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02/02/2011

CRTC bandwidth cap row reaches Harper

As tensions mounted over the CRTC's decision to support usage-based billing this week, independent ISPs were already starting to imposing user bandwidth caps. Now, the issue has reached the highest level of government.

Already, a collection of ISPs have had to impose 25Gb caps on their users. Bill Sandiford runs Telnet Communications, a small ISP based in Oshawa. He had to post a message on his web site explaining the new cap that he is now forced to impose on his users.

"We didn’t have a cap for customers at all before. We had the cap dictated to us. You can imagine how that makes us feel in a democratic society," he told Geektown. Ontario-based ISP TekSavvy also cut its cap from the previous 200Gb or unlimited caps to 25Gb.

Many people might consider 25Gb to be enough for their needs right now. But what about in a year or two? Networking giant Cisco published figures recently suggesting that video would constitute 90% of Internet traffic by 2013. According to analyst firm Limelight Networks, it already makes up 51% of traffic in the US.

That's why Netflix is so irritated by the whole thing. Reports suggest that CEO Reed Hastings considers the move to usage-based billing a 'significant negative for Netflix. If users have to pay significant amounts for each Gigabit of information that they download over and above a relatively small cap, it will make it at least as expensive as a regular movie rental to watch a streaming Netflix movie, effectively removing the advantage over the telcos' own video on demand services.

This spat between the CRTC and apparently pretty much everyone else in Canada has finally reached the Prime Minster's Twitter account. PM Harper Tweeted on Tuesday: "We're very concerned about CRTC's decision on usage-based billing and its impact on consumers. I've asked for a review of the decision."

In the meantime, we still have the traffic throttling issue to consider. The CRTC has already allowed ISPs to restrict speeds on certain types of Internet traffic, just so long as they tell users what they're doing and give them advance warning. The trouble with that is twofold. Firstly, that decision isn't proactively enforced. It would take a user making an official complaint to the CRTC (something which takes a lot of research, work, and legal effort) to persuade the Commission to investigate a particular case of traffic throttling.

Secondly, the operators' networks are opaque. It isn't easy to see what they're doing with your traffic, and why, making it hard to tell whether slow BitTorrent or Skype traffic is caused by a specific throttling policy, for example. So, if your Skype calls suddenly start dropping out and breaking up, that leaves you with the burning question: are they doing it on purpose because it conflicts with their own long-distance telephone services? This affects independent ISPs, too, because the large ISPs are reselling them bandwidth, and could well be throttling their traffic as well. "It makes it pretty difficult to serve your customer appropriately. You have no visibility and management," says Sandiford, who also runs an alliance of independent ISPs called the Canadian Network Operators Consortium.

My team has contacted the CRTC on four separate occasions looking for comment on net neutrality. We have received no acknowledgement from the Commission.

We also contacted Rogers, Telus, Bell, and Shaw, asking them to tell us exactly what traffic they are throttling, if any. None have answered these questions yet.

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.

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