Jesse Archer, the owner of a Tauranga-based rural ISP Full Flavour, says he's feeling the squeeze from "peering" costs charged by Spark as data traffic surges during the coronavirus lockdown.
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Spark denies profiteering. The company says it would cause network instability to change its longstanding peering policy amid the lockdown data surge - but that it has, regardless, offered a measure of financial relief to smaller partners this week.
Peering has long been a vexed issue in the internet sector. It involves the costs - if any - charged by one ISP to another as data crosses between their networks at a certain geographic point
If one of the big local ISPs refuses to participate in free-peering - as has been the case over the years variously with TelstraClear, Vodafone (now peering) and Spark - then other providers either have to stump up its fees or, more usually, send sent between two NZ customers data via Australia or even the US - which can lead to performance degradation.
"There has been a surge in internet traffic between ISPs, including small ISPs and Spark," says Full Flavour's Archer (a DJ on NZME-owned The Hits before his career change into the Internet business).
"But Spark is continuing to charge $3000 per Gbps for access to its customers, while every other ISP peer freely on AKL-IX [the collectively-owned Auckland Internet Exchange, which facilitates peering].
"So small ISPs face paying an increased 'tax' to Spark during this Covid-19 situation when arguably it's unfair they pay anything to Spark in the first place."
Archer's comments to the Herald come at the same time that industry group representing rural and provincial ISPs, Wispa (the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association) has called on Spark to review its peering policy.
Wispa spokesman Mike Smith says Spark's current policy contributes to congestion and increases costs for small ISPs.
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"Spark is out on its own right now in NZ with its peering policy. A move to follow the rest of the industry and peer locally would be a major step forward and at a time when smaller players are seeing rising costs to support the unprecedented load on networks," Smith says.
For Spark, as spokeswoman said, "We reject entirely any suggestion we are seeking to profit from Covid-19 through peering practices that have been in place for over a decade. It is common industry practice globally for internet service providers to peer with other ISPs of a similar size . " (The Herald's italics.)
"Given the heightened reliance on our data networks by our customers at the moment, who are trying to work, learn and connect from home, we are closely monitoring performance across our networks, and we are not seeing any congestion in our data links with other networks that connect with us.
"If we were to change our peering settings now, it will create instability in our network and we are not willing to do that at a time when ensuring connectivity for all New Zealanders is so critical."
She added that on Wednesday, "We launched additional support for our wholesale customers who are managing an increase in traffic as a result of Covid-19, and this has been very well received. Over the months of March and April we're providing an additional 40 per cent of domestic IP transit bandwidth to our wholesale ISPs at no extra charge."
Archer is not impressed. He still wants Spark to follow Vodafone, Vocus, 2degrees and others and participate in free local peering "to provide their mutual customers the best possible experience."
As things stand, Full Flavour must route domestic traffic via Sydney - "Where Spark is happy to peer, freely," Archer told the Herald.
To take an uncongested, domestic data traffic route, it could cost Full Flavour up to $5000 a month in peering fees for a single heavy internet-use household, Archer says. That's a total non-starter. Hence risking lag by sending traffic offshore for NZ-to-NZ connections involving Spark customers.
On Twitter, he posted, "If your video call with a Spark user is dropping out, please be advised it's because the money-hungry monopoly that is Telecom continues, just under a different name. We are writing to the Minister asking for immediate regulation on this matter."
Wispa's Smith was also unimpressed by Spark's response. He told the Herald, "Overseas practice is irrelevant. The New Zealand market is exceptionally competitive. Vodafone, 2degrees, Vocus, and all others adopt the standard industry way of doing things; Spark's refusal is a throwback to the days of the Telecom monopoly.
"Spark should fall into line for the common good. This inefficient use of network capacity has to go."
What would be Archer's ideal resolution. He says it would be for "Spark to join NZIX [NZ Internet Exchange] and peer settlement-free like everyone else."
The Full Flavour owner says he would also be open to regional peering, "Similar to how Chorus's UFB 'regional handover' ports work - where, for example, the Auckland port covers just Auckland and Northland customers, Hamilton covers central North Island and so on.
"That would remove the argument that Spark needs to charge in order to recoup the costs of moving data up and down the country - which is what their customers are paying for them to do anyway."