ISP Dispute Over - For Now

UPDATED Can't we all just get along? Cogent and Level 3 Communications customers may be asking that question after a spat between the two Internet backbone companies earlier this week resulted in portions of the Net becoming unavailable to customers of the other carrier for several days.

The disagreement was serious enough that it has caused members of Congress to call for changes in the Telecom Act to prevent future blackouts.

However, the disagreement has cooled off - at least for now. Level 3 has extended a 30-day olive branch to Cogent, saying a new contract needs to be negotiated between the two companies or a disconnection will occur again at 6 a.m. ET on November 9.

Level 3 on Tuesday made the initial move by instructing its servers to refuse incoming traffic from Cogent customers. What resulted was the online equivalent of a New York City traffic jam at rush hour: Internet packets needed to find a longer route to get to their destination, or were suddenly stopped in their tracks.

Cogent challenged Level 3 Friday afternoon to allow traffic to pass freely in the best interest of both company's customers, and said it was willing to negotiate with the company "anytime, anywhere."

CEO Dave Schaffer even went on to suggest that Level 3 was in some kind of financial distress in a statement to the press. He offered the company free transfers of traffic across the network while the company remedied its "financial situation."

"Cogent feels allegations of inappropriate traffic ratios have been incorrectly articulated by Level 3," Schaffer said. "In fact, it is Level 3 who requested that Cogent send more traffic across their network since Level 3 charges by the bit, and increased traffic flow helps them financially."

Statements by Level 3 Friday evening seemed to point the finger back at Cogent, saying it was not fair to be "subsidizing" the company's traffic without charging for it - contradicting Cogent's statements that free transfer of traffic would help Level 3.

"We determined that the agreement that we had with Cogent was not equitable to Level 3," Sureel Choksi, executive vice president of Level 3 Communications, said in a statement issued Friday night.

Choski also said Level 3 had informed Cogent of its intent to terminate the agreement on July 18, and for a second time on August 31, but received no response. "Despite more than 75 days of advance written notice of the termination of our agreement, Cogent apparently failed to notify its customers or make any business plans to prepare for disconnection," he said.

The problem affected about 15 percent of the Internet, according to estimates. Also, users of Time Warner's RoadRunner high-speed Internet service were experiencing problems connecting to users and Web sites on the Cogent network, however the issue had been fixed.

"As of 11pm last night we had established new Internet routes to the affected sites. Our Road Runner customers are no longer affected by the disagreement between Level 3 and Cogent," a Time Warner spokesperson told BetaNews.

Cogent, meanwhile, used the dispute as a way to gain new customers; Level 3 users who switch to Cogent will receive a year of free service.

Aside from the routing headaches, the dispute has brought into question the frailty of the Internet itself. If a major service provider either goes offline or decides to refuse service to another, it can render a significant portion of the Internet unavailable to a large portion of users.

While large customers of the two companies were mostly unaffected -- they usually sign agreements with more than one provider -- smaller customers were completely cut off from Web sites and e-mail addresses residing on the other network.

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