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Bell's Suzanne Morin, Peter Vandenengel, Jonathan Daniels, Carl Condon and Denis Henry, left to right, provided suggested guidelines on internet traffic management to the CRTC on Tuesday. ((Emily Chung/CBC))

Bell Canada slows certain types of downloads to as little as 1.5 to 3 per cent of their advertised speed during 9½ hours of the day, but not to the same extent during the entire period, company executives revealed to Canada's internet regulator Tuesday.

The details of the way the company throttles — selectively slows down — peer-to-peer (P2P) file transfers will soon be posted on the company's website, Jonathan Daniels, Bell's vice-president of regulatory law, said at a hearing Tuesday before the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission.

The hearings, which started July 6 and ended with Bell's testimony on Tuesday, are intended to help the CRTC develop guidelines for ISPs on acceptable ways to manage internet traffic and congestion.

Like other ISPs that testified previously, Bell said expanding its network and using pricing methods alone are not enough to deal with congestion. In addition, the company targets P2P file transfers because they are not time-sensitive and tend to hoard bandwidth.

The company suggested that the CRTC's guidelines allow all "reasonable" methods for managing internet traffic, so long as:

  • They have made a "reasonable" effort to limit the negative impacts on users, services, protocols or applications.
  • They disclose the "general nature" of the methods, such as the kind of traffic affected, the times of day and the privacy implications.
  • They don't break privacy laws.

"We're not aware of any unreasonable practice in the Canadian market today," Daniels said later when asked about the variety of practices put in place by various ISPs.

He said Bell's proposed guidelines should be applied to all ISPs, including DSL, cable, and wireless wholesalers and retailers.

CRTC Chair Konrad von Finckenstein asked why Bell is the only ISP in Canada that throttles P2P downloads, while most other ISPs only throttle uploads. Daniels responded that downloads are the main problem for Bell,  most other ISPs that throttle use cable technology that poses different challenges, and that some ISPs in other countries also throttle downloads.

10 hours of throttling per day

Von Finckenstein then asked why Bell throttles P2P file transfers during a 10-hour period of the day, instead of only during periods of congestion as many other ISPs do.

Carl Condon, Bell's vice-president of network technology and planning, said it isn't possible to manage links in Bell's network individually due to technological issues, and at any given time, some might be congested while others are not.

Len Katz, the CRTC's vice-chair of telecommunications, asked about Bell's throttled speeds. 

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The CRTC's Len Katz, left, and Konrad von Finckenstein asked Bell about the details of its throttling practices and why they were different from those of other ISPs. ((Emily Chung/CBC))

Daniels said peer-to-peer file transfers are reduced to a speed of 256 kilobits per second between 6 p.m. and 1 a.m. in Ontario and Quebec. That is a 98.5 per cent reduction from the maximum advertised speed of 16 megabits per second that Bell uses to sell its Internet Max 16 service.

Between 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. and between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., the company slows downloads to 512 kilobits per second. Daniels added that the numbers would be posted on its website soon.

Bell Canada's sister company Bell Aliant, which operates in Atlantic Canada, does not throttle traffic any time, as congestion is not considered a problem there, the CRTC was told.

Wholesale internet

Much of the infrastructure underlying the internet in Canada was built at taxpayer expense. Because of that, corporations such as Bell that own the lines are required to sell wholesale network access to other internet service providers at regulated rates.

Bell's regulated gateway access service (GAS) starts at $19.50 per month per customer for a five-megabit-per-second connection. Wholesale customers must also pay for a "door" or "on-ramp" from their own network with a specified amount of bandwidth. However, Bell says that comprises only two per cent of the total price for GAS.

Bell also sells wholesale high-speed access (HSA) to its network starting at an unregulated rate of $40 per month per customer for a six-megabit-per-second connection. That requires the ISP to install additional equipment, and reduces the amount of network shared with Bell.

For both GAS and HSA, the part of the network closest to the customer's home is shared with Bell's own retail customers.

The CRTC received a complaint from Bell's wholesale customers in 2008 that Bell was throttling those ISPs' retail customers. In November, the commission ruled such throttling was allowable in Bell's specific case, as the practice was applied equally to Bell's retail and wholesale customers. However, it decided to launch a probe into internet traffic management in general, culminating in the hearings that ended Tuesday.

Bell defends right to throttle other ISPs

One of the issues that had come up repeatedly during the hearings is whether companies such as Bell should be allowed to throttle the customers of other ISPs that buy wholesale network access from the larger ISPs.

Representatives of those smaller ISPs, such as Execulink, had argued that they should be able to manage their own customers' traffic and deal with their own problem customers directly in order to distinguish themselves and allow for true competition.

But Daniels said the only way Bell could allow those smaller ISPs — which buy network access wholesale from Bell — to manage their own internet traffic is if they used exactly the same method as Bell, as other methods would conflict.

"And if [they're] going to do that, why don't we just do it for them?" Daniels asked.

Daniels said there is already plenty of competition and allowing its wholesale customers to manage their own traffic is not possible on Bell's network, because:

  • The network is completely shared between Bell's own retail customers and the smaller ISPs' customers in the area where congestion is the biggest problem.
  • Bell's retail customers cannot be distinguished from the other ISPs' customers.
  • All those customers affect the others.

Bell's testimony contrasted with that of MTS Allstream, which sells wholesale internet service similar to Bell's in Manitoba. The company told the CRTC last week that it was able to distinguish between its wholesale and retail customers in Manitoba.

'They're only paying for the door'

On Tuesday, Bell also countered arguments made earlier by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), which represents many smaller ISPs, that:

  • Their internet traffic is an insignificant portion of total network traffic.
  • They buy a certain speed and a certain amount of bandwidth from Bell, which its throttling prevents them from using.

Daniels said Bell sells network access to more than 100 ISPs, who in turn produce 31 per cent of the traffic from their customers and Bell's retail customers combined. He added that the "bandwidth" fee is not in fact for bandwidth, but a tiny surcharge for the capacity of their access port.

"They're only paying for the door."

In addition, ISPs that don't want to be subject to throttling also have another option, Daniels said. They could buy Bell's high-speed access (HSA) wholesale service, which uses the same shared network and costs roughly twice as much, but is not subject to Bell's traffic shaping. For example, Primus has purchased that service in some parts of Ontario.

Earlier in the hearing Primus said it had introduced its own traffic shaping in those areas, which prioritizes certain applications during periods of congestion at specific areas of the network where congestion is happening.

Bell's Condon said he wasn't sure how Primus manages to detect and deal with congestion at specific times and areas of the network, as Bell cannot.