Published Thursday, Mar. 27, 2008
Rogers Communications Inc. is gearing up to make Internet use more expensive for consumers who have a penchant for chewing up bandwidth by downloading movies or playing video games online.
The telecommunications giant already regulates the flow of traffic on its networks by giving priority to certain content; however, the changes are part of a blueprint to introduce tiered Internet service plans in June that will not only charge users for a designated connection speed, but also cap how much bandwidth they can use in a month.
Bandwidth hogs who exceed their allotted limits on Rogers’s networks will face service-fee penalties of up to $5 a gigabyte, to a maximum of $25 a month.
It was the second time this week that one of Canada’s largest Internet service providers proposed sweeping changes to the way thousands of consumers access the Web.
On Tuesday, it was revealed that Bell Canada is rolling out a new strategy that restricts certain types of online traffic on its own networks and those it provides to third-party ISP wholesalers.
As a result, questions are being raised about whether Canada’s major service providers are prepared to handle the future of the Internet as bandwidth-gobbling activities such as downloadable videos, Internet television, voice-over Internet telephony and file-sharing go mainstream.
The exploding popularity of online video is causing headaches for ISPs. Much of that traffic is facilitated through peer-to-peer networks and BitTorrent, a file-sharing protocol once synonymous with piracy but which has developed into a legitimate tool for quickly delivering large amounts of digital content.
Just last week, the CBC announced it would be distributing its Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister program via BitTorrent.
“The reality of the Internet is that people are using the Internet more and doing more online,” said Phil Hartling, vice-president of consumer services for Rogers Cable. “This is simply about customers’ ability to exceed their usage allowance and pay for additional usage.”
He said the new service fees are similar to those of other ISPs.
Both Rogers and Bell employ “shaping” techniques that slow down some kinds of Internet activity — mostly peer-to-peer and torrent file-sharing traffic transmissions of large files such as videos — and give priority to other data.
Mr. Hartling said Rogers’s plans will not change the company’s policies regarding traffic management.
The strategy employed by Canadian ISPs is in stark contrast to news yesterday from the United States, where Comcast Corp., the nation’s second-largest ISP, bowed to regulatory and consumer pressure and announced it would begin treating all data travelling on its networks equally by the end of 2008.
The issue has boiled over in Ottawa and is now drawing the attention of opposition MPs on Parliament Hill.
Yesterday, Charlie Angus, NDP spokesman for copyright and digital issues, said that the federal Conservatives “can’t sit idly by while Bell and other telecommunications giants are allowed to arbitrarily rewire the Internet.
“[Industry Minister] Jim Prentice cannot turn a blind eye while the telecommunication companies decide which lanes of digital traffic will be deliberately filled with potholes,” he said in a statement. “Protecting Net neutrality is a fundamental cornerstone in encouraging the development of a true knowledge economy.”
University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist said traffic-shaping raises a crucial competition issue in Canada that the CRTC has largely ignored.
“Many up-and-coming broadcasters and even our own public broadcaster are using the Internet for their own video offerings, and that’s competing directly with what … Rogers and Bell are offering, whether through cable or satellite [television services],” he said.
“In Canada we’ve had virtual silence from our regulator and virtual silence from our political leaders, while the U.S. has used the regulatory muscle to push the parties towards a more open platform.”
The practice of traffic-shaping is similar to designating lanes on a highway for a certain kind of traffic, such as high-occupancy vehicles. The ISPs argue that peer-to-peer traffic clogs their networks, slowing down the experience for average users, akin to the way a lumbering tractor-trailer can impede the flow on a highway.
Advocates of the unwritten code of Net Neutrality contend that shaping is undemocratic and that all Internet traffic must be treated equally, and that ISPs should not be allowed restrict the flow of any online data.
Estimates vary, but most analysts agree that peer-to-peer and torrent-based file-sharing programs account for between 70 and 90 per cent of all online bandwidth use, and emanate from as few as 5 to 10 per cent of all users.