Canada’s telecommunications regulator today issued a ruling upholding the right of major telcos and cable providers to manage the traffic of its Internet customers, but requiring the wholesale providers to give wholesale customers 60 days notice and forbidding them from throttling video conferencing without the government’s permission.
The decision resulted from CRTC hearings held last July. At the time, small Internet service providers such as TekSavvy Solutions Inc. and the SaveOurNet.ca coalition, had protested traffic management techniques in favour of what they call net neutrality.
On Wednesday the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said it realizes Internet providers may need “measures to manage the traffic on their networks at certain times.”
But they must ask the CRTC before they block delivery of content to an end user or slow down time-sensitive traffic, such as video conferencing or voice over IP, “to the extent that content is degraded.”
The CRTC stated it “will only grant its approval in the most exceptional cases.”
“This has really not changed anything,” said Tom Copeland, chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, many of whose members buy Internet connectivity from phone or cable companies. The association complained to the CRTC last year after Bell Canada began managing traffic during peak hours to these wholesale customers, which prompted protests from subscribers that their Internet service was sometimes slow.
Copeland said the “biggest, most glaring omission” from the ruling is the lack of restraints on the time of day or how long suppliers like phone or cable companies can manipulate traffic. “So we could continue to see traffic management every day of the year,” he said.
“We’re still not addressing the cause of the problem,” he added: “Either weak points in the network, or abuse by users.” Most casual users of peer-to-peer applications – the biggest offending programs in the eyes of providers – aren’t the problem, he said.
“It addresses fundamental policy concerns around consumer issues in an appropriate manner, in particular regarding transparency and disclosure,” a spokesperson wrote in an e-mail to Network World Canada. “Bell’s existing Internet traffic management practices are already compliant with it.”
“It is a step in the right direction, said Tamir Israel, a CIPPIC staff lawyer.”We’re a little bit disappointed we didn’t see something a little more definitive on application specific traffic management. We would have liked them to say if you’re doing these types of things that’s not okay.”
The decision was somewhat of a relief for Rocky Gaudrault, chief executive officer of Chatham, Ont.-based Internet service provider TekSavvy.
“There are many areas that will be good things for consumers,” he said. “As with anything, it’s always a give and take.”
The Commission stated ISPs must tell their retail customers 30 days ahead of time what traffic shaping measures they will use. They must give their wholesale customers 60 days notice.
That’s probably not enough notice, especially for wholesale customers who may want to buy service from a different provider, said Iain Grant, managing director at the Montreal-based SeaBoard Group.
“They might find 120 days would be more reasonable,” he said, but added on the whole, the ruling is fair.
“Traffic management makes sense on our roads, and it makes sense on our electronic roads,” he said. “There are rules and obligation and for anything to survive in society one has to have some rules. But wouldn’t it be nice if we knew what the rules are? The CRTC has said we should actually know what they are.”
In a press release the Commission stated it “encourages ISPs to make investments to increase network capacity as much as possible.”
The CRTC also urges ISPs to increase the capacity of their networks.
Steve Anderson, national co-ordinator of SaveOurNet.ca, a coalition of groups insisting that Internet service providers treat all traffic without discrimination called the decision a “pretty much weak approach to maintaining net neutrality.”
“They’re not saying (ISPs) have to stop discriminatory throttling” of traffic, Anderson said.
Not everything in the ruling is disappointing, he added. Consumers can still complain to the CRTC that an ISP practice has violated the commission’s guidelines.
In its “new framework,” the CRTC said, ISPs will need to describe how their traffic shaping measures will affect customer service, and the practices must be clearly identified on monthly bills.
“Technical means to manage traffic, such as traffic shaping, should only be employed as a last resort,” the CRTC stated in a release.
ISPs will be allowed to manage traffic by charging customers more during peak hours.
ISPs that employ technical measures, such as deep packet inspection, will have to put a notice on their Web site stating: why it is being introduced; who will be affected; when it will occur; what type of Internet traffic is subject to the management practice; how it will affect a user’s Internet experience, including the specific impact on speeds.
Gaudrault pointed out with this provision, “It’s not just a notice, but a notice and approval for ways to deal with things.”
The CRTC stated Wednesday a traffic-shaping practice “should only be implemented” if it meets the following criteria:
-it is designed to address a valid purpose, such as preventing congestion on an Internet network;
-it is as narrowly tailored as possible to achieve the desired result, using the least restrictive means;
-upgrading the network or charging customers more for peak hours (so-called “economic approaches”) would “not effectively
achieve the same purpose.”
CIPPIC’s Israel said what telcos are doing now does not meet these criteria.
“We’re hoping this framework will results in a favourable result down road. We’re frustrated will take another proceeding and more resources to sort that out.”
But it’s not an entirely bad thing, Israel added.
“It wasn’t too long ago where they weren’t even admitting to doing this so we have come a long way and I give the CRTC credit for that.”
With files from Howard Solomon