With well over a million subscribers, Rogers is universally recognized as one of Canada's leading Internet service providers. The company offers several tiers of services, including the "Extreme" package that boasts of "blistering speed for sharing large files and much more." The package offers fast downloads, somewhat slower uploads, and a monthly cap of 100 gigabytes of data transfers.
Despite the promises of fast speeds and large file sharing capabilities, there are growing concerns among many consumers that the service delivers far less than advertised. Rogers actively engages in "traffic shaping", a process that limits the amount of bandwidth available for certain applications. Although this was initially limited to peer-to-peer file sharing applications, there is mounting speculation that the practice may be affecting basic functionality such as email and the use of virtual private networks.
For the past 18 months, Rogers traffic shaping has been an open secret. While Rogers at first denied the practice, it effectively acknowledged it in late 2005, arguing that peer-to-peer file sharing was using a disproportionate percentage of network resources and that the traffic shaping was needed to maintain the functionality of core services such as email and web browsing.
In response to the implementation of traffic shaping, many file sharing applications now employ encryption to make it difficult to detect the contents of data packets. This has led to a technical "cat and mouse" game, with Rogers now believed to be one of the only ISPs in the world to simply degrade encrypted traffic.
The traffic shaping issue raises several important concerns. From a consumer perspective, it is difficult to reconcile how the company can promote a service offering specific speeds and a maximum cap on data transfers, yet secretly hamper the ability for consumers to make full use of the service for which they have paid. Moreover, the failure to disclose the practice – a comprehensive search of the Rogers website does not yield a single mention of traffic shaping or limits on peer-to-peer applications – may bring consumer protection statutes into play.
Rogers' traffic shaping practices have also raised concern among network neutrality advocates, who fear that the company could limit bandwidth to competing content or services. Some customers note that the bandwidth consumed by customers of Rogers Internet phone service does not count against the monthly cap, though the same is not true for competing Internet telephony services.
Further, traffic shaping of file sharing applications – particularly those that use the BitTorrent protocol – targets a perfectly legal protocol that is relied upon by a growing number of small businesses. These include Canadian artists and film makers who use BitTorrent to circulate their work and open source software developers who depend on BitTorrent to distribute their programs in a cost-effective manner.
In addition to the consumer and competition concerns, there is now speculation at my own university that the traffic shaping is rendering it difficult for University of Ottawa computer users to use email applications from home.
The University of Ottawa uses a persistent SSL encryption technology for the thousands of professors and students who access their email from off-campus. There is speculation that Rogers is mistakenly treating the encrypted email traffic as encrypted BitTorrent traffic, thereby creating noticeable slowdowns. Indeed, I have been advised that the University computer help desk has received a steady stream of complaints from Rogers customers about off-campus email service.
If true, this form of network interference – implemented with virtually no transparency and now affecting basic Internet services such as email – could well extend beyond just email to include a host of other core applications that rely upon encrypted data transfers. For example, many businesses depend upon encryption to create virtual private networks that enable employees to login from remote locations into company servers. If Rogers is degrading encrypted traffic, it could render such applications virtually unusable.
Notwithstanding the steady flow of complaints, the lack of transparency from Rogers, and the potential threat to core communications activities, there has seemingly been no action from any governmental authorities including Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, Competition Commissioner Sheridan Scott, or Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Chair Konrad von Finckenstein. In fact, earlier this month Bernier pushed forward with a telecommunications deregulation plan over the objection of a parliamentary committee that studied the issue.
While the government has announced plans for a new consumer complaints commission, providing a sounding board for consumers is not enough. The solution lies in requiring full disclosure of traffic shaping and the introduction of mandatory net neutrality provisions to ensure that essential communications tools such as email are not surreptitiously degraded.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.