Image by David Clow

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.

Rogers’ Renewed Throttling Scheme

Last December I wrote about how Rogers’ throttling systems were causing significant problems for customers. Specifically, it seemed as though a badly tested update to the Rogers network mediation infrastructure had caused P2P download speeds to sharply fall, and non-P2P applications were also impacted. These problems were confirmed by Keith McArthur, Rogers’ senior director of social media and digital communications, when he wrote that:

As some of you are aware, Rogers recently made some upgrades to our network management systems that had the unintended effect of impacting non-p2p file sharing traffic under a specific combination of conditions. Our network engineering team is working on the best way to address this issue as quickly as possible. However, I’m not able to provide any updates at this time about when this will be fixed. Our network management policy remains unchanged. You can find details of our policy here (»www.rogers.com/web/content/netwo···nagement). We are working hard to ensure that there are no gaps between our policy and the technology that enables that policy.

While it was disturbing that it took months for an official Rogers representative to confirm the problem – and that even upon confirming the issue, no timeframe for resolving it was provided – at least the company publicly recognized the problem and stated that it would be fixed. Further, it seemed that the fix (whatever it entailed) would return the mediation of customers’ data traffic to a pre-September 2010 status. Unfortunately, rather than working to resolve the problem (and maintain the network management policy) Rogers has changed their policy. This change was needed to comply with a CRTC directive – ISPs must be transparent to their customers about Internet Traffic Management Practices (ITMPs) – but since the change has taken place I’ve not seen any suggestion that things will ‘return to the old normal.’

Public Statements and Policy Updates

The most recent CRTC investigation into ISP traffic management policies began after Justin McKillican filed a complaint alleging that Rogers had “introduced changes to its Internet traffic management practices (ITMP) which impacted downstream peer to peer (P2P) traffic without providing the 30 day notice required by Telecom Regulatory Policy 2009-657.” The CRTC’s response (.pdf) to Mr. McKillican and Rogers’ Ken Thompson (Director and Counsel Copyright and Broadband Law, Rogers Communications Incorporated) directed the company to revise its ITMP disclosures on Rogers web pages on the basis that, at the time of investigating Mr. McKillican’s complaint, the disclosure on Rogers’ website was non-compliant with the transparency requirements set down in 2009-657.

In an interview with Carrt.ca about Rogers’ throttling policies (Subscription required), Mr. Englehart stated that Rogers does not traffic shape downstream traffic. Further, he asserted that Rogers had already provided an explicit disclosure of their practices on their web site. The disclosure that had been available to the public for over a year was previously in conformance “with what the CRTC wanted so it’s strange that they’re now saying it needs more work given we did it in consultation with them.” In the interview, he asserted that only P2P was affected by the throttling mechanisms, though his statement stands at odds with Rogers’ actual traffic management policies that have recently been amended. Perhaps Mr. Englehart was unaware that the policy had been amended on the basis that newly deployed technical measures, but this seems unlikely given that the CRTC letter explicitly noted that there were changes to Rogers’ throttling systems.

The changes to Rogers’ traffic management policy are significant. An entirely new section – “Are there other applications that could be impacted by Rogers traffic management measures?” – has been introduced, following almost word-for-word what Bell Canada has published in the same section of their own traffic management policy. Bell (and, now, Rogers) recognizes that sometimes their DPI systems negatively impact non-P2P applications, and puts the onus on the consumer to get things working again. Specifically, users are instructed to setup applications so that they only use IANA-specified ports[1] (with Rogers providing a non-hyperlined URL to the official IANA list on their traffic management page). Specifically, Bell and Rogers customers are told to:

  1. Close the affected application along with all P2P applications;
  2. Ensure that non-P2P applications have their ports properly assigned;
  3. Wait to ten minutes, and then restart the non-P2P application.

Knowing many Bell and Rogers customers, and just how tech-savvy they are, I cannot imagine that many end-users can actually modify port numbers for various programs. As such, the solutions these companies are providing assume that the people who either care enough to find a solution, or can solve it in the first place, tend to be reasonably technically inclined. At the same time, I fully recognize that the provided solutions will most likely comply with CRTC requirements. This suggests that ISPs are invested in making ITMP policies transparent as far as regulators are concerned, but are not so interested in making the entirety of those policies transparent to typical consumers as well.

Consumer vs Technical/Regulatory Transparency

For a system to be considered transparent to consumers it must be described so that non-experts can decode what is being described. Rogers is almost certainly not being transparent to consumers given the brevity of their ITMP policy and because customers must consult a massive text-based document (with little context), modify some applications’ port numbers, and only then have applications properly access the Internet. While such a list lets me set up port numbers on applications to avoid throttling, this is not the case with far less technically savvy individuals. What does the ‘regular consumer’ do when their particular application isn’t listed in the ports (as will happen, often) and they’re experiencing slowdown on non-P2P application traffic?

In essence, while ISPs have publicized how their traffic management policies impact traffic, in the cases of Bell and Rogers only technically savvy individuals can follow the suggested troubleshooting steps. So, while both companies are (arguably) within the confines of regulatory transparency that is required by the CRTC,[2] the transparency that these bodies require doesn’t necessarily mean that end-users without technical savvy will understand how to resolve problems. Similar to how long or complicated privacy policies are only understood by those trained to read and/or write them, I suspect that only those who already have a degree of technical awareness will understand what ISPs are doing to customer data traffic.

For a policy to be ‘consumer transparent’ it has to be non-technical, while specific enough to inform end-users what is going on. Much of Bell’s own ITMP policy is good, insofar as it is understandable and accessible to those who happen across the policy, but the troubleshooting approach that is provided is poor at best. The brevity of Rogers’ own policy, combined with the poor design decisions that reduce readability, means that Rogers has provided a policy that is less transparent to the consumer, while simultaneously meeting much of the CRTC’s own regulatory transparency requirements. Deep packet inspection and Quality of Service infrastructure regularly mediates Canadians’ digital communications. Given the importance of our digital systems I think that ISPs should remain compliant with technical and regulatory transparency requirements, but also ensure that their policies are also transparent and understandable to end-users.

Footnotes

[1] The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) is responsible for allocating and maintaining a variety of numerical codes related to technical standards and protocols that undergird the Internet. To learn more about them, read their About page.

[2] Admittedly, in the case of Rogers the CRTC has taken issue with how ‘transparent’ their approach is. Given that Rogers’ policies are written similarly to Bell, I suspect this has more to do with the ease of finding and reading Rogers’ policies instead of what is written. See the below of how to navigate to a few Canadian ISPs’ traffic management pages:

Rogers

  1. Go to the Rogers homepage
  2. Select ‘Internet’ >> ‘Packages and Pricing’
  3. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on their Internet Traffic Management Practices and Legal Disclosure link
  4. In the popup box, click the grey link in the third paragraph labeled ‘click here’.

Bell

  1. Go to Bell’s homepage
  2. Select ‘Internet’
  3. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and click their Network Management link

Shaw

  1. Go to their homepage
  2. Select ‘Internet’
  3. Select the link to their traffic management policies

Cogeco

  1. Go to their homepage
  2. Select ‘Internet’
  3. Select ‘Internet Usage’
  4. Select ‘Learn more about Internet traffic management
  5. Select one of the six options to learn about, read it, and then either use your browser’s back button or the back button on the page and scroll back down to where you were on the page.

In the case of both Bell and Shaw, there is an easily found, easily accessed, and easily read traffic management policy. In the cases of Rogers and Cogeco it is more challenging to believe that a casual consumer would happen upon the traffic management policies. The text of Rogers’ ITMP policy is incredibly small – I need to move very close to the screen to read the grey 11 font text – and Cogeco’s is buried – multiple links have to be clicked to read the whole policy even after finding it. Neither of these two policies would pass a sniff test for being ‘consumer transparent’, even if they are seen as compliant with legal and regulatory transparency requirements.