Bell's internet throttling is like reading people's mail, ISPs say

Bell must not be allowed to determine which traffic is urgent and which isn't, wholesale customers tell CRTC.

Bell Canada Inc.'s slowing of internet speeds is the equivalent of the post office opening people's mail and deciding when they should get their letters, a group of small service providers have said in their final volley at the company.

The Canadian Association of Internet Providers, a group of 55 companies that rent portions of Bell's network to provide their own broadband services, made its last plea Wednesday  to regulators to force Bell to end its speed throttling.

In November Bell started using deep packet inspection (DPI) technology to identify what its customers were using their internet connections for, then started slowing peer-to-peer (P2P) applications such as BitTorrent.

The company extended the practice to CAIP members in March, which prompted the group's complaint to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in April.

In its submission on Wednesday, CAIP said Bell's defence for throttling — that the company is only slowing P2P downloads, which still get to the user "eventually" — is discriminatory and anti-competitive.

"Postal service customers have the freedom to decide for themselves the urgency of their packages, and to pay the postal service a fee based on how quickly they want their packages delivered," CAIP said.

"Bell’s high-handed imposition of traffic management is more appropriately analogized to a postal service that opens each package, decides according to its own priorities how important the contents are, and delivers it at a speed of its own choosing, notwithstanding the needs or intentions of package senders and recipients."

A spokesperson for Bell did not return a request for comment but the company has said it only uses DPI to determine the type of traffic, and does not probe any deeper.

The CAIP submission was the final step in a public CRTC investigation, which began in May, into whether Bell has violated the Telecommunications Act by illegally changing its terms of wholesale service. The commission is expected to rule on the case in September.

In its filing, CAIP said Bell has failed to prove there is congestion on its network and has put forward a "varying storyline" for why it has done so since the probe began.

The company initially said it started throttling to prevent the five per cent of heavy P2P users from slowing access for the majority of customers but, CAIP said, Bell made virtually no mention of that factor in its final submission to the CRTC last week.

Bell has since switched tactics and said that P2P applications are designed to eat up all available bandwidth, then again changed gears by saying that exponential growth of traffic has necessitated the throttling, CAIP said.

The group disputed Bell's points, saying its members saw no evidence of network congestion before the throttling began last year.

CAIP also said Bell has shown "proof positive" that its network has no congestion problem by recently unveiling faster speeds for its own Sympatico customers — services that are not available to CAIP members — as well as an online video store, which requires large amounts of network capacity to work properly.

Bell has villainized P2P, CAIP says

Bell has also unfairly characterized P2P as a tool of bandwidth abusers and copyright violators, CAIP said, when in fact BitTorrent has been endorsed as a legitimate application by many Hollywood studios as well as educational and government institutions. P2P has been targeted by Bell because it is a "politically easy target" through this reputation.

CAIP said P2P cannot eat up all available bandwidth because users are limited by the connection speeds they buy from Bell or any other ISP. The group also cited a CRTC submission from network equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc., in support of Bell, which forecasts that P2P traffic as a portion of total internet traffic will decline in the next few years.

The group's case has found a wide base of support and has garnered submissions from the likes of Google and Skype, as well as consumer groups, privacy advocates and more than 1,300 individuals. Telus, Rogers and Cisco have made submissions in support of Bell.

CAIP summarized its submission by saying that Bell is trying to stifle competition by removing smaller ISPs' ability to differentiate their services. The CRTC must therefore order the company to stop its throttling in order to preserve competition in providing internet access.

"Canadians have voiced concerns regarding the privacy of their telecommunications and the fact that an array of legitimate and socially, economically and culturally important information and activities, once available to them through P2P applications, are now virtually inaccessible to them during their leisure hours," CAIP said.

"Canadians understand that if Bell is allowed to shape their competitors’ end-user traffic, Bell can effectively render competitors’ products and service offering indistinguishable from its own, thereby eliminating competition in downstream retail markets."


Peter Nowak


Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology reporter and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.