Bell throttles traffic, stifles competition, Canadian ISPs say

Bell Canada is stifling competition by throttling peer-to-peer (p2p) traffic of its wholesale customers, says the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP).

The Association says Bell should have to prove its network is congested before it engages in traffic shaping.
CAIP’s comments are the latest development in the ongoing controversy over traffic or “packet shaping” – the practice of limiting the amount of available bandwidth for certain services such as peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing applications.

Bell Canada Enterprises and Rogers Communications Inc. have both admitted to doing this. They argue that managing traffic flow in this way is needed so the bulk of Internet surfers don’t suffer from slower service.

Net neutrality advocates, however, oppose traffic throttling, saying the practice could be used by facilities-based ISPs to limit bandwidth of competing content or services. 

In April, CAIP – a group representing 55 third-party ISPs that buy connectivity on a wholesale basis from Bell and then resell it to consumers – petitioned the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for an immediate cease-and-desist order on Bell’s traffic-shaping practices.

Subsequently, other groups – such as The Campaign for Democratic Media (CDM) – lent their voices to the protest, urging the CRTC to initiate a “public proceeding” examining the practice.

Last month, Bell filed its response before the CRTC claiming if it did not take “network management” measures 700,000 customers would have been affected by congestion during peak periods.  

But CAIP isn’t buying that justification.

In its final comments filed with the CRTC last week, the Association disputed these claims.

There’s no real indication Bell has any network trouble, says CAIP chair Tom Copeland.

“Bell still hasn’t proved anything,” he says. “The level of congestion they’ve described doesn’t indicate imminent danger.”

Any network manager assessing the data Bell has provided the CRTC would hardly be concerned with Bell’s traffic flow, Copeland says. There’s no sign of lost packets or high latency – the indications of a congested network.

The issue of whether p2p traffic causes significant network congestion goes to the heart of this controversy – and its something Bell and CAIP have been wrangling over for weeks.

But while Bell has data on its own network – and is using that to buttress its argument, CAIP lacks empirical data to prove the network isn’t congested, notes a Canadian analyst.

“They don’t have a leg to stand on in that respect,” says Mark Tauschek, senior analyst with London, Ont.-based analysts Info-Tech Research Group. “It is a he said, she said argument here.”

But CAIP’s request that Bell should have to prove its network traffic is congested might hold some weight, he adds.

While CRTC allows a network owner to take reasonable measures to manage its traffic, some hard data might be needed to prove that traffic shaping is, in fact, reasonable, he said.

“The CRTC might say they have to prove that p2p traffic is the culprit.”

CAIP’s report calls Bell’s defense of its p2p traffic throttling “confused and contradictory.”

At first Bell blamed a small number of p2p users for causing a lot of network congestion, but that argument didn’t appear in the company’s final comments.

It’s no longer clear just what the cause of the congestion might be, or where in the network it’s taking place, the CAIP report says.

But it points out that Bell has “enormous surplus capacity” on its network, and that no end-users of the wholesale ISPs had complained about latency issues prior to the throttling put in place by Bell.

“The volume of traffic independent ISPs are putting across that network is pretty minute,” Copeland says. “If you’re taking a drop of water from a bucket, is anyone going to notice?”

Bell’s real intent is to hamstring its competition with traffic shaping practices, CAIP says in the report.

Though Bell denied this in its final comments to the CRTC, CAIP argues otherwise.

The report points to a bevy of high-bandwidth services that Bell has just launched or is preparing to launch. That includes the new Bellvideostore.ca Web site and two new high-speed Internet access options for retail customers.

“If these issues truly existed, why would Bell be rolling out more bandwidth intensive services?” Copeland says. “It’s smoke and mirrors. They’re looking to gain an advantage in the marketplace.”

But there are legitimate reasons for Bell to be capping their network traffic too, Tauschek says. The company wants to maintain a consistent, high-speed service for its own retail customers.

“Is there some sort of conspiracy underway at Bell to protect their services and the expense of the competitors? Probably not,” the analyst says.

The CAIP report, however, has brought up some very relevant points that tell against Bell.

For instance, it points out that:

  • Bell gave no notice of the traffic throttling; and,
  • The contract between the carrier and its wholesale customers doesn’t talk about limiting p2p traffic.

 

CAIP portrays itself as receiving wider public support than Bell, in its report. It alludes to other comments submitted to the CRTC by parties that also oppose p2p traffic throttling for a variety of different reasons. In addition to Ottawa-based CDM, these include search giant Google Inc.

“Even I, [while] understanding why Bell is doing what they’re doing, would side with CAIP,” Info-Tech’s Tauschek says. “Bell really does come across looking like the bad guy. They’re blocking traffic for their own selfish reasons – that’s the way it looks.”

The CRTC should require that Bell take other measures different from p2p traffic throttling, even if its network is congested, CAIP says. The carrier could throttle all traffic equally, and only when congestion occurs, for example.

“If you’re targeting a technology, you could be penalizing a class of users for their use of a totally legitimate application,” Copeland says.

CAIP expects the CRTC will deliver their decision on the proceeding by the end of September.

Bell declined to comment on the matter.

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