This is the second in a series of articles by Karl Wale on the topic of deep packet inspection. See also Part I of the series: “3G and LTE Need DPI.”
Deep Packet Inspection, or DPI, is a relatively new addition to the general telecom vocabulary. It promises to deliver better subscriber management, improved network efficiency, additional revenue and better security for operators. But to understand whether DPI is a “friend” or “foe” for consumers, we need to look closer at the issues surrounding each of the benefits, and in particular some of the more controversial areas such as policy enforcement and subscriber profiling for targeted advertising.
In recent years we have seen a dramatic increase in access speeds especially as we get to 4G mobile broadband and have more fiber deployed. The introduction of new applications – and the behavior of a minority of users – has started to consume disproportionate amounts of the (shared) bandwidth available, potentially spoiling everyone’s quality of service. Initially compressed music files, then short video snippets, and now full length films (including high definition versions) have caused demand for bandwidth to snowball out of control.
Following the train of thought regarding bandwidth management a little further, one might ask, “Why not just block peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic altogether, which is one of the main bandwidth-hogging culprits anyway?” Well, this topic takes us into the realm of net neutrality, where the argument is essentially, “If you block P2P today, what will get blocked next?”
The blocking (or throttling) of a specific P2P protocol is what originally sparked the net neutrality debate around DPI and started to taint its reputation with regulators, politicians and consumers. Today the concept of totally blocking a specific P2P application is no longer considered acceptable – firstly because of the FCC ruling on Comcast, but mostly because it won’t be effective.
The second aspect of net neutrality is a concern about anti-competitive behavior. An example might be a network operator favoring its own specific VoIP service over a more “universal” service from a competitor. DPI certainly has the capability to identify and prioritize one service or application over another, and I think there is indeed a legitimate concern regarding the application of DPI if it restricts consumer choice – which is rarely a good thing. What’s more, this “choice-limiting” approach is likely to be investigated by regulators and therefore in this scenario some consumers might view DPI as a foe.