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Bell warned independent ISPs that they might see higher file sharing traffic during peak periods as a result of its network changes. (CBC)

Bell says it may stop slowing downloads and uploads of files shared by customers through peer-to-peer applications.

Earlier this week, Bell sent a letter to its wholesale customers – independent ISPs that rent access to Bell's network in order to connect customers to their own networks – informing them that effective November 2011, new network links in its expanded network may no longer be affected by equipment designed to slow down peer-to-peer traffic during peak periods. In an email to CBC News, Bell clarified that it is no longer installing such equipment as it expands or augments its network.

Since 2008, Bell has been selectively slowing down or throttling file sharing applications between the "peak" hours of 4:30 p.m. and 2 a.m., saying that it was necessary to deal with congestion. The company said peer-to-peer traffic is targeted because it is not as time sensitive as other applications, such as video or voice calling. The throttling has been applied to both customers of independent ISPs and to Bell's own retail internet customers.

In this week's letter, Bell said "while congestion still exists, the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing applications on congestion has reduced."

It added that in the future, it may move customers to parts of the network where throttling isn't applied.

While the independent ISPs who are Bell's wholesale customers have been informed, Bell said it does not distinguish between its wholesale and retail customers when expanding its network, suggesting that retail customers may also experience less throttling of peer-to-peer traffic in the future.

However, In an email to CBC News late Thursday afternoon, Bell clarified that it will continue to throttle specific kinds of traffic "where necessary on our networks, in both retail and wholesale, where we experience congestion." The company added that it is constantly reassessing the need for such practices.

Network traffic may jump: Bell

Bell warned independent ISPs that they might see higher file sharing traffic during peak periods as a result of its network changes.

"This may also impact the capacity of your network due to the increase in traffic," the letter said. "As a result, we recommend that you monitor your access to ensure you can meet the network needs of your customers."

Tom Copeland, chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, which represents a number of small ISPs, said he was glad to see Bell's move, even though Bell was somewhat ambiguous about the extent to which it would reduce throttling.

"I think anything that our wholesale providers can do to help us provide better service to Canadians is a great thing," he said Thursday.

He added that independent ISPs had long been opposed to Bell selectively throttling the same kinds of traffic for their customers as for Bell's own retail customers because that made it difficult for independent ISPs to differentiate their services.

It also made it difficult to judge what their real internet traffic would be without that kind of throttling, he said.

"It makes it difficult for us to do any forward planning."

Copeland said independent ISPs are looking forward to the chance to be able to manage their network traffic on their own. "It allows us to, again, differentiate our service."

Open Media, a group that lobbies for an open internet, said it too is "glad to see Bell moving away from the practice of throttling access to online services" – something it calls "anti-competitive."

Net neutrality guidelines

In a blog posting Wednesday, Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor who researches internet law, pointed to Bell's admission that peer-to-peer file sharing is no longer a major contributor to network congestion.

He suggested that means that if Bell continues to throttle file sharing traffic from its retail internet customers, it may be violating Canadian internet traffic management guidelines. Those guidelines from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, specify that network traffic management "must be designed to address a defined need and nothing more" and should result in as little discrimination or preference for certain types of traffic as possible. He also noted that may also apply to other ISPs that also throttle certain kinds of traffic to manage congestion.

In September, the CRTC issued new guidelines for resolving consumer complaints about throttling. They include timelines that internet providers need to meet when dealing with complaints, a commitment to post the number of complaints online, and possible consequences such as a third-party audit or public hearing for ISPs that don't comply.