Why a throttled Web is a Net loss

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Somewhere at Bell-Sympatico there are awkward executives with such exquisitely bad timing that if they took aerobics together there would be blood.

A little explanation first, and then we'll return to the awkward execs.

Bell-Sympatico is a major Internet provider in Canada. It serves up bandwidth not just to homes and businesses, but also to specific wholesalers who then resell that bandwidth to companies and individuals willing to pay for specialized Internet packages.

As I've mentioned in previous columns, Bell-Sympatico and other carriers in Canada don't treat all that bandwidth equally. If you share files via what's called peer-to-peer (P2P) methods, your data packets are slowed down, or throttled, especially during the busiest times for the networks (normally about 4:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.). Canadian and U.S. carriers claim this allows them to deliver better general customer service because that P2P traffic is often illegal movie transfers and is clogging their pipes. Well, they claim that when they're busy insisting they're not doing P2P throttling. That pretense is now over.

They have admitted they are throttling after all, and with the wonderfully ironic timing that Canadian law professor Michael Geist calls a "perfect storm."

And, it's those hapless execs I mentioned earlier who are the storm troopers. These are the folks who decided it was a dandy idea to let Canadians know that Bell was slowing down peer-to-peer file sharing traffic about the same time that the CBC announced it was going to release a major network show using peer-to-peer file sharing.

Like many legitimate professionals in Canada, including radiologists, movie makers and software developers, CBC producers decided to share its content, the final episode of "Canada's Next Great Prime Minister,"via BitTorrent, a popular tool for P2P file sharing. Thousands of Canadians tried to download legal copies of the show and many found that their bandwidth was being throttled by Bell-Sympatico's network policies.

Then, on March 28, Bell-Sympatico's Senior Vice President for Carrier Services, John Sweeney, sent a letter to bandwidth wholesalers letting them know that not only will his company be throttling the bandwidth of Bell customers but also the bandwidth of all the wholesalers' customers as well. That means that ISPs who wholesale bandwidth from Bell can't offer customers, many of whom are businesses who use P2P for legitimate purposes, a competitive advantage over Bell.

I spoke with Rocky Gaudrault, the CEO of the Chatham, Ontario-based Internet service provider, Teksavvy. Gaudraut published Sweeney's letter online. He says that his customers are now feeling the impact of Bell-Sympatico's throttling. "We can't offer our customers non-throttled bandwidth anymore," he said. "We can only compete on the basis of service."

The letter lit a fire under the chat forums on tech sites like Broadband Reports which are now filled with informed and angry IT folks outraged by Bell's action.

Furthermore, at about the same time that Sweeney was drafting that letter, U.S.-based carrier Comcast announced that it would no longer be throttling peer-to-peer traffic and, in fact, will be working with BitTorrent to develop smarter ways to manage network traffic.

Comcast's announcement came about a month before a public hearing by the Federal Communication Commission that is investigating Comcast for its bandwidth throttling practices. Like Bell-Sympatico, Comcast had denied it was doing any throttling until it was outed by the Associated Press last October.

So, to recap, Bell-Sympatico admits to throttling P2P traffic just when the CBC realizes it's a great way to share legal content and just when Comcast realizes it's about to get smacked down by the FCC if it doesn't stop monkeying with the way the Internet works.

See, the problem for Bell is that not many people who understand how bandwidth works really believe the carrier is running out of capacity. Or, even if it is, that targeting one specific use of the Internet is the smartest way to handle it.

Well, not smart unless what you're really concerned about is that P2P sharing of video from alternative news and entertainment sources might be competitive to your own business model, which is what this is really all about. Not that Bell Sympatico will admit to that either.

The move has brought a couple of heavy hitters out in force. Last week the National Union of Public and General Employees called on the CRTC to prohibit ISPs like Bell and Rogers from discriminating against specific file sharing protocols.

Unlike the FCC in the U.S., the CRTC and the federal government have done nothing to get carriers to back off traffic shaping, throttling and attacking net neutrality in Canada.

Late last week The Council of Canadians issued an Action Alert calling for the federal government to change its tune and enforce net neutrality. If you want to do something about this issue, sending the letter they suggest to Industry Minister Jim Prentice is a good place to start.

I've written about this issue before, and will again, I'm certain. I did it this week because we've been handed a golden opportunity to throw light on what Canadian ISPs are doing, which is shaping theInternet to their business model instead of to the needs and desires of law-abiding Canadians.

This isn't about limited capacity. It isn't about pirates. That's a smokescreen. This is about businesses turning what should be a public utility into a private playground. And right now they're too busy bumbling into each other and the daily news to mount much of a defense. Let's show them what you can do when you're coordinated.

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