At several Internet operations centres across Canada, sophisticated software watches the bytes flowing minute by minute across the network. When something exceeds certain set parameters, or a certain type of application is sensed, the software reacts and for some users the Web slows down.
It’s called traffic management, and some of the biggest operators in the country do it, including Bell Canada, Shaw Communications and Rogers Communications.
Today, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) begins six days of hearings in Gatineau, Que., on what kind of Internet traffic management guidelines – if any – it should establish for the providers it regulates.
It’s an issue that touches the hot buttons of government regulation of the private sector, competition between operators and smaller Internet service providers (ISPs) they sell connectivity to, privacy, the right of customers to get promised online speeds, freedom of speech and what’s been dubbed ‘net neutrality’ –the desirability to keep providers from using traffic management to favour their businesses.
The main Internet wholesalers are “a bunch of bullies in the marketplace trying to impose their will to keep very high, greedy margins,” says Rocky Gaudrault, CEO of TekSavvy Solutions, a Chatham, Ont., ISP that buys connectivity from Bell who vigorously objects to the telco affecting his users. It was Guadrault’s investigation that ultimately led to the hearings.
But service providers who do traffic management insist it reduces Web congestion caused by subscribers using peer-to-peer file sharing applications to upload bandwidth-clogging videos and music.
As applications such as IPTV and the sale of movies over the Web spread, providers fear Internet congestion is only going to get worse. In its pre-hearing written submission to the commission, for example, Shaw insists that if it didn’t use traffic management there would be a “catastrophic degradation” in service to its subscribers.
Opponents say the threat is overblown, worrying that traffic management instead threatens public access to the Internet. Others say the issue is one of who will control innovation on the Web.
For example, in its written submission, the Canadian Film and Television Production Association, representing several hundred content creators, said it fears traffic throttling will result in Web providers “becoming the new gatekeepers of the Internet, with preferential access being granted to those favoured by ISPs.”
It’s already happening, Pelmorex Media, which runs The Weather Network cable TV, Internet and wireless sites, alleged in a written submission. “There are a number of commercial or business practices that are being employed by wireless network operators that limit access to their networks,” the submission said in part. “Carriers routinely attempt to exercise control over the content or influence the meaning of the content they carry for the public.” No wireless operators were named.
Groups like the producers and Pelmorex insist operators be forbidden from engaging in discriminatory traffic shaping.
However in its submission Telus – which doesn’t do any traffic management – argues that the federal Telecommunications Act already forbids unjust discrimination.
Small wonder that CRTC chairman Konrad von Finkenstein recently said that when the commission sponsored an online forum earlier this year on traffic management it sparked a “lively debate.”
The hearings will likely be at least that.
In addition to the dozens of written submissions the commission has received, 28 companies or groups will testify over six days including Internet operators, network equipment maker Juniper Networks, Canadian traffic management switch manufacturer Sandvine and consumer organizations.
The commission is looking for answers to four questions:
–What are acceptable Internet traffic management practices;
–Should ISPs disclose their traffic practices;
–Does the use of Internet technologies for the purpose of Internet traffic management raise privacy concerns;
–Is there a need for the commission to specify what practices are acceptable for wireless carriers?
The road to the hearings started in March, 2008 when TekSavvy Solutions, which buys DSL connectivity from Bell for resale to 21,000 customers across the country, began hearing from angry subscribers. “Out of the blue we started getting complaints of slower speeds,” recalled CEO Rocky Gaudrault in a Friday interview.
On investigating he learned Bell began “traffic shaping” its Internet subscribers the previous October during off-peak hours, a practice it extended to the ISPs it wholesales connectivity to five months later. That led to a complaint filed with the CRTC by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers demanding Bell stop manipulating its members’ traffic. CAIP believes Bell and others who manage traffic are interfering with their businesses.
Last November the commission dismissed the case by finding Bell wasn’t discriminating against ISPs. But it decided the issues were broader than that case raised, hence the hearings. (Meanwhile CAIP has asked the commission to take another look at its ruling.)
Providers believe they’re in a bind: No matter how much they spend expanding capacity to meet demand, they say, it’s never enough.
In its written submission, for example, Telus says “Canada’s carriers are investing billions in broadband wireline and wireless infrastructure to meet their customers’ ever-growing appetite for data services … However, the threat of new regulation that could eliminate competitive differentiation or unduly restrict the ability to recover network investments can stifle those investments just when they are needed most, to the lasting detriment of Canada’s economy and society.”
This assertion upsets critics who say the operators aren’t providing conclusive proof. At least one submission to the CRTC complains some operators are giving such details to the commission, but only privately, which restricts their ability to reply.
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Operators have various ways of dealing with this. Primus, for example, has a quality of service solution that prioritizes traffic. Very time-sensitive traffic, such as VoIP and gaming, is classified as expedited. E-mail, instant messaging and streaming media are classified as high priority. Traffic that is less time-sensitive, including peer to peer (“P2P”) traffic, is classified as normal priority. Nothing is blocked.
That approach may persuade the CRTC to largely keep its hands off ISPs. In an interview Friday, University of Ottawa Internet law professor Michael Giest believes the commission should deal with what he calls the easy issues – ordering ISPs to divulge to customers what they do in traffic management, be more up front in their advertising of expected network speeds, assure subscribers of better privacy protection and give promises there will be no anti-competitve behaviour.
Other issues, he said, such as ‘net neutrality, may have to go to legislators.
To listen live to the hearings, go to the CRTC home page and look for the link “Listen to a hearing” on the right hand side.Click here