Did a charity fundraiser get throttled?

Filmmaker Brad Fox told the CRTC Wednesday that he believes an online fundraiser for the Toronto Sick Kids' Hospital may have been throttled by Bell because it resembled peer-to-peer traffic.

The 30-hour online "telethon" put on by Fox and a group of Canadian comedians in November 2008 was streamed online using Bell internet services, but was forced to reset four or five times because its connection speed was so slow around 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., Fox said. Each time, he told CBC News, he lost up to 10 per cent of his audience.

Fox suggested that perhaps the telethon was mistaken for a peer-to-peer file transfer, and was therefore throttled. After all, he said, like a P2P transfer, it involved small packets sent at a regular rate over a long period of time.

He added that Bell did not explain the situation, but said it would have been able to ensure better service had it known about the event in advance.

A Bell spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday that only "P2P traffic that uses up a large amount of bandwidth is slowed down…and only during peak hours." The company has long said the practice is needed to reduce internet congestion by putting the brakes on a few "bandwidth hogs," improving service for everyone.

The company did not respond directly when asked how it ensures that other types of traffic aren't throttled by accident, but did specify that it "does not look at content."

Interestingly, Fox wasn't the only person to complain of inexplicably slow internet speeds, including non-P2P traffic while using Bell's service.

Advocates for people with disabilities also told the CRTC Wednesday that some of their peer-to-peer traffic was being throttled even during low-traffic times - like during early morning hours.

Meanwhile, internet service for some of their non-P2P applications for people with disabilities was also inexplicably slow, they said. (I should note that they also reported throttling during non-peak hours by Rogers).

After hearing several similar stories on the same day, some people may suspect that Bell has a funny definition of "peak hours."

But even if its definition is the conventional one, it appears two conclusions can be drawn:

  • Bell offers no guarantees that it throttles only P2P traffic.
  • Bell's internet service doesn't consistently approach its advertised speeds even during non-peak hours.

I should mention that a number of people have made the latter complaint about ISPs in general throughout theCRTC hearings this week.

The hearings are looking into how ISPs manage internet traffic and congestion, and whether practices such as throttling should be allowed.

At first the question of real speed versus advertised speed doesn't seem within the scope of the hearings, but IT consultant Jean François Mezei suggested Tuesday that forcing ISPs to disclose their true speeds could do a lot to improve congestion and internet traffic management practices.

"If they were forced to advertise that," he said, "you might find throttled speed would go up and the congestion problem would disappear."