Cogent is no stranger to peering disputes, fighting with Level3 back in 2005 and AOL back in 2002. While most peering arrangements involve carriers trading equal amounts of bandwidth, Cogent's discount Mc-bandwidth approach (100 Mbps for $1,000 per month or less) often involves a sharing imbalance, which results in one side or the other feeling slighted. The fights are usually resolved in time, but they're never much fun for the users and businesses that are impacted. A high profile dispute with Swedish telecom operator Telia in March even cut off access to vast swaths of Europe.
These Cogent disputes are almost as frequent as the seasons, and we were long overdue for a new one. The latest fight came last night, when Cogent announced that Sprint pulled the plug on their connection with the Cogent network, impacting a significant amount of both URLs and broadband customers. According to Cogent, the onus for the fight lays squarely on the shoulders of Sprint. Cogent says they're offering a little something to major Sprint-Nextel customers impacted by the feud:
"In the over 1300 on-net locations worldwide where Cogent provides service, Cogent is offering every Sprint-Nextel wireline customer that is unable to connect to Cogent's customers a free 100 megabit per second connection to the Internet for as long as Sprint continues to keep this partitioning of the Internet in place. Unfortunately, there is no way that Cogent can do the same for the wireless customers of Sprint-Nextel."
Although the true reasons for the row remain sketchy, I have some opinions that I will share later in this article. Cogent staff wouldn't comment further, passing questions to the company's legal team in Washington. Sprint spokesperson Matthew Sullivan had this to say:
"This is a quick snapshot, but in 2006, Sprint and Cogent entered into a commercial trial agreement. Cogent failed to satisfy Sprint’s peering criteria and refused to pay Sprint to stay connected to our network. Sprint notified Cogent well in advance that it would disconnect Cogent unless it paid, and Cogent refused. As a result of Cogent’s refusal, Sprint was forced to terminate the commercial interconnection agreement and disconnect its network from Cogent’s.
Cogent’s posturing in this case is nothing more than an effort to divert attention away from its’ contractual obligations, and this is the latest in a growing list of peering-related disputes between Cogent and Internet backbone providers."
This "posturing" can however also be viewed as a possible marketing strategy, and a pretty smart one at that. It is the belief of many that Cogent deliberately places themselves in this position in an attempt to not only steal customers from peer networks, but to target the most profitable one's specifically.
The way this works is that first Cogent will (over time) begin to 'borrow' more bandwith than it 'shares' from a contracted peer network in an effort to provoke the peer network to take some sort of action. In some cases, this sharing imbalance will eventually lead to a forced disconnection (de-peering) of the networks by the contracted peer, just as we are seeing with Sprint now, and several others before. Once this happens, Cogent (in almost all cases) offers "Free Bandwith" to the disconnected peer's disgruntled customers.
Now to truly understand this tactic, you have to look at it from the perspective of the fortune 500 companies and large organizations with vast multi-location infrastructures, who also just happen to be the bread and butter for large ISPs such as Sprint. To big players like that, even short spans of downtime can lead to huge losses. When the slighted ISP looses sight of what's actually happening and inadvertently causes a potentially fatal financial disaster by disconnecting these huge corps from their remote offices and customers, then Cogent jumps into action to provide them with the immediate connections they need. Many large corps finding themselves in this situation will willingly (and even unwillingly) switch their services to the ISP that provides the quickest resolve to their immediate problem. It may sound a bit shrewd, but the fact remains that it seems to work quite well for Cogent.
The only problem I see with this is that it's just these types of aggressive marketing strategies that bring us Government Regulation. Without getting into the major details of how that could effect the common Internet user, let me just say that government regulated bandwith laws can only mean one thing; more expense to the end user.