Each year Canada’s leaders in telecommunications gather at the Canadian Telecommunications Summit to talk about ongoing policy issues, articulate their concerns about Canada’s status in the world of telecommunications, and share lessons and experiences with one another. This years Summit was no exception. While some commentators have accused this year’s event of just rehashing previous years’ content – it is true that each Summit does see similar topics on the conference agenda, with common positions taken each year – there are some interesting points that emerged this year.
Specifically, discussions about the valuation of telecom services regularly arose, discussions of supply and demand in the Canadian ISP space, as well as some interesting tidbits about the CRTC. For many people in the industry what I’ll be talking about isn’t exactly new; those not inside the industry’s fold, however, may find elements of this interesting. After outlining some of the discussions that took place I will point to something that was particularly striking throughout the Summit events I attended: Open Media loomed like a spectre throughout, shaping many of the discussions and talking points despite not having a single formal representative in attendance.
Rogers Communications modified their packet inspection systems last year, and ever since customers have experienced degraded download speeds. It’s not that random users happen to be complaining about an (effectively) non-problem: Rogers’ own outreach staff has confirmed that the modifications took place and that these changes have negatively impacted peer to peer (P2P) and non-P2P applications alike. Since then, a Rogers Communications senior-vice president, Ken Englehart, has suggested that any problems customers have run into are resultant of P2P applications themselves; no mention is made of whether or how Rogers’ throttling systems have affected non-P2P traffic.
In this brief post, I want to quickly refresh readers on the changes that Rogers Communications made to their systems last year, and also note some of the problems that have subsequently arisen. Following this, I take up what Mr. Englehart recently stated in the media about Rogers’ throttling mechanisms. I conclude by noting that Rogers is likely in compliance with the CRTC’s transparency requirements (or at least soon will be), but that such requirements are ill suited to inform the typical consumer.
Deep packet inspection (DPI) is a form of network surveillance and control that will remain in Canadian networks for the foreseeable future. It operates by examining data packets, determining their likely application-of-origin, and then delaying, prioritizing, or otherwise mediating the content and delivery of the packets. Ostensibly, ISPs have inserted it into their network architectures to manage congestion, mitigate unprofitable capital investment, and enhance billing regimes. These same companies routinely run tests of DPI systems to better nuance the algorithmic identification and mediation of data packets. These tests are used to evaluate algorithmic enhancements of system productivity and efficiency at microlevels prior to rolling new policies out to the entire network.
Such tests are not publicly broadcast, nor are customers notified when ISPs update their DPI devices’ long-term policies. While notification must be provided to various bodies when material changes are made to the network, non-material changes can typically be deployed quietly. Few notice when a deployment of significant scale happens…unless it goes wrong. Based on user-reports in the DSLreports forums it appears that one of Rogers’ recent policy updates was poorly tested and then massively deployed. The ill effects of this deployment are still unresolved, over sixty days later.
In this post, I first detail issues facing Rogers customers, drawing heavily from forum threads at DSLreports. I then suggest that this incident demonstrates multiple failings around DPI governance: a failure to properly evaluate analysis and throttling policies; a failure to significantly acknowledge problems arising from DPI misconfiguration; a failure to proactively alleviate inconveniences of accidental throttling. Large ISPs’ abilities to modify data transit and discrimination conditions is problematic because it increases the risks faced by innovators and developers who cannot predict future data discrimination policies. Such increased risks threaten the overall generative nature of the ends of the Internet. To alleviate some of these risks a trusted third-party should be established. This party would monitor how ISPs themselves govern data traffic and alert citizens and regulators if ISPs discriminate against ‘non-problematic’ traffic types or violate their own terms of service. I ultimately suggest that an independent, though associated, branch of the CRTC that is responsible for watching over ISPs could improve trust between Canadians and the CRTC and between customers and their ISPs.
Technology is neither good or bad. It’s also not neutral. Network neutrality, a political rallying cry meant to motivate free-speech, free-culture, and innovation advocates, was reportedly betrayed by Google following the release of a Verizon-Google policy document on network management/neutrality. What the document reveals is that the two corporations, facing a (seemingly) impotent FCC, have gotten the ball rolling by suggesting a set of policies that the FCC could use in developing a network neutrality framework. Unfortunately, there has been little even-handed analysis of this document from the advocates of network neutrality; instead we have witnessed vitriol and over-the-top rhetoric. This is disappointing. While sensational headlines attract readers, they do little to actually inform the public about network neutrality in a detailed, granular, reasonable fashion. Verizon-Google have provided advocates with an opportunity to pointedly articulate their views while the public is watching, and this is not an opportunity that should be squandered with bitter and unproductive criticism.
I’m intending this to be the first of a few posts on network neutrality. In this post, I exclusively work through the principles suggested by Verizon-Google. In this first, and probationary, analysis I will draw on existing American regulatory language and lessons that might be drawn from the Canadian experience surrounding network management. My overall feel of the document published by Verizon-Google is that, in many ways, it’s very conservative insofar as it adheres to dominant North American regulatory approaches. My key suggestion is that instead of rejecting the principles laid out in their entirety we should carefully consider each in turn. During my examination, I hope to identify what principles and/or their elements could be usefully taken up into a government-backed regulatory framework that recognizes the technical, social, and economic potentials of America’s broadband networks.
Shortly before Canada Day the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) released their decision as to whether they were to modify the forbearance framework for mobile wireless data services. To date, the CRTC has used a light hand when it’s come to wireless data communications: they’ve generally left wireless providers alone so that the providers could expand their networks in the (supposedly) competitive wireless marketplace. As of decision 2010-445 the Commission’s power and duties are extended and the spectre of traffic management on mobile networks is re-raised.
In this post I’m going to spell out what the changes actually mean – what duties and responsibilities, in specific, the CRTC is responsible for – and what traffic management on mobile networks would entail. This will see me significantly reference portions of the Canadian Telecommunications Act; if you do work in telecommunications in Canada you’ll be familiar with a lot of what’s below (and might find my earlier post on deep packet inspection and mobile discrimination more interesting), but for the rest this will expose you to some of the actual text of the Act.
In amending the forbearance framework the CRTC is entering the regulatory domain on several topics pertaining to wireless data communications. Specifically, wireless providers are now subject to section 24 and subsections 27(2), 27(3), and 27(4) of the Act. Section 24 states that the “offering and provision of telecommunications service by a Canadian carrier are subject to any conditions imposed by the Commission or included in tariff approved by the Commission.” In effect, the CRTC can now intervene in the conditions of service that carriers make available to other carriers and the public. Under 27(2) carriers can no longer unjustly discriminate against or give unreasonable preference towards any person. This limitation includes the telecommunications carrier itself and thus means that neither fees nor management of the network can be excessively leveraged to the benefit of the carrier and detriment of other parties.
I see a lot of the network neutrality discussion as one surrounding the conditions under which applications can, and cannot, be prevented from running. On one hand there are advocates who maintain that telecommunications providers – ISPs such as Bell, Comcast, and Virgin – shouldn’t be responsible for ‘picking winners and losers’ on the basis that consumers should make these choices. On the other hand, advocates for managed (read: functioning) networks insist that network operators have a duty and responsibility to fairly provision their networks in a way that doesn’t see one small group negatively impact the experiences of the larger consumer population. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) has become a hot-button technology in light of the neutrality debates, given its potential to let ISPs determine what applications function ‘properly’ and which see their data rates delayed for purposes of network management. What is often missing in the network neutrality discussions is a comparison between the uses of DPI across jurisdictions and how these uses might impact ISPs’ abilities to prioritize or deprioritize particular forms of data traffic.
As part of an early bit of thinking on this, I want to direct our attention to Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom to start framing how these jurisdictions are approaching the use of DPI. In the process, I will make the claim that Canada’s recent CRTC ruling on the use of the technology appears to be more and more progressive in light of recent decisions in the US and the likelihood of the UK’s Digital Economy Bill (DEB) becoming law. Up front I should note that while I think that Canada can be read as ‘progressive’ on the network neutrality front, this shouldn’t suggest that either the CRTC or parliament have done enough: further clarity into the practices of ISPs, additional insight into the technologies they use, and an ongoing discussion of traffic management systems are needed in Canada. Canadian communications increasingly pass through IP networks and as a result our communications infrastructure should be seen as important as defence, education, and health care, each of which are tied to their own critical infrastructures but connected to one another and enabled through digital communications systems. Digital infrastructures draw together the fibres connecting the Canadian people, Canadian business, and Canadian security, and we need to elevate the discussions about this infrastructure to make it a prominent part of the national agenda.