Friday, July 10, 2009

 

The couchathon

Brad Fox testified on Wednesday in front of the CRTC this week that his Sick Kids Couchathon was throttled by Bell last November.

Various news media have picked up the story, including Tech Media and CBC.

Why is this the first we have heard about it, more than 7 months after the event? What is the real story?

Even on his own blog and the official event blog, immediately following the event, Fox didn't say anything about throttling or resets.

In fact, on the Couchathon website, he wrote:
In the fog of “the day after” I’m left with nothing but warm feelings, and cool memories
Exhaustion and fat fingers on an untested platform could have also come into play. The opening clip speaks about technical challenges experienced at the beginning.

Fox said that he was losing 2-300 people each time the server (uStream.tv) needed to be reset, representing about 5% of the audience - that puts the audience at about 5-6000 people. CBC says that the losses occurred between 3 and 4am, which means that people going to sleep could also explain the loss of viewers.

The telethon generated $5500.

While it is convenient to blame ISP traffic throttling, there are a lot of other potential points of failure, including the originating PC and the serving application.

As the Chairman stated on Wednesday in respect of other accusations of misdeeds:
If you have specific evidence, why don’t you use the provisions of the law? Why don’t you make a complaint under section 27(2) and say, here there is undue preference, there is predatory conduct, rather than here in a policy hearing?
Why was this week's policy hearing the first time we have heard of this problem?

I don't think we have seen enough evidence on this story.

Comments:
Hi Mark,

Brad Fox here, and you raise fair questions.

For the record, I did provide more specifics about the incident to anyone who has interviewed me since the hearings but those details rarely make it into the published articles.

Why was this week's policy hearing the first time we have heard of this problem?

Short Answer: This was the first time a CRTC commissioner has ever asked me, specifically, if traffic discrimination had ever prejudiced my ability to create content.

Long Answer:


Why is this the first we have heard about it, more than 7 months after the event? What is the real story?


There were a number of reasons I chose to not make a public issue of the couchathon throttling at the time.

Part was not wishing to overshadow the event itself (or it's legacy given that it was essentially a dry run for some future live Internet broadcasting projects).

Part was an issue with certain individuals and companies involved in the couchathon having preexisting business relationships with Bell. This situation has changed somewhat in the intervening eight months, but I also feel there’s a difference between using the event as an important case study, and risking overshadowing the event itself at the time of it’s occurrence.

Also, if I’m honest, I was almost certain at the time that Bell's throttling practices would shortly be curtailed via the CAIP CRTC application (the couchathon predated Telcom decision 2008-108 which ruled against CAIP by two weeks).

Exhaustion and fat fingers on an untested platform could have also come into play.

Not impossible, but unlikely. We certainly experienced problems due to sleep deprivation and the nature of the broadcast - but those were in the setup (the issues you mention quoted in the show itself) and then mishaps of the infrequent and unpredictable variety (selecting the wrong camera, closing the irc chat administrator account, the chyron freezing up, a hard drive frying through poor heat management... etc). The throttling issues on the other hand were repeatable cycles that were demonstrably recurrent independent of whatever else was going on at the time - and absent on distinct Bell connections not being used for the video uplink (ruling out broader network issues or overall congestion). As well, they did not appear during the first several hours of broadcast – yet continued recurring regularly thereafter, even when we changed computers entirely at one point (the replacement being a direct image of the original system prior to the commencement of the broadcast).

people going to sleep could also explain the loss of viewers

It's absolutely likely that some portion of viewer loss each "reset" included viewers who decided to go to bed (or long since walked away from their computers with us still running in the background) - however the drop was consistent each reset - regardless of audience size at the time (and our 4am audience was, for example, a fraction of our 5pm audience). Regardless of the extent of the damage, my point has always been that it was damage. No one, I think, would argue that performance interruption is disruptive or detrimental to audience experience.

As to your point about chairman von Finckenstein's question to my collegue Dan Hawes of March Entertainment. I agree quite completely with Dan’s response. - As independent producers we simply don't have the resources to bring 27(2) challenges every time we feel our traffic is being prejudiced. The independent production sector is in such dire straits that most of us are barely able to keep our heads above water - let alone capable of sustaining protracted legal battles or government challenges. That's why the CRTC's oversight of ITMP guidelines is so absolutely critical to myself and my colleagues.
 
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