Monday, July 06, 2009

How Canadian ISPs May Control Your Internet Experience

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) across Canada have different ways and views on how to manage their networks. At issue, network resources for playing online games, sharing files peer-to-peer, watching online videos, and other types of high-bandwidth content, which many of us take for granted.

ISPs across the country are struggling to manage customers who use high-bandwidth content more frequently than most on their network, claiming if they don’t do something, their other customers online experiences will suffer.

Currently the Internet in Canada is as it was when it began everywhere else – wild and free. There are no rules for how your ISP manages their network resources, just so long as they provide you with the services you pay for.

That’s created a big debate across the country, and as with many national issues, the government has been called in to create the laws and regulations governing how your ISP manages their network – which in the end will deeply affect how you use the Internet.

How is the wild and free Internet being tamed by your ISP?

Partial map of the Internet based on the Janua...Image via Wikipedia

ISPs typically use one of two methods to control your use of high-bandwidth content – throttling and download limits. Some ISPs use a combination of both methods.

Throttling is when the ISP intentionally slows down the flow of information sent and received over its network based on specific types of applications. Some ISPs are known to reduce the bandwidth availability for peer-to-peer file sharing applications, such as Torrent sites, others will limit bandwidth available for playing live online games, and some will even reduce the bandwidth for sending and receiving email messages.

Some ISPs will have different packages or levels of service available for different monthly amounts, each level having its own data transfer limit. These are usually based on price per month, so the higher priced packages allow you to send and receive more information, while the lower priced packages have lower monthly data transfer limits. The price of the package is often connected with the maximum download speed allocated to that level. For example, one ISP may sell its lowest cost package at $19.95 month, which gives you 3 Megabits per second (Mbps) of download bandwidth, and a monthly data transfer (up and down total) of 10 Gigabytes (GB). The same ISP may have their highest package priced at $99.95 per month, giving you 19mbps of download bandwidth, and a monthly data transfer (up and down total) of 95GB.

If you exceed the monthly data transfer limit, you aren’t cut off, and banned from using the Internet until your next month – that would aggravate even the most understanding of customers. Instead, you are simply charged an additional fee for every Megabyte or Gigabyte worth of data transferred, above your monthly limit.

So, how does this affect me?

Customers of ISPs that throttle selected high-bandwidth applications complain that they are being discriminated against. Who gave the ISP the right to decide which applications deserve more or less bandwidth? By deciding which applications are throttled, the ISP is in a sense, condoning some behaviours while negating others.

And there is also the argument, that by deciding which applications to throttle and which ones to ignore, ISPs could essentially shape the very direction new developments and new technologies go. For example, if peer-to-peer file sharing is constantly limited by ISPs, than this technology won’t develop or spawn other similar technologies, because of the way ISPs view them.

For those who have data transfer limits and fees, this impacts how much they can do online. You may never go over your data transfer limit, but one month, discover a new high-broadband-based Internet portal, and get hit with a giant unexpected bill the next month.

This is highly conceivable, as more and more technologies converge, which increase bandwidth used, often in unexpected ways. For example, a new trend is in wireless home security systems, where people can set a series of wireless cameras around their home. These cameras send video and still images over your wireless network to your computer, and can email and even stream these images and video live to you over the Internet. This way, you can be at work, and still see a live video stream of your kid’s room, to keep an eye on your children.

At first blush it doesn’t appear to cost much to install such a system – but if you exceed your monthly bandwidth limit, your next high-speed Internet bill could be quite a bit larger than you expected.

Where’s all of this going?

Today, the Canadian Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) which regulates radio, television and the Internet in Canada launched hearings into these issues, to try and figure out how to proceed.

Do ISPs have the right to decide which applications to throttle and which not too? Is it fair for ISPs to charge service fees for exceeding monthly data transfer limits? Is it right to have these limits in the first place? Do ISPs have the right to monitor all the information sent and received on their networks, to determine pricing packages, service fees, and data transfer limits?

These questions – and many more – will be the subject of debate for the foreseeable future, as Canada’s regulator hears from ISPs, small, medium and big business and regular Canadians like you and me, all tossing in their Two-cents worth on the future of the Internet in one of the most wired countries on the planet.

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