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/
I too had a similar phone call with my ISP (Bell) the other week. My contract for service was due for renewal. I’ve had high speed service with Bell for many years and I’ve always been on an unlimited contract. So it came as a surprise that for the first time in history my service would be capped at 60GB. Like the author I found it highly suspect that after years of advancement in the technology field I was suddenly being told that I would have to face new limitations. Indeed I would, according to my routers usage statistics, have to reduce my internet usage by over 300% or risk close to $200/month in overage charges. 60GB doesn’t even account for my personal phone, gaming and browsing practices. Let alone would it meet my business requirements as a technical contractor who works remotely from home on a regular basis using high bandwidth development tools. This was, in a word, backwards. It seems clear to me that for one reason or another telecom service providers have not kept their networks in lockstep with technological advancements and user needs. My solution was to voice these very concerns to a manager at Bell. This manager kindly reviewed my usage statistics, found that Bell offered no service capable of meeting my needs, and therefore quickly created such a service. This service would cost me the same I’d always paid, and would offer me an unlimited cap just like I’d always had. Unfortunately I imagine most customers are simply accepting the new limitations – often unknowingly.
According to the CBC news article linked in Tony’s original post (http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2008/03/28/tech-netneutrality.html), Bell has seen “no backlash from customers”, and therefore has no plans to change their policies. If more people voiced their concerns, as Conrad mentioned in his post, perhaps the ISPs may start to listen.
Unfortunately, as Bell, Rogers, and Telus control the backbone of the internet in Canada, there is very little consumers can do to effectively express their outrage. If every consumer complains to their ISP as Conrad did, will they all receive individualized service plans? If not, at least until recently, consumers had the option of leaving one of the major providers for an independent ISP; however, now that Bell has begun throttling the bandwidth it provides to its independent wholesalers, our ability as consumers to speak with our wallets has been severely limited.
Michael Geist’s most recent article on this issue (http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/2799/159/) suggests that it is time for action from Canada’s competition and broadcaster regulators. I fully agree. While I am generally in favour of a free market, anti-competitive behaviour from the providers of a service that has become integral to the operation of our economy cannot be blindly accepted. When consumers cease to have a say in the matter, it is the government’s responsibility to step in and ensure that there is competition and choice available in the marketplace.
I’m really enjoying this discussion, but I think we need to be clearer on exactly what the problem is. Bell seems to be doing 2 separate things here: (1) controlling the speed of data moving through their network based on content, and (2) capping the amount of data per month. I contend that the first is really troublesome, but the second is ok.
Arguably, net neutrality centers around the notion that ALL data regardless of source, destination or content be treated equally in terms of moving through the network. By throttling various packets, we are very much in danger of moving to a tiered-internet where some applications’ or individuals’ data will be given precedence over others. As Bell has done it, some very pertinent concerns about competition for ISP services has been raised. More importantly though, such throttling creates the possibility that throttling (or rather, the lack thereof) could be sold as a service to the highest bidder. If such were to happen, the open and competitive landscape of the internet will be threatened. No longer will start-ups and corporate titans be forced to play on the same field. If Microsoft had an idea to offer some newfangled video service, and you had the same idea, in a world with pay-for-speed internet access, they would pay for the fast-lane service and you’d be relegated to the slow lane. Guess which service will win with consumers. As such, regulation is indeed needed to ensure packet inspection is discontinued.
For the data cap issue, I do not doubt that it is upsetting as a consumer to see a cap imposed on an unlimited plan. But aside from possibly misrepresenting the plan that you agreed to, I don’t see a larger issue of competition or access here. In fact, it makes sense as a way to reduce traffic without compromising network neutrality. If indeed the internet is approaching capacity as the article that Tony pointed to suggests, then I think this is a good way of making people aware of the resources that they’re consuming, without impacting the openness of access and provision of services. Indeed, if you stream a lot of video and use a lot of P2P services, and I only use my internet for email, why shouldn’t you pay more for it? You are, after all, deriving more benefit from it, right? This way, those who are really in need of the higher bandwidth are the ones paying for it – presumably with their revenues driving the adoption of higher-bandwidth technology.
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