Tech Industry

Net firms reach deal to avoid new blackout

Cogent and Level 3 reach an agreement that will prevent a repeat, for now, of this month's Net backbone outage.

A dispute between major Internet backbone companies that wound up blacking out portions of the Net for thousands of people earlier this month has been settled for now, preventing new blackouts next month.

Network companies Cogent Communications and Level 3 Communications said Friday that they made a new agreement to exchange traffic between their customers. Previously, they had said a temporary agreement would expire on Nov. 9, which could have led to more Net problems.

Both sides said they were satisfied with the new agreement, which includes a provision that customers must be notified before any future interruption in service.

"I think that what ultimately caused this resolution was that there were customers putting pressure on the party that initiated that" interruption, said Cogent Chief Executive Officer Dave Schaeffer. "Hopefully others will think long and hard before doing anything like this again."

The two companies' obscure contract dispute, which erupted into a localized Net meltdown for some Web users a few weeks ago, shined a spotlight on potential weak points in an Internet designed to withstand massive network failures.

At issue was a kind of network connection called "peering," in which two big companies that carry large amounts of Internet traffic agree to hand off that traffic to each other free of charge. Smaller companies typically have to buy access to the larger networks.

Level 3 had argued that it was now a larger company than Cogent, and so Cogent should pay for access to its network. When Cogent disagreed, saying that the old free-of-charge relationship was still appropriate, Level 3 shut off the connection between the two networks.

Because of the details in the way each company connected to other networks, the action meant there was no practical way for a customer of one network to reach the Web site or e-mail address of a customer of the other network. The end result was that thousands of people--including most of the subscribers of Time Warner's Road Runner service--were unable to visit Web sites or send e-mails to many other people.

The outage stretched for several days, ultimately leading to calls for regulation of the networks, so that customers would be protected.

Level 3 executives did not immediately return a request for comment Friday. However, they apologized for their actions on an earnings conference call last week.

"In one instance this quarter, a number of Level 3 customers and Cogent customers were hurt," said Level 3 President Kevin O'Hara on that conference call. "I apologize to both sets of customers...We recognize that we have an obligation to customers of the Internet and, in this instance, we contributed to letting them down."