VoD provider Netflix has high hopes for its imminent arrival in France, given the volume of bandwidth it already purchases from the main Internet hubs elsewhere.

"The legislators have no way of tracing content flows through the networks"

Interview with Franck Simon, Managing Director of French peering services provider France IX, on the subject of the advent in France of Netflix, which is set to join the France-IX Internet exchange point (IXP).

L’Atelier: First of all could you just tell us something about the Internet mesh in France and its specific features in comparison with foreign networks?

Franck Simon: Well, the United States was founded as a federation of independent states and each of them has its own network. Moreover a lot of Internet exchange points have been created without any real connections between them.  In Europe however, the academic research network was the basis for the very first Internet networks some twenty years ago and that’s why the French network, like the networks in all European countries, is a bit better structured than in the United States. If you’re a subscriber with a traditional operator, your box is connected to an ADSL concentrator at local district level. Then the various towns are interconnected via regional gear right through to Paris, which is the gateway to the international networks. However, this pre-supposes that the operator is himself connected to an Internet exchange point, which in turn requires a free peering agreement between partners in order to ensure smooth traffic between the telecoms providers and the end-customer, the subscriber. So right there, that’s the role of IXPs, which help to optimise the pathway for an Internet request and improve speed of access for the end-user.

Given that at peak times a third of all US traffic is captured by Netflix, how is its arrival in France likely to affect the Internet network here?

Like all content providers, when Netflix serves its individual customers it pushes traffic in a highly asymmetrical way. So the company will connect to a number of IXPs so as to minimise the number of interconnections it has.  Netflix actually purchases 1 Tera/s – i.e. one terabit per second – of bandwidth, which is greater than the traffic used by Dailymotion and close to YouTube in France. If Netflix relies on France-IX to obtain a tenth of this bandwidth volume, say 100 Giga/s, the remaining traffic will be organised through private peering arrangements.  In fact the biggest telecoms players, instead of linking up with the greatest possible number of players via a single IXP, prefer to limit the number of partners with whom they interconnect privately. For the remainder of the Internet network, they use what is known as transit, a slower pathway, to link up with those with whom they have not signed a peering agreement.  

The Lescure Report*, which questions the ability of the Internet to protect the ‘cultural exception’**, states that network operators could be “required to prioritise the sale of bandwidth to French VoD providers.” So how do you see the role of the legislators in your sector?

Methods for the priority allocation of bandwidth have been in existence for a long time, e.g. for ‘premium’ video services. When operators make priority allocations, they give TV broadcasts priority over Internet flow in a manner that is perfectly transparent for the user.  It’s simply a strategy adopted by the network operator. Similarly, in B2B services, a company can request ‘premium’ channels with different characteristics and separate pipes. As regards the power of the legislators over the Internet, one can imagine two possible routes.  Either the legislators deal with the operators on a one-to-one basis – but it would be hard to verify that each one was actually giving due priority to French VoD services – or the legislators can attempt to monitor content flows passing through the IXPs.  But you can’t regulate the content which comes in and out of IXPs because they – France-IX and the others – have no control over the individual IP addresses. So the legislators have no way of tracing content flows through the networks and no technical means to force IXPs to intervene or restrict certain content flows based on the IPs.  The same goes for the whole issue of copyright and author’s rights – i.e. only the network operator is able to ascertain that such-and-such copyright-protected material has been piped to a given IP address.

*A recently-tabled report by a commission headed by Pierre Lescure, the former head of French independent TV channel Canal Plus, which makes recommendations for adapting France’s policies and legislation on culture and entertainment to the digital era.

**The ‘cultural exception’ refers to the right of governments to exclude products closely bound up with national language and culture from international free trade rules.

By Simon Guigue