Recently, I received a letter from my internet service provider, Rogers Communications, informing me that my internet service will be changing. Not only will I have a cap on the amount of information I can download and upload a month, I will also be inflicted with caps on my internet speed. Thankfully, they also provided me with an option to avoid these problems – pay more money. I am certain I am not the only one who was outraged by the new terms of the contract, but with Bell and Rogers owning a virtual monopoly to Canada’s access to high-speed internet, what could I do?
I have always known that ISPs impose limitations on certain programs or websites. There generally hasn’t been much of an outcry, but last week, Canada’s patience reached a boiling point. On Tuesday, it was revealed that Bell Canada planned to further expand its traffic shaping policies to the point where businesses that rent bandwidth from them would be restricted as well. The following day, numerous users who attempted o download a TV show made available by the CBC through the torrent system, experienced tremendous slow-downs. On Friday, the National Union of Public and General Employees officially wrote to the CRTC and urged them to investigate the practice of traffic shaping and its impact on users. It is worth noting that the CRTC, in 1999, had refused to regulate the internet.  Perhaps it is time to revisit that decision.
Bell Canada defended its position on Friday that traffic shaping was necessary in that it was preventing “small portions of bandwidth hogs from slowing speeds down for all customers.” This goal seems noble enough and if it were their sole motivation and necessary, I don’t think there would be much of an issue. However, they further admit that they actually do have the capacity to accommodate all users, but engage in the practice anyway to limit programs that could be potential “threats to their own business.”  I submit that this second line of reasoning can lead down a very dangerous path. The internet has always been about free access to information. The fact that ISPs are allowed to place limits based on their own business interests can severely restrict Canadian’s access to that information. (I should also point out that this story was not available on ctv.ca, a Rogers owned subsidiary.)
Even if both Rogers and Bell are running out of bandwidth, wouldn’t it still be in Canada’s best interest to encourage them to upgrade their systems rather than allow them to impose limits? In a study conducted last year, it was predicted that internet slowdowns could occur as early as 2010. It concluded that demand was simply outpacing capacity and that in order to close that gap, ISPs would have to spend about 60-70 percent more than what they currently have budgeted.  I see no motivation for a company to expand their bandwidth if they can arbitrarily limit the amount of information their customers have access to instead.
I also must wonder why demand is outpacing capacity at such an incredible rate. When I subscribed to Rogers (over 5 years ago), I was told that I would have unlimited capacity every month. Such a practice seems equivalent to one where an airline purposely overbooks their flights except in that situation, the customer is usually given some form of compensation. Do we really want to encourage this practice? I also submit that if we are running out bandwidth, then it can be attributed to the ISP’s own poor planning and allowing them to impose limits would not improve
Canada’s internet infrastructure.
In the short term, maybe limits are necessary in order to ensure consistent internet access, but it cannot be the ISPs who prescribe these limits. The internet has become a large and perhaps even the dominant source for information and any limit prescribed by an ISP would severely affect Canada’s access. The CRTC must step in and regulate the industry in order to ensure there is fair and consistent access for all consumers.
 Union Urges CRTC to Curb Interference by Bell, Rogers. http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2008/03/28/tech-netneutrality.html
 Internet Slowdown on Horizon, Study Claims. http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20071121/internet_access_071121/20071121/