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Don Bowman (right), chief technology officer for Sandvine, says the effects of congestion might adversely affect sound and video more than other applications. ((Emily Chung/CBC))

Internet congestion is inevitable and net neutrality does not exist, Canada's internet regulator was told Monday at hearings on how internet providers control and manage internet traffic and speed.

Scope of the hearing

The CRTC is trying to develop guidelines for internet service providers on acceptable ways of managing internet traffic and congestion, taking into account both the freedom individuals to use the internet as they wish and the interests of ISPs to manage their networks.

The commission is focusing mainly on the questions:

  • What internet traffic management practices are acceptable and should any be considered as completely unacceptable?
  • Should ISPs disclose their practices and, if so, in what form?
  • Does the use of internet technologies for the purpose of internet traffic management raise privacy concerns?
  • Is the application of certain internet traffic management practices to wholesale services appropriate?
  • Is there a need for the commission to specify what practices are acceptable in relation to wireless service providers?
  • What analytical framework should the CRTC adopt in relation to internet traffic management practices and section 36 of the Telecommunications Act?

It will avoid dealing with its November decision to allow Bell to continue to continue throttling the customers of smaller ISPs that buy network access from it, as the decision is under appeal.

Congestion is a natural occurrence on the internet, partly due to unexpected events such as Michael Jackson's death, said Don Bowman, chief technology officer for the network technology company Sandvine Inc., on the first day of hearings before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in Gatineau, Que.

"In times of congestion, an unmanaged network is not a neutral network," he said. "Inequalities in application design and user behaviour mean that an unmanaged network inherently favours certain applications and their users."

The CRTC is trying to determine what traffic management practices are "acceptable" under the Telecommunications Act in order to create a set of guidelines for internet service providers.

CBCNews.ca will be attending and covering the hearings as they continue through July 13.

Sandvine sells technologies used for internet traffic management. On Monday, Bowman made the argument that congestion disproportionately hurts time-sensitive applications like online gaming and VoIP (voice-over-internet protocol, or voice service carried over the internet instead of by regular phone companies), which is an even bigger issue where emergency calls are involved. These need to be prioritized, he said, but in order to do that they need to be identified using technologies such as deep packet inspection.

In addition, he said, congestion affects some applications more than others because it tends to result in "packet loss," which makes sound or video choppy, but may not be noticeable for other applications such as email.

Scott Stevens, vice-president of technology for Juniper Networks, a company that also offers internet traffic management technology, said part of the problem is technologies such as streaming video are very different from applications the internet was originally designed for.

"They don't talk and be quiet. They hum constantly," he said, in contrast to older applications such as email that exchange data only intermittently.

That means new network tools are needed to manage traffic, and companies need the flexibility to be able to develop those tools, he said.

"We feel it's very important that innovation is able to occur at the network level."

Bowman urged the CRTC not to impose internet traffic management guidelines.

"Things evolve over time," he said. "Your guidelines may become outdated."

Commission chair Konrad von Finckenstein said he appreciated that might happen if the guidelines were too specific, but it was still necessary to clarify what values should be maintained by traffic management technologies.

Customer control

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Scott Stevens, vice-president of technology for Juniper Networks, says the internet was not originally designed for applications such as streaming video.

Stevens received some attention from the panel when he suggested that some internet traffic management could be carried out by customers themselves rather than the ISPs. For example, they could decide whether VoIP applications should have priority over file downloads within their own network use.

"I like that ability to make that decision of what's important to me," Stevens said.

Candice Molnar, regional commissioner for Manitoba and Saskatchewan, said that would be consistent with the Telecommunications Act.

"Clearly, then, there's little potential to be discriminatory, if every consumer is getting what they desire," she said. "But that's not available in Canada?"

Stevens responded that it's available but not being deployed.

In addition, he said, it doesn't deal with network-wide congestion, which requires other solutions, especially since network use isn't always predictable.

'There will be abuse': consumer groups

However, not everyone agrees that technology that distinguishes between different applications, such as deep packet inspection (DPI), is a necessary or desirable way to manage congestion.

John Lawford, counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which is representing three Canadian consumers groups, told the CRTC Monday that DPI could invade privacy by revealing things such as the type of application, how long it was used and the types of search strings entered by the user. It could also be misused for marketing or unfair pricing.

"There will be abuse," he said.

Lawford advocated setting strict guidelines for when DPI can be used. He agreed that distributing emergency information and controlling spam and malware were legitimate uses. Other potential applications should be similarly judged based on their necessity and likelihood to interfere with customers' rights to use the internet as they choose.

He added that there are many other ways to reduce congestion, such as usage-based billing and said users would likely shift their usage if ISPs were clear about when congestion was occurring.

He also suggested that the CRTC should ensure ISPs aren't using internet traffic management technologies to avoid expanding their network infrastructure.

Timothy Denton, national commissioner for the CRTC, said he didn't want to be involved in judging ISPs' investment decisions and did not want to downplay the serious problem of congestion.

Lawford reiterated that other methods could be used to deal with congestion and suggested all he wanted was some "shred of evidence" that Bell had a plan "not to rely on throttling for the rest of time."

Following the hearing, some members of the audience remained unconvinced that Bowman and Stevens had made a good argument for their internet traffic management technologies.

"I don't see that you have to design a network to deal with the problems that may arise when Michael Jackson dies or it's Mother's Day," said Christian Tacit, the lawyer representing the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, the group whose complaint sparked the CRTC probe.

"That sort of episodic kind of congestion is different from planning your network properly to deal with normal day to day and week to week peak traffic."

Meanwhile, Bowman questioned Lawford's claim that, according to statistics provided by Telus, peer-to-peer file transfers make up only three per cent of internet traffic and therefore throttling isn't necessary.

"I don't believe that number is anywhere close to reality," he said.