Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Net Neutrality hearings in Canada - what's that all about?

In Canada they have just completed hearings on Net Neutrality - hearing evidence from operators, ISPs, consumer groups and media groups on whether and how the network should discriminate between different types of traffic. The Internet is a busy place, and at times lines get full to capacity - either on the link down to your house, in the network itself or in the links to the web servers you are accessing.

Operators commonly use a 'shaping' or 'throttling' to cut down the amount of traffic - basically putting caps on the rate at which data can be sent or received by users (or wholesalers). There are different ways to do this - you can limit everyone a bit, limit the highest users a lot, or limit certain types of traffic. Often it is the latter that is done. Operators use a technique called 'Deep Packet Inspection' - looking inside the data being carried - to find out what type of traffic t is and then selectively restrict what they see as bandwidth eaters - which usually means peer to peer traffic.

The problem for them is that a few users generate a high volume of traffic and that means less capacity to share amongst the rest - but for the consumer it means both that you don't always get the high speed connection you think you are paying for - and someone is looking inside your traffic to see what sort of things you are doing. Usually they don't keep records of who does what - but the potential exists....

You may think it is reasonable for the operators to cut back heavy users to ensure all their customers get a reasonable service even in busy times... (even thogh they thought they paid for a full rate service) but the evidence presented shows that some are throttling peer to peer traffic all the time, or between certain times of day, regardless how busy the network actually is. In other words the operators are deliberately degrading service to customers even when they don't need to.

It costs money to build network capacity - which is a cost that we consumers share. The thing is though that that capacity can also be used to provide fee paying services like IP-TV linked to the operator or ISP. These are often time critical services that need to have bandwidth available to deliver glitch free performance... and the service providers expect the operator to provide them with enough capacity for there to be no problems.

The public internet can also provide similar services downloaded from independent suppliers out on the web. They also want good access to bandwidth to get their service over - but there's no revenue in it for the operator - apart from the fact that you've already paid for your internet access.

So the point is... is your traffic being throttled to free up capacity for someone else's service? Are operators prioritising their opportunities to make money over providing an impartial service? The hearing make interesting reading on what the different players say they are up to.

You can find reporting on the seven day hearing on Michael Geist's blog... and more on net neutrality here.

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