Bell justifies throttling

Throttling peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic is needed to avoid a clogged network and slow speeds and any order stopping the practice could harm the Canadian telecom sector, Bell Canada says.

The company filed its final comments in the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) proceeding that is investigating a petition filed by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) on Friday.

Bell rejected claims made by its wholesale Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) customers that its traffic-shaping policies are illegal or overly harmful to customer bandwidth.

Traffic or “packet shaping” refers to the practice of limiting the amount of available bandwidth for certain services such as peer-to-peer file-sharing applications. Bell Canada Enterprises and Rogers Communications Inc. have both admitted to doing this.

They argue that managing the traffic flow in this way is needed so the bulk of Internet surfers don’t suffer from slower service. Net neutrality advocates, however, oppose traffic throttling, saying the practice could be used by ISPs to limit bandwidth of competing content or services.

In its final submission to the CRTC, Bell also responds to other complaints that accuse it of playing gatekeeper and peeping into the e-mail content of its customers by using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology. “Managing bandwidth must remain an essential component of Bell Canada’s Internet traffic management solution,” it states.

Traffic throttling

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The company says it will continue to use DPI to redistribute P2P traffic to times when the network is less busy. Bandwidth intensive P2P traffic is congesting network links and could negatively affect as many as 790,000 customers by the end of first-quarter 2009 without traffic shaping, Bell adds. The network needs to be ready for the anticipated growth in Internet traffic over the next four years.

According to Cisco, Internet traffic may grow six-fold worldwide between 2007-2012, Bell says. Such growth does, and will continue to put a strain on network capacity, it says.

There’s nothing surprising about Bell’s thorough defence of their traffic-shaping practices, says Mark Tauschek, senior analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. The company has maintained its position throughout the public proceeding.

“They’re saying it’s our infrastructure and we can do what we want with it, and it’s within our legal rights to do so,” he says.

Between March 2007 and May 2008 the total number of congested network links per month ranged from 2.6 per cent and 5.2 per cent, according to Bell.

While they may seem low, a network traffic engineer deems this as significant amounts of congestion. Bell compares network flow to a highway system.

“When some of the major arterial roads are congested, cars traveling from the suburbs to downtown are impacted by traffic regardless of the state of congestion on the roads in the suburbs,” it says.

The analogy is a fair one, Tauschek says.

“If we have one of our big pipes at capacity, it can have a significant impact on the flow of data in general,” the analyst says.

Bell also responds to comments filed with the CRTC by Google Inc. that accused the company of acting as Internet gatekeepers. The search engine giant is more of a gatekeeper than Bell, the comments say.

“It’s the ‘well you are, but what am I?’ sort of response,” Tauschek says. The exchange with Google and Bell’s handling of the traffic-shaping policy could damage the company’s reputation.

“They are widely loathed,” he says of facilities-based Internet service providers. “It doesn’t take much to get people to take that ire and add a little fuel to the fire, and the next thing you know you have a raging forest fire of discontent with Bell and their practices.”

Bell also responds to a complaint filed with Canada’s federal office of the Privacy Commissioner by the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC).

The University of Ottawa-based law group complained that that Bell was looking at the contents of users’ e-mail with DPI. DPI is used only to look at the protocol headers and the information is not retained, Bell says. The technology is not used to look at a user’s content, or gain knowledge of their e-mail content or topics.

Bell also responded to claims filed by CIPPIC on behalf of the Campaign for Democratic Media that called for a wider public proceeding to be held by the CRTC, looking at how the traffic shaping policy affects all users.

CIPPIC pointed to legal uses of P2P traffic and predicted it could be a more mainstream form of communication in the future.

But Bell calls claims that traffic management will hinder innovation “rhetoric devoid of substance” and made “to promote vested business interests.”

Bell did not stop traffic shaping with the intent of launching usage-based billing or favouring its newly launched Bell Video store, it says. But the company’s intentions can’t be completely in earnest, Tauschek says.

“Best-case scenario, they don’t want to spend money on building the capacity out on their network,” the analyst says. “It’s about cost savings, and at some point, to further their own services.”

Bell is basically saying it can do as it likes with the infrastructure that it owns, Tauschek says. Even if the CRTC wanted to contend with the telecom giant about the traffic-shaping issue, it might not even be able to do so legally.

“I think the CRTC’s hands are tied here,” he says. “I don’t think they’re in a position to tell Bell they must cease and desist from a legal point of view.”

That would mean unmet demand from CAIP, and an unlikely broader public proceeding into how the practice affects all Bell Sympatico customers.

It would likely take new legislation to put an end to traffic throttling, Tauschek says. And that’s just not an item on the Conservative government’s agenda.

Bell and CAIP both declined to comment on the matter.

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