Bell still hasn't proven need for internet throttling: critics

Bell Canada has released details on the level of congestion on its internet-access network, but critics say the information isn't conclusive.

Bell Canada Inc. has released details on the level of congestion on its internet-access network, but critics are saying the information still does not justify slowing the speeds of certain types of traffic.

Bell responded to an order issued last week by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to make public some of the data it was citing as the rationale for limiting the speeds of peer-to-peer internet applications, such as BitTorrent.

The data, made public on Wednesday, showed that between 2.6 and 5.2 per cent of the links that make up Bell's network in Ontario and Quebec experienced congestion between March 2007 and April 2008.

In revealing the details, Bell explained in an accompanying letter that "while these numbers may seem low to the average lay person, they are significant to network traffic engineers such that it is important to consider the number of congested links in the proper context."

If only a single link in the network is congested, end users may still experience slowdowns or dropped connections, the company said, because the situation is similar to the road system — where if one major artery is backed up, all connected roads will also have problems.

"Just like a single traffic roadblock can hinder drivers going to multiple destinations that pass through the road that is blocked, a very small amount of congested links can seriously affect a large number of high-speed end-users' traffic," Bell said.

Responding to complaint

The filings by the Montreal-based company were in response to a complaint filed with the CRTC in March by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, a group of 55 smaller companies that rent portions of Bell's network in order to supply their own customers with services.

Bell had started in November to limit the speeds — known as "throttling" — during peak hours of peer-to-peer programs used by subscribers to its Sympatico internet service. The company then extended the process to its wholesale internet customers in March. The company said it needed to institute the throttling because a small number of users were causing congestion on its network.

The internet providers association urged the CRTC to issue an immediate cease-and-desist order, which the regulator denied in May. The CRTC did, however, agree to the association's largest request by launching a probe into Bell's throttling activity and asking the company to prove its claims of congestion.

In a May 29 filing, Bell provided documents that said about 700,000 of its customers would have faced slow-downs or dropped connections if it hadn't instituted throttling. Citing competitive reasons, Bell filed much of the data in confidence with the CRTC.

While the CRTC ordered some of those figures be made public, there is still too much left secret for observers to be able to come to any definitive conclusions about the level of congestion on Bell's network, said Tom Copeland, president of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers. The figures still do not show where there is possible congestion or at what times of day.

"There's not enough information there to making anything of it. The telling data is in what they continue to submit to the commission in confidence," he said. "It's hard to really analyze the percentages that they provided without having those other breakdowns.

"It's really only once we start analyzing the data on a regional or local basis that we can get any idea as to how bad this is."

Bell's throttling practices have become ground zero in the debate over net neutrality — or how much control service providers are able to exert over internet access — in Canada. Aside from the CRTC probe, throttling by providers such as Bell and Rogers Communications Inc. has prompted two private member's bills in the House of Commons, a complaint with the federal privacy commissioner and a Parliament Hill rally attended by hundreds of protestors.

Interested parties, other than Bell and the association of internet providers, now have until July 3 to file submissions on the issue with the CRTC. So far, the internet providers association has attracted support from a broad range of parties, with submissions made by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Association of Voice Over IP Providers, Quebec's l’Union des consommateurs, Skype Communications, the University of Western Ontario, the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, internet content companies TCPub Media and Kaboose Inc., and service providers Wireless Nomad and Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc.

Bell, on the other hand, has found support in the form of a filing by network equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc.

The CRTC expects to rule in September on whether or not Bell has violated its wholesale requirements under the Telecommunications Act. CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein told a telecommunications industry conference last week in Toronto that he thinks a larger probe into net neutrality is inevitable.