Canada’s net neutrality rules, which require Internet providers to disclose how they manage their networks and to treat content in an equal manner, were established in 2009. The policy is administered by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which releases quarterly reports on the number of complaints it receives and whether any have been escalated to enforcement actions.
At first glance, the reports on the so-called Internet traffic management guidelines suggest that net neutrality violations are very rare. Last year, there were typically a few complaints each month and all were quickly resolved. The CRTC does not disclose the specific targets or subject matter of the complaints.
Yet according to documents obtained under the Access to Information Act, the complaints and their resolution give cause for concern. There are generally two types of complaints: those involving throttling technologies that limit speeds to render real-time services unusable or treat similar content in different ways, and quality-of-service issues that seem like throttling to the customer.
The first type of complaint raises real neutrality issues, but the CRTC has been content to “resolve” disputes without any penalty or further action. Xplornet, the satellite Internet provider, was the target of more complaints than any other provider in 2014 owing to its widespread use of throttling technologies. In a request for comment, Xplornet stated that it is aware of 12 complaints regarding traffic management to the CRTC in the last year on a base of more than 250,000 customers.
Its response to most complaints at the CRTC is simply to cite to its posted traffic management policies, which leave some customers understandably confused. For example, a subscriber to its fixed wireless services complained about throttling, only to learn that they were subject to four different throttling policies: a 24 hour usage allowance that cuts speeds in half for those who reach their daily data limit, a “peak hours” throttling policy that limits speeds to some applications between 8:00 pm and 1:00 am, a dynamic congestion policy that limits speeds during network congestion for the top 10 per cent of users, and a usage allowance policy that reduces speeds once subscribers reach their monthly allowance.
The CRTC does not take issue with the Xplornet approach. As long as Xplornet discloses its policies, which the ISP maintains are designed to ensure that each customer receives fair and consistent access to the Internet, it is compliant with the net neutrality regulations.
More troubling are instances where throttling treats similar content in different ways. One subscriber complained numerous times to Xplornet that traffic to the Google Play store was being slowed, while similar requests to the Apple store was not. The ISP dismissed the concerns and only investigated once the subscriber filed a complaint with the CRTC.
Upon review, it turned out that the company was slowing speeds to the Google Play store due to a change in the way the service was delivered. It pledged to fix the problem and the CRTC treated the issue as resolved. Unlike anti-spam and do-not-call enforcement that has led to significant penalties, however, there was no penalty or public admonishment for an obvious violation of the net neutrality rules.
For those providers that do not limit speeds, the complaints invariably involve service problems with ISPs advertising faster speeds than they were able to provide. For example, a Bell subscriber complained that access to Netflix appeared to be throttled each night. The subscriber explained that they were using the online video service at the lowest bandwidth setting and consumed less than 10 per cent of their monthly available data.
When the CRTC asked Bell to look into the issue, the company responded that the subscriber was located far from the nearest equipment available to service their home, leading to reduced speeds. Moreover, the company aggregated traffic from all the neighbours into a single connection, resulting in nightly network congestion. Bell said it was hoping to address some of the problems in the future, but suggested that the subscriber stop using other devices while watching Netflix.
While Bell was not throttling the connection, it was not offering a usable Internet service either (in a request for comment, Bell noted that if a customer is consistently experiencing lower speeds, they should contact them to undertake further testing). Canadian regulations do little to address ISPs that over-promise and under-deliver in terms of speed and connectivity. With subscribers kept in the dark about the technical limitations of services that are unable to deliver a reasonable connection to Netflix, new rules are needed to ensure greater transparency about actual Internet speeds.
Canada’s net neutrality rules have provided consumers with a system to address concerns with their Internet service. However, with no penalties for ISPs that fail to abide by the rules and no limits on throttling that is publicly disclosed, there is surely room for improvement.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.