What’s really behind Bell’s 180 on throttling?

According to a letter unearthed by University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, Bell Canada – the company that made internet throttling a household word a few years back – is relenting in its quest to slow down so-called bandwidth hogs.

The letter, sent to smaller internet service providers that lease some of Bell’s network capabilities, says that new links coming online in November may not be subject to traffic management practices. These measures were introduced in March 2008 to:

…address congestion on the network due to the increased use of peer-to-peer file sharing applications during peak periods. While congestion still exists, the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing applications on congestion has reduced. Furthermore, as we continue to groom and build out our network, customers may be migrated to network facilities where Technical Internet Traffic Management Practices (ITMPs) will not be applied.

In plain English, some people who get their internet service from smaller providers such as Teksavvy or Acanac may soon find their peer-to-peer applications – such as BitTorrent, which many use to share music and movie files – working at full speed again.

The move is good news for customers of those companies, but it also raises several questions. Bell and a number of other big ISPs instituted throttling in the first place because they claimed that peer-to-peer traffic was causing congestion on their networks. The CRTC gave its approval to such measures, but told network owners they could use them only as a last resort. Critics, however, said throttling wasn’t about congestion at all, but rather about limiting usage of BitTorrent and the like, which competed with the big ISPs’ own television and video offerings.

Now, as Geist rightly points out, if Bell is admitting that “the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing applications on congestion has reduced” then it sure looks like Bell’s own retail internet operation is breaking CRTC rules. It also strongly suggests that every other ISP still throttling is offside as well.

Put another way, if the smaller ISPs – which are supposedly havens for the heavy-using peer-to-peer bandwidth hogs – aren’t being throttled, why is anyone? The answer is simple: The critics were right. And the longer big ISPs continue to throttle their own customers, the more right they’ll prove them to be.

The good news is that if this path is followed to its logical conclusion, Bell’s change of heart may well signal the end of throttling in Canada since ISPs don’t really have a leg to stand on anymore.

But there’s more to this. It’s a general rule that big phone incumbents, wherever they may be in the world, don’t ever make such benevolent moves without either being forced to, or without an ulterior motive. In this particular case, the driver is most likely another term that Bell helped enshrine in the popular vernacular: usage-based billing.

A quick recap: the you-know-what hit the fan earlier this year when Bell tried to foist a new billing plan onto the likes of Teksavvy et al, which would have made unlimited or large monthly usage plans prohibitively expensive. While the change would have only affected about 5% of internet users, Canadians – pissed off after years of rising bills and shrinking caps – freaked out en masse and effectively told big ISPs that they shall go no further. The government got involved and told the CRTC to re-examine its rubber stamping of Bell’s proposal.

Hearings were held this summer and the regulator is due to make a final decision soon, likely in the next few weeks. The timing of Bell’s throttling move, therefore, smells fishy.

Again, as Geist points out, the real threat to big ISPs is no longer BitTorrent, it’s Netflix and its ilk. While it was okay to combat a shady service with shady practices, throttling doesn’t work against Netflix and other legitimate streaming operations, so big ISPs have been looking to UBB as the cure for that ill.

In the face of anti-UBB furor, Bell has proposed something called Aggregated Volume Pricing to the CRTC. Without going into the boring details, it’s a preferable system to UBB for smaller ISPs because it would be cheaper and not as limiting. But still, it’s a lighter, more digestible form of usage-based billing. Call it Diet UBB.

Bell’s pulling of wholesale throttling may foreshadow what the CRTC’s decision on UBB is going to be. There have doubtlessly been discussions between the company and the regulator on the topic since the hearings this summer – a search of the lobbying registry turns up at least one meeting between Bell representatives and CRTC commissioner Leonard Katz in that time frame. (Curiously, the topic of discussion for that meeting is listed as “broadcasting,” even though Katz is the vice-chair of telecommunications).

It’s entirely possible that a quid pro quo agreement, where Bell loses on one less important front (throttling) but gains on another more important one (UBB), has been reached. In other words, it may be that the regulator asked Bell to shut down its throttling in exchange for approval of its AVP plan.

That may have a hint of conspiracy to it, but really it doesn’t. Can anyone imagine both throttling and UBB being struck down and eliminated? Come on, this is Canada. Everyone knows internet users don’t get their way here.

Of course, if such a suspicion proves correct and the CRTC does approve Bell’s modified UBB plan, all eyes will be on the government to see if it follows through on its promise to strike down usage-based billing. Mind you, they made the same threats over new text message charges a few years ago and we all know how that turned out.

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6 Comments on What’s really behind Bell’s 180 on throttling?

  1. Jean-François Mezei // October 20, 2011 at 12:53 am // Reply

    Argghhh !

    ISPs do not lease anything from Bell. They pay for a service which connects end users to the ISP’s facilities. Not as bad as those who say the ISPs are “resellers”, but bad ! No downloads for you tonight 🙂

    Another reason: Bell may have realised that the DPI boxes end up costing more than they are worth since they don’t bandwidth on their links by much. And if they need to add a new DPI box for each new link they add, it ends up costing more to add capacity. Once you realise a gadget that costs a lot doesn’t actually accomplish much, you stop buying it.

    • You’ve got to grant some artistic license here because there’s just no easy and concise way to refer to these ISPs (i.e. no matter how we refer to them, it’s wrong!)

      In any event, yours is a good theory although I can’t imagine the price of the DPI gear is all that much, especially when compared to whatever perceived benefit Bell gets from it. I seriously doubt they’re giving up DPI altogether… It does actually have some benevolent uses too.

      • Jean-François Mezei // October 20, 2011 at 7:10 pm // Reply

        Saying “pay for some of Bell’s network services” is accurate and the exact same lenght as your expression with lease and facilities. I would think it still fits within the “concise” requirement you stated 🙂

        And yes, DPI equipment gets to be expensive when you need to roll it out to every node in your network.

        Bell may have, at one point, dreamed of implementing mobile-like restrictiions like resticting some subscriptions to social networks only, but those dreams were squashed by the ITMP rules that impact network neutrality. Bell may have dreamed of selling usage patterns and inserting ads into streams, but that was squashed by the privacy laws.

        So at the end of the day, those controversial and expensive boxes are reduced to slowing down P2P which isn’t a problem on their network, and it is a negative on Bell’s marketing.

        When you look at network management and maintenance costs, they probably don’t even pay for themselves, so it is normal that Bell would stop buying new boxes for its expansion, and think about getting rid of the existing boxes.

  2. Regardless of the outcome, the vast majority of Canadians do not use ISPs such as Teksavvy and therefore will not care that much, if at all, about the upcoming UBB decision. Most Canadians use the bigger more well-known ISPs like Bell and Rogers. If the decision was about retail UBB, the outcome would have meant more to people (the general public) who do not closely follow CRTC decisions and internet issues. As it stands, it looks like UBB is here to stay in one form or another.

    Now that the federal government has its majority government there is no more need to pander to the Canadian public with false promises that UBB would be strike down, wholesale or retail.

    • Jean-François Mezei // October 20, 2011 at 6:43 pm // Reply

      Without the smaller ISPs , and without smaller ISPs having the freedom to structure their pricing the way they way, it leaves the incumbent in a duopoly situation with high prices and low service. This is a major reason Canada’s rankings in the world have dropped from a most enviable position in the top 5 down to an also ran behind former east block nations.

      While you may choose to go with a big incumbent, the fact that there are smaller ISPs who compete to keep the icumbents more honest benefits you because you end up paying less compared to if there were no small ISPs.

      • Gerome Georgeston // October 20, 2011 at 10:55 pm // Reply

        Exactly! It’s the customers of the evil incumbent criminals who will suffer the most if/when the little-guy wholesalers are marginalized and/or put out of business. If you already feel the Canadian market for internet services is in miserable shape with essentially zero attractive and fair service offerings available, as I do, just imagine it being EVEN WORSE for everyone except the incumbent fat-cat assholes, because that’s exactly what it would be without the small wholsalers doing their damnedest to take even just a 5%-sized bite of the ultimate telecoms evil that are the Canadian incumbents.

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