CRTC asked to ban app-specific traffic shaping

A coalition comprised of online giants such as Google Inc., eBay Inc. and Inc. is urging the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission to outlaw application-specific traffic throttling and force ISPs to justify any other management techniques they wish to use.

The recommendations were presented by the Open Internet Coalition to the CRTC’s Internet Traffic Management Hearing on Tuesday.

The organization stressed the need for an open Internet, which allows for “innovation without permission,” and criticized traffic management practices which discriminate against particular types of applications. While the coalition admitted that some traffic management techniques are normal and necessary, the fact that ISPs have largely chosen to ignore useful and neutral traffic management techniques will continue to pose a threat to innovation.

“We urge you to reject as false the choice between debilitating network congestion and application-based discrimination,” Jacob Glick, Google’s Canada Policy Counsel and the OIE’s primary speaker, told the CRTC hearing. “This is a false dichotomy. The evidence is, and experience in Canada and in the U.S. already shows, that carriers can manage their networks, reduce congestion and protect the open Internet, all at the same time.”

Glick added that online traffic growth is not a new issue and argued that the Internet has seen greater traffic strain in the past. The OIC also warned the Commission to avoid adopting any policies that would offer little incentive for ISPs to invest in more network capacity.

“The answer historically has been to increase capacity,” said OIC executive director Markham Erickson, adding that such investments from ISPs will foster more innovation among application developers and bring more subscribers to their services.

“The key isn’t to overreact and give carriers the incentive to manage for scarcity rather than expand networks,” he said.

Aside from establishing a finding that spells out application-specific management practices as contrary to the principles found in the Telecommunications Act, the OIC also proposed a three-part test to judge the applicability of any traffic management measures. Glick said the test is designed to answer the questions posed by Section 27(2) of the Telecommunications Act, which covers unjust discrimination; and Section 36, which outlines when the CRTC should permit ISPs to interfere with online content.

The test would require ISPs to answer: 1) does the traffic management practice further a pressing objective; 2) is the traffic management actually solving the problem; and 3) is it the least restrictive way to meet the objective?

In addition to investing in more network capacity, Glick said that a number of application-neutral traffic management measures exist today. One example cited by the group was Comcast Corp.’s move away from application-specific traffic management measures to a system where heavy users are de-prioritized when the network becomes congested.

After the OIC submission, the CRTC panel fired away with questions ranging from what pricing impact Canadians will feel if ISPs were forced to increase network capacity to the privacy concerns users will face from the open Internet.

Some of the questions left industry observers, both on Twitter and in attendance, questioning whether net neutrality supporters are dealing with a truly level playing field.

“The sense is that some of the commissioners have come in accepting the ISP claims regarding congestion and network costs,” said Michael Geist, research chair of Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa and notable tech blogger. “It appears that everybody coming after them is left having to counter some of the engrained assumptions that some commissioners may be making.”

The CRTC seems to be starting from the large ISP version of what the world looks like, he added.

“Now you have business people, technology companies, individual Internet users, smaller ISPs all appearing and saying things that counter the large ISP script, but I think it’s going to be repeated emphasis from many of these parties if there’s a chance for the Commission to come out with something that isn’t exactly what the large telcos are looking for.”

As for the OIC’s solution, Geist said that establishing a test that provides greater clarity, but also tries to adopt a middle ground for circumstances that require appropriate traffic management, is only part of the solution.

The other part, he added, should be focused on disclosure and truth in advertising.

The ongoing concern that ISPs are advertising faster speeds than they can actually deliver, might be solved by a requirement from the CRTC or the Competition Bureau to create guidelines or limits on the number of subscriptions and ISP can carry, Geist said.

“We also heard (during the hearing) that Bell is the only major ISP in the country that doesn’t engage in peering activities with their peers,” he said. “Were they to do that they’d have a more efficient network, less latency, and it would be better for their subscribers and the many other Canadians who are with other ISPs. It was striking to hear that Bell standalone in that regard.”

Whether the CRTC will see that as an invitation to become more engaged in the peering arrangements that exist in the Canadian ISP landscape will be something to watch, he said.

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