Some smaller Canadian Internet service providers (ISPs) are concerned about their ability to maintain service levels if the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) upholds Net neutrality by banning the ability to throttle peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic.
Independent ISPs serving rural areas, often via a wireless broadband network, are worried they would lose control over the high-bandwidth consumers on their networks. Left unhindered, P2P traffic threatens to disrupt the service levels an ISP should be able to guarantee to all of its customers.
It could even cause some ISPs to shut down consumer service altogether, says Bob Cheeseman, president of Zing Networks an ISP in Schomberg, Ont.
“If we turn our traffic shaping equipment off, we might as well close our doors,” he says. “Outbound traffic from our customers [using P2P] brings our network to its knees, so no customers have service.”
The argument is at odds with many comments submitted to the CRTC during its public hearings on Internet traffic management.
One submission from the Campaign for Democratic Media argues throttling P2P traffic isn’t required, and there are other methods to ease pressure on an overburdened network.
One suggestion made in expert testimony collected by the submission is to slow down all traffic equally, instead of targeting the P2P protocol. But Cheeseman says that won’t do it in a real world scenario.
P2P “in our mind is nothing more than a denial of service attack. It overflows the network to the point where it can’t work,” he says. “Even if I cap a customer at 512 K and they go and saturate my network with tiny little packets, they put such a load on the routers that every other customer suffers.”
Zing Net uses 297 transmitters across rural areas north of Toronto to connect about 3,000 customers to broadband Internet. It’s a last-mile connection that purchases its backbone connection from Bell, Cogent, Hydro One, and other providers.
It’s surprising to hear this argument from a smaller, independent ISP, says Steve Anderson, the co-founder of Campaign for Democratic Media. There are other, protocol-neutral ways, to regulate traffic on a network.
“Consumers want an open Internet, they don’t want ISPs picking and choosing what services we get,” he says. “I don’t think that he – or Bell or Rogers – should be deciding what content we use on the Internet.”
P2P is designed to take advantage of open bandwidth by making multiple connections to download different parts of a file. The protocol relies on user connections to swap small parts of a file back and forth across the Internet, until the complete file has been downloaded from many different sources.
Cheeseman has a more Canadian metaphor to explain the stress on his network – a Tim Horton’s drive-through. Imagine that a Tim Horton’s drive-through that served one customer every 30 seconds on average had to be paid in pennies by each customer, he says. Since pennies are legal tender, they can’t turn the customer down. But now it takes a lot longer to get everyone through the drive-through window.
In the end, customers suffer and the business loses money. They’re faced with the choice of upgrading to serve the same number of customers as before – or stop taking pennies as payment. “I don’t know how suddenly the onus is on the ISP to provide anything the customer wants.”
In the past, larger ISPs such as Bell, have been the target of criticism from independent ISPs for their P2P throttling practices. The Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) asked the CRTC to make Bell cease and desist from shaping the service of its wholesale ADSL customers. In the end that wasn’t done.
“We feel that throttling of wholesale ADSL is evil because it doesn’t allow for independent ISPs to differentiate themselves in the market,” says Tom Copeland, chair of CAIP. “If the wholesale service isn’t throttled, the ISPs can do what they want and consumers can choose what they want.”
The operator of a Cobourg, Ont. ISP, Eagle.ca, Copeland explains that whether a non-asset-based ISP chooses to throttle P2P traffic or not is a business decision. An ISP that caters to a market that may demand a lot of P2P may have the capacity necessary to run the service, he says. But another ISP that wants to ensure adequate service in an area that isn’t big on P2P use might want to choke it off.
ISPs should be allowed to manage customers in a way best suited to their business model, Copeland says. “If there’s any type of traffic management in place that affects the client experience, that needs to be divulged to the customer in a transparent manner.”
Eagle.ca doesn’t target P2P for traffic shaping, he adds. Instead they contact those few customers that are extraordinary bandwidth users and have them curtail their usage – often it’s the case that a teenager is running torrents without the parent’s knowledge.
That’s the same approach taken by Waterloo, Ont.-based Everus Communications, says president Richard Cantin. The rural wireless broadband ISP serves around 3,000 customers in southern Ontario.
If someone hogs bandwitdth “to the point where it does damage to the network, we’ll shut them down,” he says.
In one case, a user had downloaded 191 GB in the first 12 days of the month. That type of usage affects other customers on the network, Cantin says. Turns out it was a case where a teenager was running torrents day and night, resulting in 25,000 active ports being open at once, while the parents were clueless.
If the ISP weren’t able to weed out P2P traffic for that household, those parents would be on the hook for a bill of about $7,000 for that sort of usage.
“There’s a difference between treating traffic equally and allowing traffic at all,” he says. “For us, it’s more of a binary thing as opposed to limiting the speed.”
But Anderson’s experience with the SaveOurNet.ca Web site makes him wonder if blocking or throttling P2P traffic is really in the best interests of customers. Of the 6,000 comments submitted by the public to the CRTC on the topic, all those he’s read seem to favour Net neutrality.
“It’s very suspect to say that [traffic throttling] is providing customer service,” he says. “The customers are pretty clear that they want ISPs to be neutral.”
The CRTC is expected to begin its public hearings on the issue July 6.