Separating the competitive access issues from the Net Neutrality issues.

Bell throttling wholesale providers of DSL services has further opened up the conversations around Net Neutrality. Michael Geist has written about the mounting call for action on net neutrality from organizations such as the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) and Council of Canadians. I strongly applaud and join in this call.

The throttling of wholesale traffic by Bell Canada is, however, anissue that is related but distinct. Its link to the net neutralitydebate needs to be understood, as well as the ways in which it is quitedifferent.

While the Internet is often drawn as a big cloud that we connect to,it is sometimes useful to look inside the cloud. As a primer I wouldrecommend reading some specific pages on Wikipedia including: Internet, Packet Switching and the End-to-end principle.

What you will find is a series of routers which are connected toeach other via some sort of connection. In order to get from yourcomputer to some other computer elsewhere on the Internet your packetswill pass over a connection to a router which will decide whichconnection to send your packet through. By hopping from router torouter over these connections, your packet eventually reaches itsdestination.

Congestion happens when one of those network links or routers is notable to keep up with the traffic attempting to be routed through it,causing congestion as some packets are simply not able to be sent.Sometimes this congestion is a legitimate technical limitation, such aswith the relatively high cost submarine communications cables.Other times congestion is less legitimate, such as connectivity withinand between major urban centres on a single continent where highcapacity optical fiber is relatively cheap and largely underutilized.

The “last mile” link to customer premises

The connection between the customer premises (home or business) andthe first router of the chosen ISP should be thought of as special whentrying to analyze policy questions. This link is often called the “last mile”connection. It is the ability of a customer to make their own choicesfor this ISP in a free market which allows them to hire the ISP whichis making the business choices that best match their needs. It is alsothis competition to meet the increasing demands of customers whichcreates the incentives for innovation within this sector.

Some customers may want a dirt-cheap ISP which only acquiresadequate network capacity to connect with other parts of the Internetto handle small loads from customers. In this case if a large number ofcustomers all try to utilize this smaller network link at the sametime, congestion will occur.

Customers may want to hire an ISP which acquires adequate networkcapacity to handle a larger load. For connections between computers inand between major urban centres within a continent, network capacity isquite cheap so this level of congestion-free connectivity between thesepoints should be expected.

Competitive Access

For historical reasons, often the only communications connectionsthat are made to customer premises are in the form of telephone orcable television connections. This has meant that the phone and cablecompanies have a duopoly on that “last mile” connection. Given thissituation, various regulators have mandated that third party providersbe allowed competitive access to this infrastructure. In the case ofphone companies, this has included both competition for telephoneservices as well as data services.

This would mean that ISPs that are competitors to Bell would be ableto offer services to customers where that “last mile” connection wouldhappen over Bell “owned” wires. The fact that Bell (or other localphone companies in different parts of Canada) owns the wires should beentirely hidden to the customer who would be hiring services from thatcompeting ISP.

For reasons I don’t understand, the CRTC continues to treat phoneand cable companies as different, even in an era of convergence wheremany of these companies equally offer phone, broadcasting and data(Internet, etc) services. While Canada’s phone companies are mandatedto offer competitive access, the cable companies thus far are not.

In my case I have two DSL connections at home. One is from a company called Storm Internet and the other is from the National Capital Freenet which is a reseller of the Internet connectivity services of TekSavvy Solutions Inc.One of these DSL connections is shared on the physical pair of copperwires with my Bell Canada supplied phone line, and the other is a DSLon what is called a “dry loop” where on this pair of wires I get DSLbut I do not also have a voice phone line.

In these cases there is a physical pair or wires that connect between my home and a central office (CO).In some cases the competing ISP has equipment in the CO, and in othercases the phone company will route digital data from the CO to the ISP.At this point this a point-to-point communications between the customerand the ISP, and is not routed as “Internet traffic”. In many cases thepackets are organized as Ethernet as if it was one big LAN.

What Bell is doing with their “throttling”

While Bell is mandated to offer competitive access to competingISPs, they have under-built the capacity between the COs and thecompeting ISPs such that there is congestion on there internal network.If this congestion were affecting voice traffic, making voicecommunication jittery, we would clearly recognize this as brokeninfrastructure that Bell must fix in order for them to continue tooffer the minimum expected level of service. Somehow since this is datatraffic they thought they could get away with under-building theirnetwork such that there would be congestion, and then implement theirown chosen “policy” to prioritize traffic.

We shouldn’t be focusing on what policy is the right policy, orgetting this issue confused with the related but different “NetNeutrality” debate. We should be questioning why Bell has under-builttheir network such that they cannot fulfill the legitimate basicrequirements of the competitive access mandate they have been given,and we should be pushing the CRTC to enforce these basic requirements.

The important link between competitive access and the “Net Neutrality” debate

While I believe that market forces can solve many of the problemsdiscussed under the title of “Net Neutrality”, I recognize that inorder for this to happen we need a competitive free market to beginwith. Allowing the phone and cable companies to leverage their duopolyon the “last mile” connection essentially means that no realcompetition exists, and customers cannot “vote with their feet” to anISP which will configure their network to best meet their needs (IE:for many of us that includes never over-subscribing connections withinor between major urban centres).

It turns out that to ultimately solve the “Net Neutrality” problemwe really need to solve the “last mile monopoly” problem. While NetNeutrality legislation is one path, this presumes we retain the currentmonopoly infrastructure and then strongly regulate the monopolies. Itruly believe that a better solution is to revoke the last milemonopoly from the incumbent providers, solving this problem the way wesolved similar problems in electricity distribution and theprovisioning of other utilities (Read: An ideal future communications infrastructure, how do we get there, and what is stopping us!).

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