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By making its networks available, Bell Canada has promoted competition in the internet market, but finding a common ground with the smaller ISPs has been difficult. (Canadian Press)

The CRTC's controversial decision this week to impose use-based billing on small service providers cast a spotlight on network access and competition among internet service providers.

The commission ruled in favour of Bell, which wanted to implement the billing system for independent service providers that use the company's networks. After an outcry from consumers and the federal government, CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein later said the ruling would be reviewed.

Bell Canada has a complex history with small internet service providers.

In 2005, the CRTC approved a Bell proposal — known as gateway access service, or GAS, — to provide competitors with access to the company's established network. Bell would provide smaller ISPs with a dedicated channel between a consumer’s home or business and Bell Canada’s wire centres.

Since then, large service providers like Bell in the East and Telus in Western Canada have been mandated by the CRTC to provide some form of wholesale network access to competitors. The commission’s argument is that relatively new providers lack the financial and logistical capacity to build their own networks.

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The CRTC will review its ruling to allow usage-based billing, which favoured Bell over indepedent service providers, chairman Konrad von Finckenstein announced Thursday. ((Canadian Press))

The CRTC's position also reflects the lack of competition Bell faced when it was building its network infrastructure. An absence of competing companies essentially guarantee a large customer base and made the building of a new network by anyone else a risky venture.

Independent internet service providers, such as MTS Allstream and Primus, liked the gateway access service approach, since it allowed smaller or more distant providers access to the biggest markets.

Under GAS, the smaller providers pay Bell a flat fee for certain components that provide the final length of connection to customers. The fee is determined by the bandwidth consumed by users.

These components simply provide a connection between the independent providers and Bell. They don't include internet connectivity. Web access and other functionality, such as e-mail and voice-over-IP, are later implemented and sold by ISPs.

The smaller independent providers must also pay for transit across the networks owned by Bell or other incumbents. ISPs purchase a specific amount of bandwidth from Bell, and if their traffic capacity exceeds that, they must buy more. This means the transmission fee is determined in part by the volume of users and again, by the volume of data traffic.

Technical difficulties

In the years that followed the 2005 CRTC decision, revisions were made to the gateway access service. Bell upgraded its networks to provide higher speeds and in some cases asked the CRTC to approve higher associated rates. The new prices were generally accepted but often required compromises after complaints by the affected ISPs.

Concerns were raised in 2008 by the Canadian Associated of Internet Providers and others that Bell was "throttling" the connections of users that consumed the most bandwidth, often through peer-to-peer applications.

ISPs and consumers await the outcome of the CRTC's review of is usage-based billing decision. To find out what some business leaders hope will happen, read here.

Bell privately provided the CRTC with evidence showing these high-usage customers were congesting its networks and compromising the quality of service offered to other users. The CRTC eventually agreed and has not officially stopped Bell from continuing to shape traffic on the networks it sells to competitors.

More recently, Bell proposed a usage-based billing system be imposed to further ease the congestion created by users responsible for the most traffic on Bell networks.

Placing restrictions on the amount of bandwidth available monthly to users would decrease overall traffic but also make it impossible for independent providers to offer unlimited bandwidth caps — one of their strongest selling points.

And it would mean that ISPs would pay another fee to Bell, on top of the access and transition fees, again determined by the amount of traffic created by their customers.

Following the billing proposal, MTS Allstream, a Manitoba-based service provider, suggested Bell adopt a service structure that would not penalize all ISPs using its networks when only one ISP is causing the congestion. 

The suggestion wasn't accepted. And despite recommendations from competitors and the pleas of consumers, Bell's proposal won over the CRTC, which this week approved usage-based billing.

The backlash that followed, including promised intervention by Industry Minister Tony Clement and Prime Minister Steven Harper, led the CRTC to announce a formal review of the ruling.