Regulatory hearings on Internet traffic management practices held in windowless rooms in Gatineau, Quebec in the middle of summer are not likely candidates to attract much attention. Yet, as my weekly technology column notes (Toronto Star version, homepage version) for seven days this month, hundreds of Canadians listened to webcasts of Internet service providers defend their previously secret practices while engaging in a robust debate on net neutrality. The interest in the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission hearing may have caught the regulator off-guard (the webcast traffic was, by a wide margin, its most ever for a hearing), but it was the testimony itself that was the greatest source of surprise.
Post Tagged with: "network management"
I participated in debate with Bell's Jonathan Daniels on net neutrality for the National Post Full Comment podcast.
In case you missed or avoided the CRTC net neutrality hearing, I thought I would post a few reflections (my summaries of the events are available at Day 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7; additional coverage NetNeutrality.ca). While there were some notable anecdotes and quotes (Rogers comment about traffic managing a cure for cancer come to mind), I would point to six key revelations that evolved over the course of the week and a half.
1. The rate of network traffic growth is slowing. This was raised midway through the first week by Professor Odlyzko and was subsequently confirmed by several ISPs. The revelations ran counter to the general sense before the hearings that ISPs cannot keep pace with the rate of growth. In fact, it turns out the opposite is true – reasonable new investment in the networks can address current growth rates.
2. There is a wide variation in the use of traffic management tools with a different approach for pretty much every major ISP. There are those that throttle all the time (Cogeco), during large chunks of the day (Bell), only during congested periods (Shaw), or not at all (Telus, Videotron). There are those that throttle upload only (Rogers) or upload and download (Bell). There are those that use "economic measures" such as bit caps effectively (Videotron) and others that doubt it can be an effective approach on its own (Bell). This points to the fact that granular rules will be difficult, but broader principled tests are essential.
3. The rules for retail and wholesale will be different. The hearing surprisingly included a near-rehearing of the Bell v. CAIP case. Wholesale services were much discussed as the CRTC recognized the potential of independent ISPs to inject additional competition into the marketplace. Based on the evidence, it would appear that the problems with wholesale are largely a Bell problem. Many other ISPs that offer wholesale services do not traffic manage or have such small wholesale businesses that the impact is fairly small. Bell is a big player in the wholesale side and they have designed their network in a manner that makes it difficult to fully exploit the competitive potential of smaller entrants. While CAIP argued for rules against wholesale throttling but against retail restrictions (thereby abandoning consumer interests), the opposite seems more likely to occur.
4. Disclosures are woefully inadequate in Canada. Each day brought new and surprising revelations about how little ISPs tell their customers about their traffic management practices. By far the most egregious was Rogers, which admitted that it charges tiered pricing for faster upload speeds but that all tiers were throttled to the same speed when using P2P. In other words, the Extreme subscriber who pays $59.99 per month and is promised fast upload speeds (1 Mbps) actually gets the same upload speed as the Express subscriber who pays $46.99 per month and is promised upload speeds of 512 kbps. There were similar stories from many other ISPs, who disclosed actual speeds that bring P2P down to a virtual crawl. Disclosure has improved over the past year as the issue has gained prominence, but there clearly is a long way to go.
5. Managed networks vs. public Internet. ISPs do not focus on the fact that many run managed IP networks offering telephony and IPTV on the same pipe as the public Internet services. When asked whether the two impact each other, the answer came back that it could. In fact, ISPs were at pains to say that while it could happen, it would not happen since they ensure that they provision enough bandwidth for their managed services. Yet in examples such as Bell's three users promised 5 megs but with only 10 megs to share, it was apparent that the same cannot be said for oversold public Internet services.
6. The Commission takes privacy seriously. The ISPs seemed surprised that the Commission regularly asked about the privacy impact of throttling and deep-packet inspection. The Commission was similarly surprised when Bell admitted that Canadian privacy law would permit the use of DPI data for marketing purposes with the customer's consent.
Where to from here?
Day seven of the CRTC's network management hearing featured just one company: Bell. As the prime target for much of the criticism associated with traffic management, Bell executives faced questions for nearly three hours, far longer than anyone else.
Key points included new details on Bell's traffic and traffic management practices, claims that the company cannot separate retail and wholesale Internet traffic, and the company's support for a "reasonableness" standard, rather than the "least intrusive" approach advocated by several groups.
Today's summary was again compiled by Sean Murtha, a law student at the University of Ottawa. Other coverage available from the National Post liveblog, CBC.ca, the National Post, and twitter feeds from CIPPIC and me.
Day five of the CRTC's network management hearings featured at trio of ISPs, each offering a different perspective on network management issues: Telus (DSL), Cogeco (cable), and Barrett Xplore (satellite). While the three presentations provided a valuable reminder about the differences in network architecture, each had its own important moment.
The key Telus moment came during questioning from Commissioner Len Katz about the impact of the managed IP network (ie. Telus IPTv) on the public Internet. Katz expected to hear that there was no impact, yet Telus admitted that there was an effect. In other words, this is one big pipe and the managed traffic can have an impact on the IP traffic. This is a crucial admission since it highlights how Internet-based activities compete on the same pipe as managed IP ones. In other words, a video on the public Internet effectively competes with a video offered on a video-on-demand service and throttling of the Internet-based video necessarily raises competition concerns.
The Cogeco presentation served to emphasize that without rules, carriers will be free to throttle or limit bandwidth, regardless of any concerns about congestion. This came through when Cogeco was twice asked why it continually traffic shapes on a 24 hour, 7 day per week basis, rather than when there is actual congestion. The response was essentially that it is their network and they are entitled to do as they see fit (assuming that the throttling is legal). The Commissioners should take note that the Cogeco policy and response demonstrates that this is not – as von Finckenstein suggested earlier in the week – a hearing about dealing with network congestion since policies like that employed by Cogeco bear no direct relationship to network congestion.
The Barrett Xplore presentation was highlighted by an attempt to play the P2P blame game. The company began by explaining how it needed to manage traffic to deal with bandwidth hogging applications like BitTorrent. Yet when asked why its disclosure policy did not reference shaping of P2P traffic, the company admitted that its traffic management policies were not P2P specific. Rather, anyone using too much bandwidth (based on the company's assessment) would find their connection throttled. In other words, Barrett Xplore has a bandwidth problem, not a P2P problem, yet P2P provides a convenient excuse.
Today's summary was compiled by Sean Murtha, a law student at the University of Ottawa. Other coverage available from the National Post liveblog and twitter feeds (CIPPIC, me). [update: National Post and CBC.ca articles]