Rogers, Bell and Net neutrality

2008/05/03

I do not blog on political issues, but this one is kind of different.

Couple of weeks ago I received a letter from my ISP provider (Rogers Cable), stating that days of unlimited downloads are over. More or less. Rogers capped the monthly transfer depending on your subscription plan, which in my case means maximum 95 GB / month for sum of upload and download.

They started to monitor the traffic in December and will start charging for the transfer exceeding the cap in June.

After overcoming feelings of being cheated (after all, I signed up for “unlimited” service and that !@#$ ISP did change the level of the service unilaterally) and discovering there is probably no real alternative (I could not find reasonably priced ISP that would not be reselling Bell ADSL service), I started to think about what does this actually mean and what are the consequences.

If you have limited capacity resource (like bandwidth) and potentially unlimited demand, some measures must be taken. In ideal world – when the number of subscribers is optimal with respect to capacity and their behaviour is not trying to consume as much bandwidth as humanly possible – you may get by without restrictions.

In real world where some people are downloading movies in hundreds of gigabytes, this approach does not work quite so good. Limiting consumption of the bandwidth is the solution most providers end up implementing.

This can be done two way: transfer cap and traffic shaping. In transfer cap, ISP measures the total volume transfered. In traffic shaping the ISP goes after protocols that usually related with really high volumes and try to throttle them. Usual victim is Bittorrent, which is quite often used to download illegal copyrighted content in form of movies and music, as well as other Peer-To-Peer protocols used in file sharing.

It is not easy to choose between these two bad (from consumer standpoint) solutions to congestion problem. I am no way a Rogers fanboy (despite of – or because of – being their customer for almost 10 years), but I think that their solution is better one.

I do not download movies or MP3 from torrent sites, but I have two large issues with traffic shaping approach. First, who decides which traffic is being throttled and how ? Torrent is preferred way how to distribute large binary images of Linux distributions or VMWare appliances, and targeting torrents significantly affects the open source communities, which cannot pay for data bandwidth and host the downloads on sites like Amazon S3. These projects are put into same category like PirateBay just because they use same protocol – so this approach is violation of the presumption of innocence.

To make absurdity of the approach more obvious, this is same logic as if somebody would start dropping HTTP just because there are sites on the net that are providing illegal or dangerous content: viruses, exploits, pornography … For the argument that (unlike in HTTP case) most of torrent traffic is illegal (which is an assumption, because nobody has really good data), let’s have a look at email: assumably around 90% of all email traffic is spam. Why not fight the bad guys by crippling SMTP/POP3 traffic, if we use same logic ?

My second issue is that, once the traffic shaping is acceptable business practice, who guarantees that only reason for throttling is to (assumably) limit possibly illegal content and not e.g. hurt the service of competition providing e.g. VOIP services ?

Recently the whole issue of traffic shaping got lot of attention in Canada – read the excellent blog of Michael Geist. There are even plans to organize a Net Neutrality rally on Parlament Hill – see the http://netneutralityrally.ca/ – so if you are in Ottawa on given date, give it a thought.

So however I hate Roger’s cap, I have to agree that this time, they approached the problem correctly. Only two concerns: with more and more services moving online, the 95GB is definitely not enough. I am subscriber of MSDN/Technet as well as Apple Developer’s Connection and with updates, patches etc I can easily need 40-50 GB a month just for the downloads they provide. Also more and more audio and video is delivered online – I just checked the size of Movies folder in iTunes, containing only video’s of Apple developers series and few selected videocasts and it has well over 120 GB. Add using YouTube, Lynda.com, Safari books online and similar and the final number will be well above. Unless the monthly allowance will increase, we will run out pretty soon.

Second concerns is about reliability of the traffic data. I am not measuring my internet traffic, but quite often I think there may be pretty large gap between what I was doing online and what daily meter (available from Roger’s website) reports.

I think that what we in Canada really need is more competition in the telecom and ISP area. The comparison of what Canadians can get for their money to USA in data and wireless plans looks pretty depressing – and do not even try to compare with Scandinavia or some Asian countries. Unless there is real alternative to Rogers (other than Bell), there will be hardly any pressure on prices and services offered. Maybe we should think about opening the regulation of the telecom market and allowing more foreign competition during next election campaign ?

Oh, one more thing: Steve Gibson of Security Now! fame did excellent coverage of the issues network capacity and network congestion. I highly recommend to listen to this episode if you haven’t done so.