Smart Pipes vs. Dumb Pipes

While the early focus of the CRTC New Media hearings are unsurprisingly focused on levies and regulation, an important additional issue is quickly emerging.  CRTC Chair Konrad von Finckenstein tried to set the stage for the hearings by noting that they are limited strictly to new media broadcasting.  He then followed with a question to Alain Pinot of the CCA in which he stated that he does not see the relationship between this hearing and the network management hearing. Von Finckenstein's comments come on the heels of the comment from Rogers over the weekend that they run a "dumb pipe" with respect to content. 

It seems to me that the comments are related as they present a vision that puts content in one box (new media hearings and the Rogers dumb pipe) and network management in another (net neutrality hearings and a smart pipe/traffic shaping).  I think this is wrong and points to key question.  To use Rogers' terminology – can an ISP that engages in active network management but does not directly filter content be said to run both a smart pipe (the network management) and a dumb pipe (for content)?

I think the answer is no – current network management necessarily leaks into content and cannot be said to be a dumb pipe.   First, it is clear that the deep packet inspection technologies employed by ISPs may already leak into content management.  The expert report on DPI for the CRTC lists the following uses:

  • Off-line tool to analyze network traffic
  • Identify and block or shape P2P traffic
  • Handle security threats or nuisances such as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks
  • Service tiering and premium service control
  • Parental control & URL filtering
  • Personalized advertising, targeted service offers etc
  • Third party service management

I would argue that this list already involves content management including URL filtering, personalized advertising, and targeting service offers.  All of these services can have an effect on the end-user's experience and is not consistent with a dumb pipe.

Second, the ongoing talk of traffic prioritization based on a particular website (ie. fast lane vs. slow lane) is quite obviously not a dumb pipe for content purposes.  If ISPs move in that direction (as many have openly speculated), there will be little doubt that network management and content management will have merged.

Third, it is important to recognize that degrading bandwidth on certain applications necessarily has a spillover effect on content.  In other words, you cannot have a smart pipe for applications and a dumb pipe for content.  The application at issue is BitTorrent, which Rogers and many other ISPs believe can be degraded without having an effect on the content itself.  From a competitive perspective, this is wrong since BitTorrent distribution can/does compete with other on-demand video services.  By degrading one form of distribution, the other is clearly advantaged.  Moreover, the degrading of BitTorrent can arguably "influence the meaning and purpose of the telecommunications" since the slower speeds will have an effect on how the end-user ultimately experiences the content that they are trying to access.

This inability to distinguish between content and application is obvious in the telecommunications space where ISPs do not need to censor the voice conversation to have an effect on the content of the communication.  If an ISP were to degrade an Internet telephony service, it would clearly raise competitive concerns (favouring its own VoIP or landline service) and would have an effect on the quality of the communication itself, thereby making it difficult to communicate the content.  The impact is clear even if the ISP does not block or censor the actual conversation.   The same is increasingly true for broadcast-style content, where the content itself may not be strictly censored or blocked, but the degrading of the communication of the content may still have an undesirable impact.

This issue provides one reason why net neutrality legislation is needed in Canada.  The CRTC looked at it in the Bell throttling decision, ruling that throttling does not have an impact on content in violation of the Telecommunications Act.  If the CRTC stands by the decision that such actions are consistent with current law, the solution may well be to change the law.

Moreover, this merging of content and application is why the issue cannot be easily dismissed in the new media hearing.  When the CBC or a Canadian film maker uses BitTorrent to distribute their content, the ability for Canadians to access that content on an equal footing with other distribution models depends upon a net neutral Internet and should be seen as a key policy tool to ensure that Canadian creators enjoy equality of access.  It goes without saying that it is also why Rogers cannot claim to have a dumb pipe in February and smart one in July.


  1. Troy James Sobotka says:

    Deep Packet Inspection
    “First, it is clear that the deep packet inspection technologies employed by ISPs may already leak into content management.”

    Logically, this will lead to widespread encryption.

    Following this, would a government be so bold as to issue regulatory checks on encryption? “You can’t run that level of encryption as per BillS666 – the government would be unable to inspect the system’s ethernet packets.”

    So, Mr. Geist, where does this lead us? Do the commercial operating systems begin to enforce digital restrictions of levels and types of encryption in much the same way they are bleeding into content restrictions?[1]

    I vaguely remember that it was illegal to export OpenBSD from the United States several years ago.[2]


    (As a matter of fluke, the Captcha test words below for this posting verification were “despise control”. Hilarious.)

  2. The Troll’s panties are bunched up. Look out!
    Has any read Mark Goldburgs piece on Michael Geist?

    For those that don’t know Goldburg writings, he is pro-big telecom and pro- raping the peoples wallet in every possible scenario possible.

    I’ve been following this Goldburg guys blog since it started. All he ever does it rant against Michael Geist. Always! Its like a monthly ritual. This guys panties must be all bunched up. He’s like a forum troll, but with a blog. Guess it helps when someone like him worked for Bell and probably still does with his “consulting” service.

    New definitions for Goldburg to look up:

    Maybe he does this to try and bring attention to his own site for commercial purposes?

    Anyhow, I think Michael Geist hit it dead on with this post and the last one. Its plain for all to see. It’s also applicable to Bell who doesn’t throttle their own content but does throttle the content of others.

    Maybe Goldburg should open his mind and eyes a bit more before flaming and trolling others?

  3. What’s unique about these hearings?
    Michael, you’re arguing that net neutrality issues that will certainly be addressed at the telecom hearing, should also be addressed at this broadcast hearing. Um, fine; call it two kicks at the can.

    But what about neutrality-like issues that can only be addressed at this current hearing?

  4. Timothy Friesen says:

    Identifying content as uniquely “Canadian”
    Maybe I’m missing something, but how does the ISP identify the content on a website as “Canadian”? A Canadian website could indeed “broadcast” non-Canadian content in the same way that CTV or CBC can broadcast non-Canadian content. Rogers/Bell/Telus are not the same as CTV/CBC. Your cable company cannot detect whether what you are currently watching on TV is Canadian content or not.

    So… In this way, Rogers does run a dumb pipe. They cannot uniquely identify content as Canadian unless they are told that it is Canadian (one way to do this would be through the use of metadata in the file).

    The people responsible for following Canadian content regulations should be the broadcasters of the content. I will not comment on how to define a broadcaster or on whether the Internet (because of its ability to make anyone a broadcaster) should be regulated for Canadian content.

    Please let me know if I’m completely out to lunch here.

  5. Canuck Business says:

    wait…whatyorusaying then
    wait…what your saying then is that they aren’t supposed to do this, and if so then wtf is going on my grand father didn’t fight for freedom in 1939-45 to have these bone heads turn into dictatorsips

  6. George Smiley says:

    February to July is several dozen eternities in terms of time to develop inconsistent and even contradictory factual and legal arguments, and outright hypocricy. Give Blogers full credit for creative spinning. That’s where our money goes and that’s what they’re good at.

  7. Canuck Business says:

    How to foll ISPS and govt with encryption
    lets say in future they make it so your only allwoed 128Kbit
    OR less
    well you put more layer sunder it using a custom algorithm ….and just add more and more .

    they will be so hard at figuring out what anyone does anymore it will cost massive amounts to deal with me sending the word HELLO.

    Did you also know that the bell traffic machines wear out cause a this. and that recently one failed as a result and that cost bell about 350 grand.

    do it more and more and they will fry like pancakes

  8. CRTC should have merged the New media and Traffic management hearings
    At least two parties asked the CRTC to combine the New Media and Traffic Management hearings: Canadian Conference of the Arts and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.

    Why?: Because it won’t matter if we have generate new funding for Cancon, if Cancon content providers then have to pay New media distributors to get that content carried. You end up where you started — with poorly-funded Cancon.

    Why would New Media distributors charge both content providers AND content users? Because they can (CRTC deregulated distribution rates in the 1990s). Because distributors’ revenue growth is declining as everyone buys mobile ‘phones etc. (and you can’t attract shareholders as easily if your growth is declining, instead of growing). Because the marketplace in content delivery is NOT competitive, in the classic Adam Smith formulation (but rather, oligopolistic, with the demonstrated risk that companies like Shaw will simply raise rates when they feel like it, because they lack competitors of equal size in the same markets to battle for customers using price).

    The easiest and most efficient regulatory approach to the New Media issue, would have been to combine both hearings. CRTC refused, without much explanation other than the Chairman’s “I don’t see the link” comment [to paraphrase him]. How does that explanation explain anything?

  9. And why do we need to fund Cancon?
    Before this blog is deluged with the standard, “if it’s good, people will pay for it” arguments, the answer to the question of ‘why should we fund stuff we don’t want to watch’ is this: why should I pay for anyone else’s health care, when I am rarely sick? why should I pay for fire trucks, when my house has never burned down? why should I pay for elementary schools, now that my kids are in high school?

    It’s called public goods theory, folks: society as a whole undertakes to pay for a variety of services to meet its citizens’ needs, because the marketplace does not, will not, or chooses not to perform those services in a reasonable way that serves everyone equally.

    And governments also often end up supporting the private sector directly (as with any funding to any private company in any sector fo the economy – Bombardier usually springs to mind), and indirectly. Why should I have to help pay for the expansion of broadband to communities in the North, when I have terrific access to broadband here in southern Ontario — because won’t this actually end up benefitting the ISPs who didn’t want to build the broadband themselves, but are now willing to provide service to people in the areas served by broadband thanks to public funding?

    The very simple fact is that Canada’s thirteen (not 25, not 50, not 100) private conventional television broadcasters, the ones who generate most of the original Canadian content created in Canada, can buy American content far more cheaply than Canadian content. If you can always, always, always buy Desperate Housewives from the US, more cheaply than you can yourself make Happy Housewives here in Canada, your duty to your shareholders/company owners requires you to pick the less-expensive program, and to return the money you save to shareholders.

    (Please, let’s not get into the, “well, if the Americans can do it so cheaply, we must be failures” argument — because the fact is that American TV series ALSO lose money, and it is only by deep-discount selling to every other country on the planet and through the tax-loss wonders of income tax legislation, that American networks do well.)

    News, information and yes, even drama and music, matter to Canadians. Once the physical capacity to create content — the buildings, the transmission towers, the lines, and the people (including reporters, journalists, technicians, engineers, directors, actors, writers and musicians) — is gone thanks to arguments that the Americans do it all so much better, so much cheaper, and why should ‘we’ have to pay for it, it is going to be far more expensive to rebuild it, than to maintain it even at the minimal levels we do now.

  10. A Concerned Observer says:

    Active vs Passive Network Management
    One issues raised in this post that I think is of particular note, is the distinction between “active” and “passive” network managements. Further discussion on this topic could be beneficial, in that transparent passive management may be acceptable (at least in the the short term) — i.e., where packets are objectively filtered in a manner transparent to the end user solely for the purpose of ensuring network uptime. This may help to avoid situations were ISPs actively manage their networks by subjectively filtering packets based on source, protocol or other discretionary parameters. This would result in a debate over passive vs. active network management, which may be more productive and accurate that an dumb vs smart pipes analogy (which is reminiscent of Steven’s “series of tubes” comment). Frankly, the need for better broadband is what’s underlying this debate, and one of the only true solutions.

  11. Re: Active vs Passive Network Management
    I don’t think “Active” and “Passive” mean what you think they mean.

    Examples of each:
    Active – A layer 3 device (network router) deciding what port to output a packet to based on layer 3 information (IP Address).

    Passive – A layer 1 device (amplifier) boosting a signal so it gravels further down the line.

    By definition your description of “transparent passive management” very much IS an active process. There are, however, “Good”, and “Evil” forms of network management:

    Good – My ISP giving my VOIP call’s packet a higher priority (Quality of Service) on their network then my BitTorrent packets. One is real-time critical, the other is not real time because I have to wait for the whole file to be downloaded before using it.

    Evil – My ISP giving their “Home Phone” VOIP packets a higher priority, while giving Vonage VOIP packets a lower priority. The “Home Phone” call is crystal clear, while the Vonage call is garbled and terrible.

    Regulating good and evil behaviour is a bit tricky though.

  12. public goods theory
    > “if it’s good, people will pay for it” arguments, the answer to the question of ‘why should we fund stuff we don’t want to watch’ is this: why should I pay for anyone else’s health care, when I am rarely sick? why should I pay for fire trucks, when my house has never burned down? why should I pay for elementary schools, now that my kids are in high school?

    I see your scarecrow, and that’s all it is, a scarecrow. If your logic is correct, every business would demand a government levy for being in business. We’d have a road levy paid to the auto-makers.

    You are arguing for Essential Public Services, which the public will agree on taxes paying for schools and hospitals etc. Contrarily, entertainment is not an essential service. The ISP taxing levy, like the blank media taxing levy, funds non-essential elective services – or it funds greedy levy fund-managers who create levy funds. Canadian content is non-essential and largely unwanted, like you said.

    You are also arguing implicitly to revoke your own democratic right to choose the content you like. Canada is a multicultural society (or so we are deceived) until You force Your Canadian content on people who just want to watch their cultural/preferred content.

    You are in the business of entertainment, and businesses aren’t immune to failure. You’re not creating culture as you’d like to believe. Otherwise, if you think you’re creating culture, then you’re creating a culture of failure, a culture the world doesn’t want to watch.

    There is already a fund from cable and satellite companies. The internet is a communication medium, which has countless uses than just entertainment.

    It’s funny you’re willing to impose your unwanted entertainment on Canadians, restrict cultural freedom, and revoke your right to choose good entertainment. Canadians already pay one of the highest price for an internet connection, and you want to increase our price.

    What else will you not do?