Internet Traffic Shaping

Is your internet provider manipulating the speed of your internet connection?

Light Trails coming from screenThere’s a lot of data traffic passing through the internet and the amount is increasing all the time – especially now that we expect to be able to download or stream entire films and TV programs, and a household of four people could easily be connecting four devices to the internet at the same time. It costs money for internet providers to install the infrastructure to handle all this increasing traffic, so it makes sense (from their point of view) to have some kind of control over the demands that you – their customer – put on that infrastructure.

This control comes in the form of them manipulating the different sorts of demands that you put on their system. For example, are you just trying to send a 100kb email or to stream a 1gb video? This manipulation is known as “traffic management” or “traffic shaping”. The traffic shaping that ISPs are allowed to apply to your internet connection is covered by their policy and should be available to you before you sign up to that provider. Although they are not legally obliged (as far as I can tell) to explain their policy, I wouldn’t sign up to any internet provider that wasn’t open and honest about this (who wants to buy a pig in a poke?) Ofcom have a Code of Practice for internet providers and being open and honest about their fair usage policy and how they shape traffic is required by this code.

Examples of traffic shaping policies could include:

  • Shaping some types of traffic at certain (busy) times of the day – eg slowing your downloading of the latest episode of Downton Abbey if you try to do it at 6pm
  • Shaping your traffic if you have already used this month’s allowance of what they state in their “fair usage” policy – eg slowing everything down for the rest of the month if you’ve already downloaded, say, 100gb of data in the current month.
  • Not allowing you to use the internet at all for the rest of the month unless you pay for some more “data allowance”.

Tangled Ethernet CablesThere are tools available on the internet that allow you to check whether your current traffic is being shaped. Unfortunately, both of the ones that I tried a short while ago depend on having Java installed and activated, and I’ve just discovered that both Firefox and Internet Explorer now consider Java to be so dangerous that they de-activate it. You are supposed to be able to over-ride this de-activation but I think it must be too early in the morning for me because I couldn’t make it happen.

Certainly, there are simple speed tests you can run – such as Speedtest and Broadband Speed Checker – that give you an idea of your internet connection speed, but these don’t attempt to test for traffic shaping and the results would be affected by extraneous factors (such as the distance between your property and the telephone exchange, the quality of the telephone line and the telephone wiring in your property).

The main point that I am making in this blog is that if your download speeds are irritatingly slow – especially when downloading large files – then checking your usage against the stated policy of your internet provider should be included in your list of things to investigate.

Shouting At Laptop
Shouting at it probably won’t help
By the way, I mentioned “downloading” and “streaming” at the beginning of this post. What’s the difference?

Downloading” is when you copy a file from the internet to your own computer, but you are not attempting to open (or use) that file until the copying has been completed. When you do open it, you will be opening the downloaded version. As long as your computer is working reasonably well then even a huge movie file should play at its proper speed and with no interruptions.

Streaming“, on the other hand, is when you are simultaneously downloading the file and using it. If you have a fast internet connection then the downloading is happening faster than you are “consuming” (eg watching) the content that is being downloaded. That’s fine and dandy, but if the downloading is not happening fast enough then your watching is interrupted while the downloading catches up. This is the phenomenon known as “buffering“. What that means is that the downloading process needs to “feed” some data into a “buffer” (an area of memory) before you can continue watching. As we all know, buffering can be very annoying and it can happen because your downloading speed is being “shaped” (ie slowed down) by your internet provider.