Back in September the independent French competition authority (Autorité de la Concurrence) approved a plan allowing French operators to charge for third party or OTT generated traffic traversing their network. Apart from a few sensational headlines at the time claiming this would be a threat to net neutrality and would probably never happen because of the potential backlash from both OTT players and customers, nothing much happened.

Ah, but this is France we are talking about. This is the same country that has introduced a ”temporary supertax” of 75 per cent on annual incomes of more than €1 million and wondering why the rich and famous are renouncing their citizenship and moving to neighboring Belgium, led by famous actor Gerard Depardieu, to escape paying.

It should not be surprising that the time chosen for network operators to exercise their new found power was the peak internet usage period between Christmas and new year when most people are indoors due to the cold weather and from over-indulging. Millions of French netizens were a little less than pleased to find their YouTube streams sputtering, dying or not starting at all. Other video services, including TF1, were also affected but the disruption seemed to occur randomly and at different times of day.

Respected consumer organization UFC-Que Choisir found between 20 per cent and 50 per cent of over 16,000 users surveyed online had problems. There was, and still is, connectivity and much of the traffic gets through, just not at the speed consumers have become accustomed to. It would appear that French networks, with France Telecom in the lead, are refusing to accept growing traffic from Cogent, a major backbone carrier that services Google and are demanding payment to accept all the streams via Cogent that their customers request.

According to, the five French networks (FT, Free/Iliad, Bouygues, SFR & Numericable) are holding firm, providing a collective front against the mostly foreign content companies. Free which had been adding the most customers and experiencing the highest traffic growth had the most problems. Press reports emphasize the Free-Google conflict, but apparently all the other ISPs as well as other video providers are affected. Google is counting on public protest to force them to stand down and ARCEP, the regulator, along with several legislators are threatening to jump in.

The network operators are arguing, and have been for some time, that they are being burdened with the cost of constantly increasing capacity to carry the growing demand for video content but that their customers are not willing to pay more. This may be the first salvo in a net neutrality war, and one that is apparently sanctioned by the French government and regulator, but it could simply be a case of posturing by the network operators trying to make their point?

They also need to be careful that charges of collusion are not leveled at them again so soon after price-fixing was exposed. But this seems unlikely because Free, the major disruptor in the French market, appears to be the hardest hit in terms of customer complaints over reduced YouTube delivery quality. Xavier Niel, founder and CSO of Free/Iliad, stated that the “pipes between Google and we are full at certain times, and each pushes the responsibility to add pipes. This is a classic problem happens everywhere, but more often with Google.” Cogent event went as far as releasing a statement claiming there was no dispute between it and Free/Iliad.

If only one network was affected, customers would simply jump to another, but this is clearly not the case. Could it be, as some have suggested, that Google is restricting the traffic from its side hoping to aggravate French customers to pressure a reversal of the Autorité de la Concurrence charging plan that affects them most directly?

This may be a good time to clarify that there are three types of stakeholder operating in the French Internet interconnection market (the sixth largest in the world):

  • Transit operators, such as Cogent, Tata Telecom or France Telecom (via its Open Transit brand), which interconnect ISPs with each other and with content providers via their international networks.
  • Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Orange, Free, SFR and Bouygues Telecom, which provide internet access services to consumers;
  • Content and service providers (Google, Amazon, websites more generally, hosting services, etc.).

Operators interconnect with each other using either the “peering” or the “transit” method. In the most common cases, ISPs and websites purchase transit services from one or more transit operators in order to connect to the Internet and deliver traffic flows to internet users.

Internet operators are also able to connect with each other without a transit operator, via “peering” agreements whereby each “peer” operator exchanges data flows free of charge – in a balanced exchange – with another peer to provide access to its customers.

Peering-based data exchanges, although generally free of charge, are sometimes charged for, hence the term ‘paid peering,’ if the traffic exchanged between transit operators is asymmetric.

Reports suggest that France Telecom had submitted a request to charge a fee for opening additional interconnection capacity but this does not appear unfair inasmuch as it is consistent with its peering policy.

So, we are back where we started. Could this be a simple misunderstanding between players (unlikely), a standoff over peering charges or a full-blown conspiracy theory bringing to a head the CSP vs OTT player arguments?

Who or what is responsible for the drop in service needs to be investigated and addressed urgently, not only for the sake of French consumers, but for the internet as a whole.

First published at TM Forum as The Insider, 1 January, 2013