Archive for the ‘internet’ Category

The farce that is net neutrality in Canada

October 24, 2011 7 comments

Friday represented the second anniversary of the establishment of so-called net neutrality rules in Canada, which were directives issued by the CRTC to prevent service providers from unduly discriminating against content, uses and applications of the internet. Two years on, it’s pretty clear the rules - which the regulator has touted as world leading - aren’t worth the paper (or digital bytes) they’re printed on.

Internet advocates have found the CRTC’s net neutrality framework to be wanting. Back in July, University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist uncovered a systemic failure by the regulator to enforce the rules despite numerous violations by most of Canada’s big ISPs.

The anecdotes explain it. Despite months of back and forth, including a dismissal of a complaint from a group of gamers by the regulator, cable provider Rogers is still slowing down perfectly legitimate uses of the internet, namely the World of Warcraft online game. The game makers themselves are starting to publicly bristle at this. If anything, the ongoing case proves the CRTC’s net neutrality rules are just a bunch of huffery and puffery, with no real teeth behind them.

The numbers confirm it. According to results released last week by researchers using M-Labs, a project started by Google a few years ago that lets internet users keep tabs on how their connections are being throttled, Canada has some of the highest prevalence of throttling in the world. In an accompanying essay, one of the investigators explains that Canada’s rate of throttling is triple that of the United States, which doesn’t even have net neutrality rules.

Open Media, the advocate group that most vocally opposes net neutrality violations, celebrated Canada’s rules and unfortunately regurgitated some of the CRTC’s self-congratulatory rhetoric in a release:

On October 21, 2009, open internet supporters breathed a sigh of relief. Big telecom companies had been caught red-handed restricting access to online services, and the pro-internet community responded and prevailed. This victory brought Canada some of the strongest internet openness (net neutrality) safeguards in the world.

The group did acknowledge that Canadians are still fighting to get the rules enforced, but until that happens, it’s way to early for anyone to declare or celebrate victory. While a group such as Open Media has to sound positive in order to give its supporters hope that they are making progress, there are no two ways about it - for the past two years, net neutrality has been an abject failure in Canada.

Categories: crtc, internet, net neutrality

What’s really behind Bell’s 180 on throttling?

October 20, 2011 7 comments

According to a letter unearthed by University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, Bell Canada - the company that made internet throttling a household word a few years back - is relenting in its quest to slow down so-called bandwidth hogs.

The letter, sent to smaller internet service providers that lease some of Bell’s network capabilities, says that new links coming online in November may not be subject to traffic management practices. These measures were introduced in March 2008 to:

…address congestion on the network due to the increased use of peer-to-peer file sharing applications during peak periods. While congestion still exists, the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing applications on congestion has reduced. Furthermore, as we continue to groom and build out our network, customers may be migrated to network facilities where Technical Internet Traffic Management Practices (ITMPs) will not be applied.

In plain English, some people who get their internet service from smaller providers such as Teksavvy or Acanac may soon find their peer-to-peer applications - such as BitTorrent, which many use to share music and movie files - working at full speed again.

The move is good news for customers of those companies, but it also raises several questions. Bell and a number of other big ISPs instituted throttling in the first place because they claimed that peer-to-peer traffic was causing congestion on their networks. The CRTC gave its approval to such measures, but told network owners they could use them only as a last resort. Critics, however, said throttling wasn’t about congestion at all, but rather about limiting usage of BitTorrent and the like, which competed with the big ISPs’ own television and video offerings.

Now, as Geist rightly points out, if Bell is admitting that “the impact of peer-to-peer file sharing applications on congestion has reduced” then it sure looks like Bell’s own retail internet operation is breaking CRTC rules. It also strongly suggests that every other ISP still throttling is offside as well.

Put another way, if the smaller ISPs - which are supposedly havens for the heavy-using peer-to-peer bandwidth hogs - aren’t being throttled, why is anyone? The answer is simple: The critics were right. And the longer big ISPs continue to throttle their own customers, the more right they’ll prove them to be.

The good news is that if this path is followed to its logical conclusion, Bell’s change of heart may well signal the end of throttling in Canada since ISPs don’t really have a leg to stand on anymore.

But there’s more to this. It’s a general rule that big phone incumbents, wherever they may be in the world, don’t ever make such benevolent moves without either being forced to, or without an ulterior motive. In this particular case, the driver is most likely another term that Bell helped enshrine in the popular vernacular: usage-based billing.

A quick recap: the you-know-what hit the fan earlier this year when Bell tried to foist a new billing plan onto the likes of Teksavvy et al, which would have made unlimited or large monthly usage plans prohibitively expensive. While the change would have only affected about 5% of internet users, Canadians - pissed off after years of rising bills and shrinking caps - freaked out en masse and effectively told big ISPs that they shall go no further. The government got involved and told the CRTC to re-examine its rubber stamping of Bell’s proposal.

Hearings were held this summer and the regulator is due to make a final decision soon, likely in the next few weeks. The timing of Bell’s throttling move, therefore, smells fishy.

Again, as Geist points out, the real threat to big ISPs is no longer BitTorrent, it’s Netflix and its ilk. While it was okay to combat a shady service with shady practices, throttling doesn’t work against Netflix and other legitimate streaming operations, so big ISPs have been looking to UBB as the cure for that ill.

In the face of anti-UBB furor, Bell has proposed something called Aggregated Volume Pricing to the CRTC. Without going into the boring details, it’s a preferable system to UBB for smaller ISPs because it would be cheaper and not as limiting. But still, it’s a lighter, more digestible form of usage-based billing. Call it Diet UBB.

Bell’s pulling of wholesale throttling may foreshadow what the CRTC’s decision on UBB is going to be. There have doubtlessly been discussions between the company and the regulator on the topic since the hearings this summer - a search of the lobbying registry turns up at least one meeting between Bell representatives and CRTC commissioner Leonard Katz in that time frame. (Curiously, the topic of discussion for that meeting is listed as “broadcasting,” even though Katz is the vice-chair of telecommunications).

It’s entirely possible that a quid pro quo agreement, where Bell loses on one less important front (throttling) but gains on another more important one (UBB), has been reached. In other words, it may be that the regulator asked Bell to shut down its throttling in exchange for approval of its AVP plan.

That may have a hint of conspiracy to it, but really it doesn’t. Can anyone imagine both throttling and UBB being struck down and eliminated? Come on, this is Canada. Everyone knows internet users don’t get their way here.

Of course, if such a suspicion proves correct and the CRTC does approve Bell’s modified UBB plan, all eyes will be on the government to see if it follows through on its promise to strike down usage-based billing. Mind you, they made the same threats over new text message charges a few years ago and we all know how that turned out.

UK on a fool’s errand to try and ban porn

October 13, 2011 2 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron has embarked on a rather humorous endeavour to try and save the United Kingdom from porn. Earlier this week, it was reported that, at Cameron’s behest, the four largest internet service providers in the UK would begin an opt-in program where they would automatically block porn websites unless customers explicitly said they wanted them.

No sooner did the ink (real or virtual) dry on that story than those same ISPs - BT, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin - started talking about how the system would have no effect. The opt-in process, it turns out, will apply only to brand new customers, which means very little because only about 5% of people change service providers in a given quarter.

That’s not exactly the best way to say it will have no effect - after all, at that rate it will only take 10 quarters or two-and-a-half years to block the majority of the country from porn. Still, the ISPs’ chafing at the idea is what makes Cameron’s effort humorous because it’s doomed to fail for a host of reasons.

Firstly, there are the freedom of speech issues. The Australian government’s effort to enact a similar ban has hit all kinds of snags, from coalition partners refusing to support it to several big ISPs refusing to play ball, even with something as universally deplorable as child porn. Things have gotten downright silly Down Under, with the banning efforts extending to erotica that features small-breasted women, which supposedly encourages pedophilia. The resultant joke, of course, is that Australians want their porn stars to have big boobs.

Then there are the logistical problems. How, exactly, does something qualify for the banned list? China did ip male of the household or the divorce rate is going to climb.

Banning porn on the internet is ultimately a fool’s errand. It’s here to stay and, while laws and technology can try to help, in the end its parents’ responsibility to ensure their kids aren’t getting to where they shouldn’t be.

If any country were successful in banning online porn, however, it’s a safe bet its internet traffic would take a nosedive. While accurate numbers are tough to come by, there are some hints that suggest pornography still makes up a good chunk of traffic. Five of the 100 most-visited websites (that are in English) are porn-related, according to Alexa rankings, while Ogi Ogas - author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts - says about 13% of web searches are for erotic content.

Applying this chain of logic to Canada, if internet providers here really were worried about congestion on their networks, they wouldn’t be enacting usage-based billing to try and slow consumption with the likes of Netflix. They’d be trying to get porn banned.

Categories: censorship, internet, sex

Google fans UBB fire with movie rentals

August 31, 2011 3 comments

Just when all was quiet on the usage-based internet billing front, here comes Google to stir the pot again. The company on Wednesday launched YouTube movie rentals in Canada, which should make a nation of already prodigious online video consumers even more ravenous devourers of bandwidth.

Google launched YouTube movie rentals in the United States on a limited basis in January 2010, then got serious about it a few months ago by adding thousands of titles. The Canadian launch is its first international expansion, according to Google Canada spokesman Aaron Brindle.

As with all similar services available in Canada, this one comes with a bunch of caveats. The selection will be fairly limited, with just over a thousand movies from the catalogs of Warner Bros. and Universal, and Canadian studios E1, Mongrel and Alliance Atlantis. The films are also only offered in standard definition, as per the studios’ wishes, and will come at a $1 premium to what they cost in the U.S.: $4.99 for new releases and $3.99 for older titles.

Bindle said Google is following industry standard on costs, where studios set the wholesale price and have some say in the ultimate retail price. The bonus for Canadians, though, is that they get their rentals for 48 hours as opposed to the 24 Americans get.

Despite all that, it’s reasonable to expect YouTube movies will still meet with a degree of success in Canada, simply because Canadians are apparently among the biggest users of the site in the world. Google’s offering therefore has tremendous ease of access to customers who are already happily using other parts of the service. That’s brand recognition and a point of sale that other competing services, whether it’s Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Rogers On Demand Online, Shaw Movie Club and even Netflix, don’t necessarily have.

If that’s so, it’s also reasonable to expect more noise on the usage-based billing and net neutrality fronts. If Canadians are already chugging huge amounts of data, as the likes of Cisco has found, then movie rentals on the most popular online service in the country is only going to add fuel to the fire.

Satellite, cable and IPTV companies, who are also internet providers, are especially not going to like this one bit, since Google is now in direct competition with their on-demand businesses. They’ve already fought back against competing services with throttling, usage caps and political lobbying. Will they take the entry of such a powerhouse company into one of their biggest cash cows lying down? Not bloody likely.

LTE pricing won’t help mend digital divide

August 31, 2011 5 comments

Canadian wireless carriers are in the process of rolling out next-generation networks and, as is usually the case with these things, there is the reality and there is some rhetoric.

Rogers launched its fourth-generation (4G)  Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wireless network in Ottawa last month. At a briefing at the company’s headquarters in Toronto on Tuesday, the company outlined its plans for a rollout in the nation’s biggest city, which will happen on Sept. 28. John Boynton, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer of Rogers Communications, told our small group of journalists that the new network will cover all of the 416 area code in Toronto. Rogers has also confirmed Montreal and Vancouver launches in the fall, with other Canadian markets coming in 2012.

If you follow this stuff, you know that LTE is important because it’s super-high-speed wireless internet that can be used by smartphones, tablets and computers that have data sticks plugged into them. The technology is capable of a theoretical 150 megabits per second, which is about as fast as any wired internet connections currently available to home users in Canada. Realistically, though, Rogers says it will be offering customers a “commitment speed” between 12 and 25 megabits for downloads to start with.

In tests at the briefing, the speeds were in fact blinding. The existing Rocket stick currently being sold in Ottawa, was zooming along at close to 50 megabits per second, with an upload around 20 megabits. A newer Rocket stick, which is currently being certified and targeted for fall availability, cranked out 100 megabits down and 30 up.

I asked whether there would be any commitment speed on uploads, but alas, Rogers is staying mum on that. I’ve written before about Canada’s woeful upload speeds and how they’re an obstacle to innovation. Without anything else to go on besides the existing state of wireline speeds, it’s reasonable to assume that Rogers’ upload capabilities on LTE will be held back and slowed down. And, as one carrier goes, the others are likely to follow (Bell, Telus and Wind have all announced future LTE plans). There aren’t really any good reasons to be optimistic about these upload problems getting better any time soon.

Where things get sticky, as usual, is on pricing and usage. Rogers hasn’t yet announced these details for phones and tablets that will run on the new network, but the Rocket stick will be available with several options on the “Flex” plan: $45 for 1.5 gigabytes a month; 3GB for $60; 6GB for $75; 9GB for $90; and $10 for each additional gigabyte.

Those prices are obviously enough to give anyone a heart attack - not only are they significantly higher than what Verizon is offering in the U.S., they’re also for miniscule usage limits. Anyone plugging a Rocket stick into their laptop is sure to quickly chew through their monthly data limits if doing anything besides email.

Boynton defended the caps, saying that LTE is not meant for heavy-duty usage like watching full-on video. It’s more of a “displacement” technology that people might pick up when a wired connection isn’t available. “We don’t see people watching all their TV on LTE just because it’s available,” he said.

When talk turned to the upcoming spectrum auction - the one that will result from the airwaves being freed up by the impending shut-down of over-the-air analogy television signals - the rhetoric ratcheted up. Rogers has previously said it needs more spectrum if it is to roll LTE out into rural markets, so new cellphone providers - the likes of Wind, Mobilicity and so on - shouldn’t get any special benefits in the auction, like they did in the previous one.

Boynton added that it’s important to not give advantages to foreign billionaires, an obvious jibe at Wind’s Egyptian backer Naguib Sawiris, and instead focus on the companies that will service customers outside of major cities. “We’re committed to delivering to rural markets,” he said.

There has been much talk, both in Canada and abroad, about a digital divide forming between urban and rural dwellers. People who live in cities usually have several internet providers to choose from, so they therefore have better speeds and prices. As a result, they’re considerably more turned on to the benefits of the internet.

Wireless technology has often been considered a possible solution to this problem, since it is significantly cheaper to roll out in sparsely populated rural areas than cables.

Rogers’ LTE prices, however, are not going to do much to help that digital divide if applied similarly to these areas. Allowing rural customers to use between 1.5 and nine gigabytes a month is not going to allow them to even remotely catch up to what their city cousins are doing. Maybe they’ll get on to email, but they certainly won’t do more - like telehealth, cloud computing or online gaming and other entertainment.

Rogers’ altruistic claim that it needs spectrum to deliver high-speed internet to rural areas and mend the digital divide therefore rings somewhat hollow.

The only way that’s going to happen is if multiple providers - especially hungry ones - service those same customers. Indeed, if reversing the divide is a priority for the federal government (and there’s no reason to believe it’s even on the radar), rural customers might almost be better served if new cellphone companies are given all kinds of special benefits, such as exclusive blocks of spectrum in such areas. That’s obviously interventionist and anti-market-forces, but if the likes of Wind or Mobilicity started rolling their networks into sparsely populated areas, the big carriers would waste no time stampeding in behind them. Maybe rural dwellers would finally get good, cheap internet access.

Categories: internet, mobile, rogers

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