minimum of .45 seconds).

The sudden failure of Skype over WildBlue on May 15 and the recent sudden recovery may be a good case for citizen journalists.  It MIGHT have implications for the Net Neutrality debate.

Users on the WildBlue Uncensored! Forum  report that, starting two weeks ago, they regained the ability to connect to Skype and complete calls.  Some of them also report usable call quality. As I posted previously, users say they had generally acceptable VoIP and Skype performance over WildBlue prior to May 15.  I wasn’t using WB then so have no firsthand knowledge.

Why did Skype suddenly stop working over WB?  Why did it suddenly start again?  Did WB block or deprioritize Skype or VoIP packets?  Or did a Skype update loose the ability to deal with the extreme latency (delay) expected when a satellite is used?  Conspiracy theorists point to the coincidence between the early May announcement of a deal between WB and at&t, Skype’s announcement of free calls to ordinary phones within the US and Canada, and the sudden inability of WB users to access Skype.  WB denies blocking any packets of any kind and points to a disclaimer in its sales literature which says it does not support VoIP when declining to investigate this problem.

My VoIP experience leads me to believe that the current poor call quality I have is a result of Skype jitter buffer management not coping with long and highly variable latency.  I don’t have the right tools to know whether VoIP packets are getting worse treatment than other packets which would exacerbate the problem.

Bloggers Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis both write convincingly about the reality and potential of citizen journalism now that the Internet has us all so well-connected to each other and to other sources of information.  Jeff prefers the term “networked journalism.” There is now both a need and an opportunity for citizen journalists to do some network sleuthing.

The broad and important question is: are there actual violations of Net Neutrality happening today?  Are ISPs favoring services they offer by disadvantaging competitors on the ISPs’ network?  If violations were to occur, how would they be detected and verified?  Even those of us who believe that marketplace should regulate Net Neutrality (which requires more than a duopoly offering broadband access) know that a market can only operate efficiently when accurate and timely information is available.

We citizens at the end of our Internet connections are well placed to gather the data needed; but we don’t yet have the right tools to do so. I’m no longer technically competent to write these tools but I’m sure a lot of you are. It is also possible that both ISPs and vendors of services which might be blocked will make tools available.

It’s a good guess that, if any service is blocked, it will be VoIP because the cablecos and telcos who control so many of our pipes have their own VoIP services to offer, because VoIP threatens the legacy revenue of the telcos, and because VoIP is much more quality sensitive than email or even web browsing. So tools for detecting VoIP blocking or deprioritization would be very useful. SIP is a VoIP standard to which tools could be written with huge applicability – although SIP tools probably would not help determine what’s going on with WildBlue and Skype since Skype communication protocols are proprietary.

Once tools have been offered by helpful citizens and/or vendors, we need more volunteers to test and validate the tools.  Finally, we need people to run the tools whenever they suspect that blocking may be occurring.  Most of the time the tools will probably be useful just for troubleshooting a problem that is not blocking. If blocking is never a problem, that will be great. Perhaps the existence of detection tools will help assure against unfair treatment of packets by ISPs.

But, if there violations of Net Neutrality, then it ought to be possible to develop clear and unassailable evidence.  There is no law mandating Net Neutrality today;  However, evidence of packet discrimination by members of the duopoly might well be grounds for action under existing antitrust law (see previous post on antitrust).

If you know of available tools or would like to volunteer a tool or make some other suggestion, feel free to post a comment to this post.  I’m using the tag “Blocknot” to describe this effort and have set up a Technorati watchlist and RSS feed on Blocknot and a del.icio.us tag and corresponding RSS feed. If you blog about this subject, it’ll help pull the effort together if you use this tag.  If you’re just lurking, check these lists for possible action.

Let’s see what we citizen journalists can do.

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