Network traffic has to be managed somehow, conference told

Network providers must have the freedom to manage traffic on their pipes or the Internet will be impaired, three industry members agreed at a conference on the eve of a regulatory hearing on the controversial issue.

However, the panelists, who spoke Tuesday at the Canadian Telecom Summit in Toronto on net neutrality, didn’t say how far operators should be allowed to go or how they could prioritize bits.

“Having network management is absolutely essential,” Michael Lee, Rogers Communications’ chief strategy officer told the Canadian Telecom Conference on Tuesday. Rogers controls peer-to-peer applications, such as BitTorrent, because they consume huge amounts of bandwidth. “If we don’t manage this,” he added, “it really does start to overwhelm and disrupt the entire upstream traffic flow of our network.”

David Caputo, CEO and co-founder of Sandvine, a Toronto manufacturer of deep packet inspection switches for carriers, said his firm sees network congestion on all of the pipes of Sandvine’s customers, clogged because of an inability to prioritize traffic. “An unmanaged network does not equal a neutral network,” he said.

Even Christopher Libertelli, senior director for government and regulatory affairs for Canada and the U.S. for Skype, the peer-to-peer voice over IP application used by 52 million North Americans, agreed network management is needed. But, he added, it should be “narrowly tailored” and not favour one type of traffic.

The panel was one of the last public forums to debate the hot topic of network management before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) starts hearings July 6 on whether it can or should force providers to interfere with the Internet.

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Network management encompasses a number of issues ranging from so-called traffic throttling – the controlling of network speed or certain applications – to net neutrality, the concept that operators should be forbidden from giving preference to content from providers they have deals with.

The matter came to the commission last year when the Canadian Association of Internet Providers complained that Bell Canada was discriminating against its members, who buy connectivity from the telco, by throttling traffic during peak hours. Bell said its target was peer-to-peer music or video downloaders hogging bandwidth.

The commission dismissed the complaint after concluding Bell didn’t discriminate between providers it sold access to and its own subscribers. But it thought the case involved broader issues and wants a full hearing on all of them.

With the Internet increasingly important to businesses, providers and consumers, any discussion on network management attracts a crowd. When he gave a keynote address at the conference Tuesday, commission chair Konrad von Finckenstein said there was a “lively debate” on network management on the CRTC’s Web site when it began to solicit opinions. The commission will try to determine if there are acceptable management practices, should ISPs disclose what they’re doing to subscribers and how network management affects privacy.

Caputo started the panel discussion by recalling a night when he tried downloading a service pack to Windows XP while listening to Internet radio. The radio lost, its music becoming sporadic because the bytes were competing for bandwidth. It’s an example of what happens when traffic isn’t managed, he suggested.

All packets aren’t created equal, he maintained, giving as an example medical files versus “a bulky download.”

Lee argued network management does more than ensures the Internet doesn’t get clogged. With performance assured, service providers will be encouraged to invest in network upgrades, application developers will create new services and manufacturers will create new devices that are easier to use.

Libertelli, whose company sometimes gets side-swiped in the complaints about P2P applications, emphasized Skype’s ability to be used on multiple platforms across multiple networks. Therefore “policy makers should look at that kind of application as the future and establish competitive neutral-policies about non-discrimation that will unlock massive benefits for users.”

Asked to define what is reasonable traffic management, the trio came up with different answers. Caputo said the solution should be “application-behaviour agnostic.” It would be reasonable for network operators to give priority to voice traffic, he said. Ultimately, end users should be able to prioritize what they want, he added, although he admitted that the industry is “a few years from that.” However, Lee said most users won’t understand self-management.

“We have to figure out a way to make it really simple,” Caputo said.

Generally, operators don’t want the CRTC involved. In an interview Tuesday, Pierre Blouin, CEO of MTS Allstream said “hopefully as an industry we can find a solution without the commission.”

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