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Bell Canada, which is in the process of changing the signs on its buildings to reflect its new brand, is facing a class-action lawsuit over its throttling of internet speeds. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

Canadians will have some idea of how much control service providers get over internet traffic by the end of October, when the CRTC is scheduled to rule on a dispute involving Bell Canada Inc.

In a letter dated Aug. 8 and posted to its website this week, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said it would rule on the fight between Bell and the Canadian Association of Internet Providers by Oct. 31. The CRTC had hoped to make a ruling in September, but extended its time frame into October after both Bell and CAIP delayed filings last month.

The battle began in April when CAIP, a group of 55 smaller internet providers who rent portions of Bell's network to provide their own services, lodged a complaint with the CRTC over Bell's "throttling" practices.

Bell in November started slowing down the connection speeds of its own Sympatico customers who were using peer-to-peer software such as BitTorrent. The company said it needed to do so because a small percentage of subscribers were clogging up its network, then expanded the practice to its CAIP wholesale customers in March.

CAIP in April asked the CRTC for an immediate cease-and-desist order, citing irreparable harm through loss of customers because of Bell's move. The CRTC denied the order, but launched a public inquiry into whether Bell was violating the Telecommunications Act by changing its wholesale obligations.

Net neutrality the issue

The dispute has become the focal point for the debate in Canada over net neutrality, or the amount of control internet service providers have over their customers' connections. CAIP's application has drawn support from technology heavyweights such as voice over internet protocol provider Skype and Google Inc., which said in a submission to the CRTC that Bell was breaking Canadian telecommunications law by acting as the internet's gatekeeper.

Bell fired back at Google and said if anyone was guilty of being the internet's gatekeeper, it was the search engine company.

The throttling by Bell, as well as by Rogers Communications Inc., has also provoked complaints with the privacy commissioner as well as two private member's bills in the House of Commons, from Liberal MP David McGuinty and NDP MP Charlie Angus. More than 300 angry customers also descended on Parliament Hill in May to protest what they said were net neutrality violations by the two ISPs. A class-action lawsuit against Bell has also been filed over the issue by consumers in Quebec and Ontario.

CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein in June warned that his decision on the Bell-CAIP dispute will be limited to whether Bell has violated its wholesale obligations under the Telecommunications Act. If Bell is found to be in violation, the company could be ordered to cease throttling its wholesale customers, but would not be obliged to end the practice with its own subscribers.

A further, deeper probe into net neutrality and throttling on a larger scale is likely in the future, von Finckenstein said.