Rogers Communications Inc. is defending its control over the flow of internet traffic as necessary but light-handed, amid growing complaints from users and the threat of intervention by regulators.
The Toronto-based company, Canada's second largest internet service provider with 1.5 million high-speed customers, said its interference with how subscribers are using their connections is limited to slowing down the upload speeds of peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent.
Rogers also said it does not throttle download speeds, block any applications or use a network management method called "false resets," which some companies, including Comcast Corp., the largest U.S. service provider, use to trick internet connections into dropping when peer-to-peer traffic is detected.
Dermot O'Carroll, Rogers's senior vice-president of engineering and network operations, told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday that the management practices are necessary to cope with the ever-expanding amount of internet traffic, particularly video.
"We're not complaining about it; that's just the business we're in," he said. "If you build a network and don't manage it, it fails."
Peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent have emerged as an efficient way to distribute large files such as video because they allow users to download small bits of the same file stored on a large number of computers, which can be anywhere in the world. The method has been a favourite of users trading copyrighted works such as movies, but it has also gained cachet with legitimate businesses looking for a quick way to distribute large files without having to pay for large amounts of bandwidth.
Under the client-server model, which is what streaming services such as television networks or downloads-for-sale operations such as Apple Inc.'s iTunes use, customers get their files from one source. If the television network or Apple wants to provide its customers with a fast download experience, it must pay for the bandwidth capacity.
'You can't spend your way out of this problem.' —Mike Lee, Rogers's chief strategy officer
With the peer-to-peer model, that cost is shuffled off from the content provider to the network operator, which is inefficient for the ISP. If the content provider wants to sidestep those distribution costs, it opens itself to the ISP's network management practices, said Mike Lee, Rogers's chief strategy officer.
"If you decide to cost ship, you lose the ability to control that [distribution]," he said. "It's a trade-off."
Lee said peer-to-peer traffic has been singled out because it is an application that cannot be satisfied by simply adding more capacity. Peer-to-peer, by design, constantly seeks out faster connections whenever it is in use. That means if capacity is added by an ISP in Canada, for example, peer-to-peer applications elsewhere in the world will find the network and flood it.
"You can't spend your way out of this problem," Lee said. "It has a behaviour that swamps all other behaviours."
ISPs taking heat
Rogers and several other ISPs, particularly Bell Canada Inc., the country's largest, have taken heat from a growing number of critics over the past few weeks for their network management practices.
About 300 internet users gathered on Parliament Hill two weeks ago to protest the ISPs' actions, while Liberal and NDP MPs have filed individual private members' bills seeking greater transparency and stricter rules governing internet access.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, prompted by a complaint from the Canadian Association of Internet Providers — a group of 55 independent ISPs that rent portions of Bell's network — in May launched an inquiry into the big ISPs' so-called "traffic-shaping" practices, with a public comment period closing on June 12.
Bell and CAIP will have further opportunities to comment before the June 26 cut-off, and the CRTC expects to make a ruling on the issue by late September.
Traffic-shaping practices also prompted the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, a University of Ottawa legal group, to file a complaint with the privacy commissioner last month. The group said the technology being used by ISPs to identify different uses of the internet is a violation of users' privacy.
A spokesperson for the commissioner said the matter is under investigation.
More regulations not needed: Rogers
Lee said he does not believe Rogers's network management practices violate customers' privacy because its detection technology does not need to probe traffic deeply to determine whether it is peer to peer.
Applications such as BitTorrent are easy to detect because they are the only uses of the internet that reassemble files from a large number of different computers.
"Other than knowing what type of application has been requested, I have no way of knowing if it's a Word file or a JPEG," Lee said.
He also said additional regulations are not needed since the CRTC has all the tools it needs to prevent "unreasonable" network management under Sec. 27 (2) of the Telecommunications Act, which reads:
"No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage."
Sec. 36 also says: "Except where the commission approves otherwise, a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public."
Lee acknowledged that those provisions, as far as internet access is concerned, have yet to be properly challenged.
"We need to test that," he said.
CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein, however, last month said the regulator needs additional tools in the form of monetary fines to punish ISPs if they break the rules.
In the United States, Comcast was scared into promising that it will cease throttling peer-to-peer usage by the end of this year after appearing before a Federal Communications Commission probe in February.
The company has not yet announced its solution.