Canada’s small ISPs are up in arms about the Canada Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC ) giving Bell Canada the okay to selectively slow down internet speeds for some of their customers. Bell Canada is using so-called Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to look for internet traffic generated by peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing applications used by its own customers and by customers of the smaller ISPs.

A consortium of Canada’s small ISPs and public interest organizations has filed a petition to have the questions of Net-neutrality and bandwidth throttling reviewed in a hearing before the CRTC on July 6.  

Bell Canada says they are using DPI between the hours of 16:30 hours through 02:00 hours to find P2P traffic for bandwidth throttling. A diligent University of Victoria looked through the numerous and lengthy ISP submissions to CRTC and compiled them into a set of tables [ PDF Download ]. This investigative work shows that Bell Canada isn’t the only one to use these techniques. Canada’s major ISPs have all turned over information to regulators about their use of deep packet inspection to throttle file-sharing P2P traffic. After Bell Canada instituted throttling for its own retail customers, the wholesale ISPs used this difference as a selling point. When Bell Canada started throttling their own  networks as well, the ISPs claimed that Bell was violating CRTC rules by interfering with the wholesale connections that it sold to other ISPs.  

Canadian Bell’s wholesale Gateway Access Service is a government-mandated offering designed to promote ISP competition on Bell Canada’s last-mile links. In the past, the small ISPs often pledged not to throttle customers’ P2P traffic.  

The CRTC ruled on November 20, 2008 that Bell Canada was allowed to throttle  Gateway Access Service traffic. CRTC agreed with Bell Canada that congestion did exist on the network and small groups of P2P users were causing a good deal of the congestion. Therefore, Bell Canada wasn’t singling out anyone, because they throttled their own retail service as well.  

In stark contrast on August 1, 2008, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 and declared that Comcast Cable’s throttling of BitTorrent’s P2P traffic last year was unlawful. The was the first time that any US broadband provider has ever been found to violate Net-neutrality rules. The FCC handed Comcast a cease-and-desist order and required the company to disclose to subscribers in the future how it plans to manage traffic. Comcast claimed they had stopped the practice of throttling file-sharing P2P traffic in March of 2008.  

At the same time the CRTC allowed a practice that the US FCC stopped one month before, the CRTC also launched a much broader hearing on the entire issue of network neutrality. There is a lot cynicism that the CRTC proceedings on July 6 will simply be a ‘show trial’ for the public and the media.  

Tom Copeland, from the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, said that a lot of us are convinced that the outcome of this new public proceeding has already been decided.  

John Lawford, a lawyer representing the Consumers’ Association of Canada and Canada Without Poverty on the application, said the groups believe that if ISPs are allowed to control content sent over the internet, the price of internet service will rise.  

The issues of Net-neutrality, DPI, and privacy are tightly intertwined according to Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the Internet.  

At a discussion held at the British House of Lords by Baroness Susan Miller of Chilthorne Domer on February 02, 2009, Berners-Lee spoke at length on the subjects.  Baroness Miller is the Liberal Democrat’s chief spokesman in the House of Lords on Home Affairs. Berners-Lee’s notes are posted for all to read.

The central thesis of Berners-Lee was “No Snooping”. He said that the Internet in general has and deserves the same protection as paper mail and telephone. He added emphasis to his comments by saying that you could argue that Internet needs protection more, as it carries more of our lives and is more revealing than our phone calls or our mail.  

Berners-Lee argued that the access by an ISP of information within an internet packet, other than that information used for routing, is equivalent to wiretapping a phone or opening sealed postal mail. His statement follows the US FCC approach versus the Canadian CRTC ruling.  

Berners-Lee said “We use the internet to inform ourselves as voters in a democracy. We use the internet to decide what is true and what is not. We use the internet for healthcare and social interaction and so on. These things will all have a completely different light cast on them if the users know that the click will be monitored and the data will be shared with third parties.”  

Will the Canadian Association of Internet Providers and the other plaintiffs be able to bring forward powerful information like the position of the US FCC, as well as the statements of Tim Berners-Lee?  

Rocky Gaudrault, CEO of TekSavvy Solutions Inc., one of the companies listed on the petition, said that in the background is the fact that Bell Canada has revealed that it is installing hardware solutions such as switches to deal with its network capacity crunch.  

Bell Canada announced that they have begun deployment of Nortel’s 40G Optical Solution in its backbone network. Nortel’s 40G Adaptive Optical Engine enables four times the current network bandwidth within Bell’s Montreal-New York, Toronto-Chicago and Toronto-Montreal traffic corridors. This investment gives Bell Canada more bandwidth in its backbone network, ensuring support for more customers and higher access speeds down the road.  

We wonder how much of this regulatory hearing process is an attempt by Bell Canada to keep from being penalized for not maintaining their network infrastructure over the past two years. During that time there was the buyout-related distractions of the take over bid by Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP). The buyout was to be the largest leveraged buyout in Canadian history and possibly of the world.

July 6 should be an interesting day for not only Canadian ISPs and their customers. The rest of the world will see which way a democratic regulatory body bends in the face of many contradictions to their November 2008 decision.