Ruling allows Bell to continue traffic shaping

Internet customers who are fed up with slow connections will have to keep on waiting, at least for now.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled yesterday that Bell Canada’s practice of throttling the bandwidth it sells to wholesale customers does not contravene the Telecommunications Act.

In recent years, Bell has sold access to its network to smaller Internet service providers (ISPs). The company has claimed it needs to slow down or limit the bandwidth it sells in order to prevent congestion during peak periods.

But the practice has raised the ire of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), who petitioned the CRTC to investigate whether it amounts to Bell handicapping its competition.

Mirko Bibic, a senior vice president at Bell, said in a public statement that, “this is good news for Internet users across Canada who benefit from better managed networks.”

The CAIP’s complaint centred around whether Bell’s actions were discriminatory towards smaller ISPs. The CRTC found that, because Bell applies the same limitations to its retail customers, throttling its wholesale bandwidth did not put its competitors at a disadvantage.

Bell officials insist that “traffic shaping” is necessary because a minority of its customers use certain applications, such as peer-to-peer file sharing programs, which put a disproportionate strain on its networks. In order to give all of its users equal and reliable Internet service, Bell says it has been forced to limit available bandwidth, slowing download speeds and making ‘streamed’ content more difficult to access.

However, The CRTC’s decision has left the door open to debate on whether traffic shaping is an acceptable policy. CRTC Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein addressed the larger issue in a press release.

“CAIP’s application asked us to only consider the specific issue of wholesale traffic shaping within a specific context,” he said. “The broader issue of Internet traffic management raises a number of questions that affect both end-users and service providers.”

The CRTC has already scheduled a hearing, set to begin July 6, 2009, in order to address the issues not covered in this ruling.

Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa professor and expert on Internet law, posted his online response to the decision yesterday.

“While the CRTC’s decision to permit Bell’s throttling practices is disappointing in the short term…the decision is not a total loss for net neutrality supporters as the Commission made a clear commitment to addressing the issue of net neutrality and network management,” he said.