Feds should leave Internet service providers alone: Analyst

Ottawa shouldn’t give in to demands that Internet providers treat all traffic the same, says a telecommunications consultancy, which warns so-called ‘Net neutrality will lead to the demise of the Internet as a useful tool.

“Packet equality does not make for a better Internet,” says the Montreal-based SeaBoard Group in a report released Thursday, another salvo in the war on ‘Net neutrality. The consultancy says that “without some form of congestion management, the Internet will become a much less useful tool.”

The report comes out as the industry awaits the release of a CRTC ruling on a complaint from a group of Internet service providers against Bell Canada’s traffic-shaping effort. A decision had been expected at the end of September.

In March Bell began throttling traffic to buyers and ISP resellers of its DSL service during peak hours, claiming a minority of customers are consuming large amounts of bandwidth to the detriment of the rest. The Canadian Association of Internet Providers is demanding the CRTC order Bell to stop slowing traffic, saying the move is damaging its subscribers wanting fast speeds. But Bell argued managing bandwidth makes service equal for all.

At the same time the commission has launched what it calls a New Media Project Initiative and re-examining its decision to keep its hands off new media, which includes the Internet. That review may touch on ‘Net neutrality.

Bell, Rogers and Shaw engage in so-called traffic-shaping. In the U.S., Comcast throttled BitTorrent traffic until earlier this year, when an uproar caused it to shift gears and come up with a new strategy: Impose a download cap of 250Gb a month to each subscriber. Some observers think most Canadian providers will soon move to such caps, commonly seen in celluar contracts.

In its 54-page report, SeaBoard argues ‘Net neutrality will stunt the growth of the Internet, cripple innovation in the way the Web can be used and managed, and dampen capital investment in needed to improve infrastructure.

It’s also economically impractical, the report says. “Curiously,” says the report, “the very innovations that the Net neutralists claim to want to protect are the very innovations that can benefit most from traffic management and prioritization.” As congestion has risen the private sector has invested in hardware and software to increase capacity, although it admits it hasn’t kept pace. Still, it’s vital that spending continue, says SeaBoard.

Iain Grant, SeaBoard’s managing director, said in an interview that supporters of ‘Net neutrality – including the New Democratic party, which last March introduced a private members’ bill to enshrine the concept — have invented a myth that the Internet is a “libertarian paradise.” “We’re trying to remind people that it’s really a wrench, a tool or a hammer. It’s not intrinsically wonderful or fabulous, it’s how you use it.”

On the other hand, Grant added, if ISPs favour content linked to their economic interests – say, Web sites they own or partner with – then Ottawa should ensure such self-dealing is snuffed out.