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CRTC’s Bell Ruling: Not Shaping the Future (HA HA HA)

I’ve got a (hopefully) interesting idea for my first ever “theme week” next week that I’ve been noodling on in spare minutes, but just wanted to take a minute to talk about the CRTC’s Bell decision this morning, why it should have been expected, and why nothing is actually settled yet when it comes to traffic shaping.

Time for a trademark What’s the Deal?

What’s the Backstory?
The only real national DSL ISP in the country is Bell. If you get your internet over a DSL connection it (almost always) either comes from Bell directly (Sympatico), or through a company that has bought a large block of service from Bell and resells it under their own brand (the same way that, say, calling card companies buy large blocks of long distance at a discount and then resell them).

Back in March Bell began “throttling” it’s service. Claiming that P2P (ie: BitTorrent) traffic was creating an unmanageable load across the network Bell began enforcing artificial network limitations on certain services. Not only did they impose these limits on their own (Sympatico) customers, but also on all the companies that resell through them.

What’s the Argument?
There’s really two affected parties here, the resellers and the end users.
Traffic shaping is a real slippery slope for end users, because you’re allowing you ISP to dictate the performance of (what I’ve argued before ad naseum) should be treated like a utility. While telco’s try to frame most of the current discourse as dealing with “those nasty BitTorrent pirates”, this is no longer the modern reality. This CBC article from yesterday, should be commended for pointing out not only is BitTorrent used to distribute legal material (including the CBC’s own “Canada’s Next Prime Minister” television series) Skype is a P2P service. So are elements of “World of Warcraft”, and video chat, and a slew of other modern internet applications.

Where the “Spockian eyebrow” starts to raise is when you introduce the idea of Bell introducing traffic shaping to “protect it’s network” that degrade the quality of competing services. Is Bell throttling Skype because of legitimate network load concerns, or because Skype is a competitor to Bell’s traditional phone services? Should Bell decide that, say, YouTube is placing an unusual demand on the network can it turn off access to that particular website? Can it move to a system where individual websites can pay premiums for better service to Bell’s customers? These are all the core arguments at the core of Net Neutrality.

The resellers have a slightly different issue. One of the few competitive advantages they have over Sympatico is the ability to manage their own network. A prime example is that many of the small and medium sized ISP’s market themselves on being “power user” friendly and allowing features (unlimited bandwidth, static IP’s…) to appeal to more technically savvy users. If Bell can impose “network wide policies” it limits the amount that the resellers can manage their own networks to create end-user packages all that different from Bell. The resellers argue that the responsibility of managing traffic within their “piece” of the Bell network should be theirs alone.

So What’s the Deal?
The CRTC ruling basically comes out and says that Bell has the right to apply it’s own policies to it’s resellers, provided it gives them adequate notice. Why no one should start rioting in the streets just yet is that the ruling goes out of it’s way to make no statement about the legality of traffic shaping itself. Basically it focuses entirely on the reseller/Bell side of the argument as a simple contract dispute.

Further, and more interestingly, the CRTC is launching a brand new proceeding to address the issue of traffic shaping at all.

CAIP’s application asked us to only consider the specific issue of wholesale traffic shaping within a specific context. The broader issue of Internet traffic management raises a number of questions that affect both end-users and service providers,” added (CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein). “We have decided to hold a separate proceeding to consider both wholesale and retail issues. Its main purpose will be to address the extent to which Internet service providers can manage the traffic on their networks in accordance with the Telecommunications Act.”

This will be the hearing for all the marbles, and the one that end users should watch very closely as it will have a major influence on all internet services in this country for the foreseeable future, moreso than any recent government initative I can think of – even perhaps, the much discussed copyright legislation.

If we can take heart in anything, it’s that the FCC in the US seems to have come down fairly clearly on the side of Net Neutrality in a similar case in the US, ruling that Comcast couldn’t continue traffic shaping in a way almost identical to what Bell is doing. I actually think the FCC approach (where, with cause, ISP’s can throttle individuals who are using large amounts of network resources – but not make blanket policy against services) is preferable. No one would argue that ISP’s need to be able to protect the integrity of their networks, but it removes the spectre of them making decisions based on corporate interest, not end user experience.

[Amusing Sidenote – I wrote this this morning and have been unable to post it for hours because my office’s Bell-based internet decided to shut down completely… I guess that’s one form of “traffic shaping”]