MONTREAL - How Internet service providers deal with thousands of customers using their networks will come under scrutiny by the CRTC starting this week with public hearings on their policies to manage or shape the flow of user traffic.
The CRTC hearings will look at Internet traffic management practices by service providers. Among ISPs testifying are Bell (TSX:BCE), Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI,B), Telus (TSX:T) and Quebecor (TSX:QBR.B)
Independent Internet service providers say they are being penalized by practices to limit some traffic.
"I have no way to change that experience," said Tom Copeland, head of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers.
"It's out of my control," said Copeland, who provides Internet service to about 3,500 customers on Eagle.ca. in Cobourg, Ont. He buys wholesale Internet services from Bell.
The CRTC sided with Bell in a ruling last fall that stated the telecommunications company was within its right to regulate the flow of traffic on its network, but the commission agreed to hearings on the issue.
Copeland's association filed a complaint in April 2008 saying that Bell's attempts to regulate who has access to the Internet at peak hours was an attempt to stifle competition and made it almost impossible for its members to properly manage the services they provide.
"It's hard to imagine that Bell's entire network across Ontario and Quebec is consistently burdened between 4:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. seven days a week, 365 days a year," Copeland said.
But, Bell successfully argued it was necessary to limit some traffic because a relatively small number of users using peer-to-peer networking were taking up more than half of the network's capacity, slowing service for regular customers.
Copeland would like those who are using too much bandwidth and slowing speeds for other customers to be dealt with individually.
"We don't target a class of people or a class or applications just because we have a few rogues on the network who are abusing the privilege."
Bell's Mirko Bibic, senior vice-president of regulatory and government affairs, said the hearings are about traffic management and not net neutrality.
"Those who claim that these practices violate so-called net neutrality principles are being alarmist, can't point to any specific harm, and are taking positions that ignore the realities associated with building networks and operating them efficiently to ensure the best possible customer experience," Bibic said.
Bibic noted the CRTC has said that Bell's traffic management practices are appropriate and expects that to continue to be the case.
Bell Canada is scheduled to appear before the CRTC on July 13.
Analyst Iain Grant said owners of the networks must be allowed to manage Internet traffic for the majority of their users.
"That principal is true in traffic on our streets, it's true in traffic on our skies and I think it has to be true along the pipelines that are the flow of information," said Grant of the SeaBord Group, a technology research and consulting firm.
The Internet isn't "some romantic notion" and businesses are making decisions to invest in their networks, Grant said.
Search engine giant Google will also be making a presentation at the CRTC hearing as part of the Open Internet Coalition, which also includes Amazon, Skype and eBay.
Lawyer Jabob Glick said the coalition doesn't want traffic management that would restrict or affect software applications, noting that the file sharing application BitTorrent has been targeted.
Glick said the coalition believes targeting applications would affect innovation online and that pricing could help manage Internet traffic.
"We think the ISPs (Internet service providers) should have flexibility in charging different kinds of amounts for different kinds of usage," said Glick, Canadian policy counsel for Google Inc.
Rogers Communications said it wants an open Internet with few restrictions.
Traffic isn't shaped when a Rogers customer downloads a file or a video, said Ken Engelhart, senior vice-president of regulatory.
"We give complete access to any content you want," Engelhart said.
But he said peer-to-peer file sharing applications that "swamp" the network are managed, he said.