How internet providers manipulate and manage the speed of the internet for different types of data will be examined by Canada's telecommunications regulator during six days of hearings in Gatineau, Que., starting Monday.

Canadian law and internet traffic management

The Telecommunications Act makes it illegal for internet service providers to:

  • Engage in "unjust discrimination" against or give "undue or unreasonable preference" to any person when providing or charging for telecommunications services.
  • Control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public without the CRTC's approval.

But the CRTC has not yet ruled on whether any internet traffic management practices would violate provisions of the act.

While the Conservative government has not waded into the debate, the federal Liberal party expressed support for net neutrality in June. Earlier in June, the federal New Democratic Party's Charlie Angus, critic for digital issues, re-introduced a private member's bill, C-552, designed to enshrine net neutrality in law.

Whether the online traffic management practices used by internet service providers such as Bell and Rogers violate Canada's Telecommunications Act is a question that the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission is trying to answer.

The commission hearings scheduled for the first week of July will look at how some internet service providers are dealing with alleged congestion on the internet, and how that affects consumers and businesses that favour "net neutrality." Net neutrality is the principle that says ISPs should not interfere with information transmitted over the internet and no users or applications should be treated preferentially over others. Advocates say the principle is needed to ensure customer choice and foster innovation.

The CRTC has the power to impose conditions on the way wholesale and retail internet is offered in Canada.

Some of the internet traffic control practices being put under the microscope are:

  • Throttling — that is, purposely slowing down the internet speeds of certain online applications such as peer-to-peer file transfers (P2P) relative to others.
  • Deep packet inspection, a technology used to examine traffic to figure out what type of data it is so it can be monitored and directed.
  • Imposing download limits and excess bandwidth usage charges on heavy users.

ISPs that engage in traffic management practices say they are necessary to manage network congestion caused by certain bandwidth-hungry applications like P2P transfers of large files such as movies.

As part of the probe, the commission is also looking into:

  • The level and growth of congestion on networks.
  • Other potential methods for dealing with it, such as upgrading network capacity.

Throttling ruling in November

The hearings are part of an investigation launched by the CRTC following a complaint from smaller ISPs that their customers were being throttled by Bell — that is, their customers' internet speeds were being selectively slowed down when they used certain online applications at certain times. The smaller ISPs buy network access wholesale from Bell, which is required to sell it to them because its networks were built decades ago at taxpayer expense, when phone companies were government-owned monopolies.

In November, the CRTC ruled that Bell's throttling of its competitors' customers was not discriminatory as it also throttles its own customers in the same way. The decision was specific to Bell's wholesale customers and did not deal with throttling in general, the commission said.

The same day as that decision was announced, the CRTC said it would open a new probe into the larger issue of internet traffic management, which is also done by other large internet service providers such as Rogers Communications Inc. and Shaw Inc. The probe was to include an online public consultation and end with the July public hearings.

Meanwhile, a group of smaller ISPs and public advocacy organizations is challenging the November 2008 Bell ruling. The appeal alleges the ruling could unfairly influence the CRTC's probe into internet traffic management practices.

Who's who at the hearings

A number of different groups are scheduled to speak at the hearings. Based on their written submissions, here is what they are expected to say:

1. ISPs that use internet traffic management for P2P file transfers

  • Specifically: Bell Aliant, Cogeco, Rogers, Shaw, Barrett Xplor.
  • What they are expected to say: Practices such as throttling are necessary to ensure fairness among internet users and prevent a few bandwidth hogs from slowing down the internet for everyone. Barrett Xplor use traffic management for satellite services, arguing that satellites are expensive and hard to upgrade.

2. ISPs that use other methods to deal with congestion

  • Specifically: Telus, MTS Allstream, Primus, Quebecor on behalf of Videotron
  • What they are expected to say: Methods such as usage-based pricing and network upgrades work well to deal with congestion, but each ISP should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding how they deal with congestion. Primus argues in its written submission that internet wholesalers such as Bell should not be allowed to impose their traffic management practices on the customers of other ISPs that buy wholesale network access from them.

3. Small ISPs, including those that may be throttled by their wholesalers

  • Specifically: Coalition of Internet Service Providers Inc., Canadian Association of Internet Providers, Execulink, Cybersurf.
  • What they are expected to say: Many of these companies buy internet access wholesale from companies such as Bell, create packages and resell it to their own retail customers. They argue that allowing wholesalers to apply traffic management to customers of other ISPs is anti-competitive.

4. The entertainment industry

  • Specifically: Independent Film and Television Alliance, Canadian Film and Television Production Association, Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists.
  • What they are expected to say: The internet is an important platform for distributing music, film and TV. ISPs should not act as gatekeepers for those.

5. Other businesses and organizations that rely on the internet to deliver services

  • Specifically: Zip.ca, Jason Roks, Vaxination informatique, Norm Friesen, Canada research chair in e-learning practices at Thompson Rivers University, Open Internet Coalition
  • What they are expected to say: Traffic management practices that discriminate against certain types of data could reduce investment in broadband networks and consumer choice, inhibit innovation and freedom of expression and be abused to engage in anti-competitive practices.

6. Consumer and public interest advocacy groups

  • Specifically: Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Union des consommateurs, National Union of Public and General Employees, Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic on behalf of Campaign for Democratic Media, Council of Canadians with Disabilities and ARCH Disability Law Centre
  • What they are expected to say: Their position is similar to that of businesses and organizations that rely on the internet, but they are also concerned that technologies such as deep packet inspection could invade consumers' privacy.