Report urges Ottawa to keep ISP traffic throttling in place

Ottawa shouldn’t give in to demands that Internet providers treat all traffic the same, says a Canadian 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. But the firm 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 ruling by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on a complaint from a group of Internet service providers against Bell Canada’s traffic-shaping efforts. A decision had been expected at the end of September.

The CRTC regulates cable and telephones, and therefore could have a say over the Internet. However, it decided in 1999 to be hands-off on new media.

In March, Bell began throttling Internet traffic to subscribers 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 quickly demanded the CRTC order Bell to stop slowing traffic, saying the move damages subscribers wanting fast speeds. But Bell argued managing bandwidth makes service equal for all.

Meanwhile, the commission is in the middle of what it calls a New Media Project Initiative and re-examining its decision to keep its hands off new media. That review may touch on net neutrality.

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. It’s vital that continue, says SeaBoard.

Iain Grant, SeaBoard’s managing director, says 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 favor content linked to their economic interests — say, Web sites they own or partner with — then Ottawa should ensure such self-dealing is snuffed out.

Bell isn’t the only Canadian service provider to engage in traffic shaping. So do cablecos Rogers Communications, which offers service across much of the country, and Shaw Communications, largely based in Western Canada.

In the U.S., Comcast throttled BitTorrent traffic until earlier this year, when the Federal Communications Commission ordered it to stop unless it could prove the effort is necessary. Comcast then came 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 on wireless handsets.

As part of the report, SeaBoard looked at the status of net neutrality in number of countries. In the U.S., the Internet Freedom Preservation Act is before the House, which calls on the FCC “to conduct a proceeding and public broadband summit to assess competition, consumer protection and consumer choice issues relating to broadband Internet access services.”

In Europe, the European Regulatory Framework offers protection against market abuses of ISPs. Net neutrality is being debated in Australia, where Telstra, the largest telco, admitted actively deprioritizing other VoIP providers’ data through its lines.

SeaBoard says the first public case relating to the Net neutrality debate in France came in 2007 when the French ISP Neuf Cegetel was accused by the videosharing site Dailymotion of throttling access. Neuf Cegetel refuted the claims citing technical difficulties and the subject was eventually dropped.

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