12/20/2011 10:20 EST | Updated 02/19/2012 05:12 EST

Bell To Stop Internet Throttling


Bell internet customers will no longer have their file sharing uploads and downloads deliberately slowed down.

Bell Canada and Bell Aliant will stop using equipment to selectively slow down file sharing applications on their networks starting March 1, the companies said in a letter to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Monday.

That will affect both the companies' own retail internet customers and the customers of independent internet service providers who rent wholesale access to Bell's network in order to connect directly with customers' homes.

Bell and Bell Aliant have been selectively slowing down or throttling peer-to-peer file sharing applications of both its retail and wholesale customers between 4:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. – considered peak times when overall internet traffic is highest – since 2008. They said peer-to-peer traffic is targeted because it is not as time sensitive as other applications, such as video or voice calling.

However, "with the increasing popularity of streamed video and other traffic, P2P file-sharing, as a proportion of total traffic, has been diminishing," said a letter signed by Denis E. Henry, Bell Aliant's vice-president of regulatory, government affairs and public law and Philippe Gauvin, counsel for Bell Canada on regulatory law and policy.

The letter, addressed to Chris Seidl, the CRTC's executive director of telecommunications, added that Bell has made extensive investments in additional network capacity.

The companies have also examined the need for traffic shaping measures in light of the CRTC's new pricing scheme for wholesale internet service, the letter said. The new scheme set by the CRTC in November allows large network providers such as Bell to charge independent ISPs for network access based on either a flat rate, as before, or on the network capacity needed to support a given number of users. Bell said the latter scheme amounts to an economic incentive for managing internet traffic, reducing the need for technical internet traffic management measures.

The letter noted that while Bell isn't required to provide advance notification of changes to a less restrictive method of internet traffic management, it is providing the notice as a courtesy to the CRTC and its wholesale customers. It noted that the change could affect the amount of capacity that independent internet providers need to rent.

Bell had already notified its wholesale customers in October that it was scaling back the throttling of file sharing traffic. Starting in November, it said at the time, it would no longer use equipment to slow down file sharing traffic on newer parts of its network. In the future, it added, it may move customers to parts of the network where throttling isn't applied.

Rogers faces competitive pressure

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor with a special interest in the regulation of the internet, believes "Bell had little choice" but to end its traffic shaping, given CRTC rules that make it clear the regulator favours network investment and economic means to manage internet traffic.

The regulator had issued new guidelines in September for resolving customer complaints about throttling, including timelines for action by internet service providers. It said ISPs could face a third-party audit or even a public hearing if they did not comply.

"The big question is now how much longer Rogers will maintain its throttling practices," Geist wrote in a blog post Tuesday, noting that most other large Canadian ISPs have already abandoned the practice.

Rogers's throttling practices are currently under investigation by the CRTC's enforcement branch following complaints from Canadian gamers. The gamers allege that equipment that is supposed to target peer-to-peer file sharing traffic inadvertently slows down online games. Rogers has admitted that could happen under certain circumstances.

Lindsey Pinto, spokeswoman for Open Media, a Vancouver-based group that is backing the gamers' complaint and advocates for an open internet, said Canadians have expressed "time and again" that they want access to internet service that doesn't discriminate against certain types of content or applications.

She thinks Bell's decision to give those customers what they want will put pressure on competitors like Rogers.

"Bell is still overcharging customers quite a bit ... so speed isn't the only thing and access to content isn't the only thing," she said. "But this is a step forward.... And we're interested to see how other ISPs follow suit."

Tom Copeland, chair of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers, which represents a group of independent ISPs, said Bell's move is good for such ISPs because it will allow them to manage and differentiate their own services as they see fit: "They're not being impacted by the management practices of Bell."