Yesterday’s news may reflect a real shift in the internet weather. A Tier-1 backbone provider has backed down to a last mile provider and agreed to pay for traffic, albeit under protest. Not just any Tier-1 backbone, but Level 3 which regularly sits at or near the top of the Renesys rankings amongst others when it comes to total raw traffic and connectedness. Level 3 is somewhat different in that it also operates a CDN and is expected to power half or so of Netflix’s streaming offering, but even still there is a chill to the wind blowing today amongst the independent fiber backbones.
I say that because even without operating a CDN, the traffic on all major internet backbones has quickly become dominated by video. If Comcast gets its way, then every single provider will have to regularly ask itself ‘Am I delivering too much video over my network? Can I be de-peered or forced to pay more because of it by a provider that can’t be bypassed?’ After all, IP transit isn’t exactly a high margin business (haha). Since the bulk of all bandwidth on internet backbones in the mid term will almost certainly be video, it follows that so called traffic ratios at the point of interconnection with eyeball networks can only rise steadily, CDN or no CDN.
The Tier-1 club has always been an exclusive one, where members are those who do not buy transit to deliver their bits. Each peers with its fellows and sells transit and paid peering to whomever else it can. For young upstart carriers, to become Tier 1 was a major goal that really meant something. Those who made it had weight they could throw around at those who hadn’t. But if things have changed such that last mile can make them pay whenever traffic ratios shift too much, then the Tier-1 moniker will mean ‘those who do not buy transit and promise not to deliver too much video to last mile providers.’ A tad less impressive … subservient even.
Despite the stasis, there really are no rules to this game. Transit and peering relationships are a form of organized anarchy. As long as everyone benefits from peace, life is stable. But that may not be true any longer. Perhaps only internet backbones attached to last mile consumer networks can be Tier-1 in a video-centric internet. If so, they won’t need a toll booth, they’ll just peer with each other and raise transit/paid-peering pricing on content providers. Uh oh, that actually sounded like a plan…
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