CRTC decision on traffic shaping evokes praise and dismay

In the wake of a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) decision that regulates Internet traffic shaping, one large carrier will update its Web site FAQ, while another small carrier questions whether it is even regulated by the government body.

The CRTC issued a decision last week regarding the right of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to manage or throttle network traffic. ISPs may continue to do so, as long as they don’t hinder real-time video or voice-over-IP (VoIP) services. They must also inform their customers about the practice.

Despite the new exceptions, Bell Canada and Rogers Communications view themselves as already compliant with the ruling.

Carriers must also give 30 days notice to retail customers if they are going to throttle traffic. They must give 60 days notice to wholesale customers. Rogers will review its online FAQ to make sure customers are informed about its peer-to-peer traffic shaping practices, says Ken Engelhart, senior regulatory vice-president.

“We only shape that in the upstream portion of the network,” he says. “Any download of anything, including P2P is not traffic-shaped.”

Bell also stated it is already compliant with the new ruling in a statement e-mailed to Network World Canada.

“Bell’s existing Internet traffic management practices are already compliant with it,” the company spokesperson said.

It is the first time the CRTC has ever ruled on the issue of network management. It was prompted to review the matter by “net neutrality” advocates who want all Internet protocols to be treated equally, and by wholesale customers of Bell Canada.

Throttling may only be done as a last resort, and do as little harm to the customer as possible, says the CRTC. An ISP using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to identify and throttle traffic must advertise it is doing so on its Web site.

The commission has created a basic framework for ISPs to follow in network management, write Michael Geist, an Internet law expert at the University of Ottawa in his blog. But the carrier’s interpretation of the ruling will likely result in a complaints-driven system of enforcement.

“Twelve months ago, there was virtually no ISP disclosure of traffic management practices and even an unwillingness to acknowledge that it was an issue,” he writes. “The larger ISPs may well view the decision as a green light to continue doing what they are doing with a bit more communications.”

And wholesale customers of Bell aren’t happy with the ruling either. Bell will still have the ability to throttle traffic of wholesale customers, effecting all the retail customers of those smaller ISPs.

Wholesale providers are a small percentage of the total market and not likely putting a large strain on the big carriers, says Rick Ross, president of Markham, Ont.-based SwitchWorks. The ISP purchases wholesale services from Bell.

Bell claims peer-to-peer protocol causes network blockages that could affect the experience of all Internet customers, and that a handful of heavy BitTorrent users could result in slower service for everyone.

But Ross doesn’t buy that argument.

“I don’t believe that’s an accurate presentation,” he says. “It’s incorrectly skewed to make a case to the CRTC.”

However, another small ISP that regularly uses DPI to shape peer-to-peer upstream traffic welcomes the decision. Bob Cheeseman is the president of Schomberg, Ont.-based Zing Networks.

“They made the right decision,” he says. “I don’t believe the Internet is an essential service it’s a network of privately owned networks, not a public infrastructure.”

Zing will comply with the new transparency rules outlined by the CRTC if it is asked to do so, Cheesman adds. But the president doesn’t view his company as being under the regulatory mandate of the Commission. The ISP offers wireless broadband service in rural Ontario using microwave towers.

“There are no telephones involved,” he says.

ISPs can only throttle if upgrading the network or charging more money for higher usage wouldn’t achieve the same purpose, the CRTC says. It encourages continued upgrading and investment in services and finding “economic solutions” to network capacity problems.

Rogers only throttles upstream peer-to-peer traffic, Engelhart says. The ISP is working to meet the growing bandwidth use by consumers.

“We spend a fortune every year expanding the capacity of the network,” he says. “Not to add new customers, but just to meet the demands of the customers we are serving.”

ISPs must also take complaints and explain to customers why traffic shaping is needed.

Zing does try to educate users about why the practice is necessary and how peer-to-peer traffic harms the network, Cheeseman says. But if customers insist on unfettered access to do as they please, he has a final response.

“Go somewhere else,” he says. “Go abuse somebody else’s network.”

Given the outcome of an issue that the CRTC has been considering for months, net neutrality advocates should be happy, Geist writes. There was no way a full-out ban on any kind of throttling was going to happen.

Still, the ruling won’t change much.

“It will take more than just this decision to provide Canadians with the neutral network so many crave,” he says.

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