True: gatekeeper to the clouds

31 Jan 2012

One of the promises of cloud computing is that anyone with a laptop, an internet connection and an idea can have access to the best infrastructure out there and turn their ideas into reality.

Well, that may be the case in the west but in more developing countries, lack of net neutrality or even debate about it means that the gatekeeper, the ISP, still has a major say in what goes through their network and what does not.

The implications for over the top providers are obvious and ominous.

In Thailand, the largest fixed line ISP by some margin is TrueOnline, at 40% of the estimated 20 million users. The problem is that True’s over-aggressive use of transparent proxies makes a mockery of the openness of the internet.

For instance, signing up to Amazon EC2 is something that any web developer the world over can do and create the next big thing. Well, everywhere else but Thailand. True’s network admins do not understand EC2 and seem to think that a somewhat modified PHP BB web board is static HTML page. Rather than connecting users to the server, it instead delivers cached versions of the page.

To the user, this means that logging in is very flaky, usually working for the first few clicks, then getting kicked out when a cached version of the same page accessed by someone else is regurgitated by the cache.

The answer that most have resorted to is renting physical servers locally, forgoing the promise of unlimited internet scaling and enterprise-class redundancy and security that Amazon Web Services purports to offer.

It is also a nice coincidence that True offers data centre services within the Kingdom.

When one of my friends mulled the idea of launching a Google TV based internet TV channel, I laughed. Why would the gatekeeper allow such a resource hungry competitor to piggyback on its own infrastructure to compete with its own pay TV service? It might work for a while, until the newcomer is noticed, and then it would be squished out of existence by proxies and general lack of net neutrality.

Only that chap had that angle sorted, as he was on good relationship terms with True. Ah yes, the Thai way of doing business.

The ones who should be regulating this seem to not be interested. Does internet TV fall under broadcast or telecommunications? I have said time and time again that the fundamental structure of Thailand’s regulator, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission regulator is flawed.

Its design was rushed through, merging two separate regulators and remains divided very formally to a broadcast and a telecommunications divisions, rather than a content and an infrastructure delineation. The focus on broadcast regulation seems to be on sorting out radio frequencies and freedom of speech issues.

The saddest thing is that while the new regulator is happy to regulate 2G and 3G data speeds, why are they not focusing on the fixed line providers and in particular their over subscribed lines and atrocious proxying policies? Perhaps because one company is having problems upgrading its network and it is popular to play bash the foreigner during this period of time.

What I am referring to is the regulator’s seemingly amateurish specifications for network quality. 384Kbps might seem a reasonable minimum but 500ms local ping time? Oh, well, could be worse.

Now all of this links back together. The particular NBTC commissioner who is doing all the talking in recent weeks has said he intends to regulate the quality of streaming video over 3G too. A laudable goal, but given that there are not that many data centres in the country and one 3G network infrastructure provider-cum-MVNO also owns one of the largest data centres in the country and hosts many of the most popular MMORPGs, would that not given them a huge unfair advantage?

Put bluntly, should BFKT / True / TrueMove / TrueMoveH / RealMove / NC True / True Visions, TrueOnline, TrueMoney, TrueLife - and while we are at it, 7-11 and Tesco, all part of the CP conglomerate - be broken up? Should equal access be mandated to competitors AIS, DTAC and any potential newcomer first, to promote competition and a fair and level playing field?

It is a question that nobody seems to be asking.

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