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Crave Talk: Channel 4's 4oD hamstrung by UK ISPs

Video on-demand services such as Channel 4's 4oD use BitTorrent-like P2P technology to distribute content around the Web. Infuriatingly, many ISP's deliberately block this technology

Channel 4's new video on-demand service -- 4oD -- is a breakthrough service for the UK that allows you to freely catch up on the station's TV programming from the comfort of your desk or armchair. But it's being severly restricted by the UK's Internet service providers -- the companies who provide your broadband.

The service runs on VeriSign's Kontiki Broadband Delivery Service -- a peer-to-peer (P2P) technology identical to that which powers services such as BitTorrent and Limewire. ISPs are wise to how many people use P2P services and they're also aware that the vast majority of people use them to illegally download content such as music and movies.

In an attempt to restrict how much illegal sharing can be done on their network, ISPs use a technique called 'packet shaping'. Packet shaping examines what you're downloading -- or more specifically, how you're downloading -- and restricts your download speed to about 12kbps, which is little over what was possible on an old dial-up connection.

What does this mean for the millions of people who don't use BitTorrent? Basically, they're treated as criminals. BT, for example -- but it's not the only one -- will tell you that it uses packet shaping in order for it to benefit users who are not abusing its network. That sounds reasonable, but Channel 4's 4oD service uses peer-to-peer technology to distribute vast quantities of data over your broadband connection completely legally. This means that any user trying to download legal TV content is treated like a pirate and has their service stripped down to pitiful speeds.

So, if you're planning on using Channel 4's 4oD service to download your favourite shows while you travel home from work, make sure you're not on an ISP that treats you like dirty rotten thieving scum. Video on-demand is the way of the future, so it's important that legitimate, efficient technology can make it happen. Thought network neutrality was something dull for the Americans to worry over? This is what it's about.

Now, when we get better communications infrastructure here in the UK, packet shaping should cease to be necessary. Indeed, BT says that when its so-called 21st Century Network upgrade is complete, it can be network neutral. But 21CN is years away, due to be complete in 2011. In the meantime, make sure you choose a provider who isn't taking control of what you can do with the connection you pay for. -Nate Lanxon