Are DPI-armed telcos dangerous?

Security is a difficult business to be in nowadays. Just ask anyone in the Bush administration. The intent to use modern technology to protect and provide a secure environment can be perceived as something more nefarious, depending on who you are, what the technology is truly capable of, you're recent history and overall timing.

Security can be a difficult business for telcos, too. The opportunity to protect customers from viruses, worms and intentional security attacks affords telcos great potential for new revenue and new-found trust from their customers. Now, add tools for improved traffic management to the security mix, and you would seem to have a can't-miss platform that allows telco to manage their networks better and provide better overall service. And it comes at a time when broadband usage is growing and the whims of Internet traffic patterns seem as unpredictable as ever.

But, when that traffic management technology is called deep packet inspection, you may get some raised eyebrows and looks of concern from the end user community. DPI is at the center of cable TV firm Comcast's traffic-delaying controversy, an issue into which the Federal Communications Commission recently pledged further investigation. It's evolution comes at a time when some telcos fairly recently helped the federal government set up warrantless wiretaps.

DPI also is of great interest to telcos and other broadband service providers as a method of helping them to better realize what kind of traffic is traveling over their networks, so that they can direct bandwidth resources and management attention where it is most needed. As a result of that interest, vendors have moved into action to supply DPI, and the most recent evidence of how they are doing that is Arbor Network's just-announced acquisition of Ellacoya Networks. Arbor is a network security specialist, Ellacoya is a DPI specialist, and it wasn't to hard for the companies to see that telcos would integrated traffic management solutions that include both of their specialties.

I talked recently to Rob Malan, founder and CTO of Arbor Networks, and Kurt Dobbins, founder and CTO of Ellacoya, both of whom are well aware of the opportunity and controversy surrounding DPI. I thought we might get into a debate about the evil ways in which DPI could be exploited, but Malan and Dobbins were prepared with some simple logic that defused that debate.

Malan noted: "We know DPI can be a flash-point for controversy, but we're very bullish on it because the demand for bandwidth is not going down, and carriers can choose to not manage their networks and drop packets, or they can choose to do something about it."

Dobbins added: "Being concerned about DPI is the wrong debate. Service providers are in the business of making money, and it's certainly not in their interests to block any users from accessing content over their network."

Would telcos use DPI in dangerous ways? There seems to be every reason for them not to do that, and every reason for consumers to complain if their service quality dips if telcos can't adequately manage their networks.

- Dan