Excerpt from a letter from Rogers to the CRTC, dated March 22, 2011.
With the outcome of the CRTC’s deliberations over usage-based billing still uncertain, it can sometimes seem as though the large companies that provide Canada with internet access aren’t accountable to consumers. But that isn’t necessarily true. Here’s how two strangers, working independently, settled, with the CRTC’s help, a minor but important dispute with Rogers, their internet provider.
They did it, appropriately, over the internet.
Teresa Murphy, twenty-eight, lives in Toronto. She’s an accountant, a wife, and the mother of a one-and-a-half-year-old boy. She’s also a level eighty-five priest—and sometimes, when she gets bored of the priesthood, a mage—but only when she logs in to World of Warcraft, the popular online role-playing game she’s been involved with since 2006.
One day in December while at her sister’s home in Ottawa, Murphy noticed something strange: every time she logged-in to World of Warcraft using her sister’s Rogers home internet connection, the game would seize up and disconnect. This was a problem because without internet connectivity, World of Warcraft is unplayable.
“Mostly, I thought it was weird,” she told us. “I mean, I’ve had a few issues pop up. You always do. And you bring it up with Rogers and they fix it.” But this time was different. “You just couldn’t see a cause for the problem, which was what was so weird.”
Sicco Naets, thirty-six, is an IT professional who lives in Kanata, near Ottawa. He began noticing similar problems. Before the trouble began, he’d been playing World of Warcraft without issues for close to six years.
At their respective locations, Murphy and Naets used basic diagnostic tools to test their internet connections, and neither could find any apparent bottlenecks. This led both of them to conclude that something was amiss on Rogers’ end. They both suspected that the problem had something to do with traffic shaping.
Traffic shaping—also known as Internet Traffic Management Practices, or ITMP—is, to put it very simply, the practice of deprioritizing certain kinds of activity on a computer network in order to free up bandwidth. The CRTC allows internet providers to do it in many cases, as long as those providers tell consumers how and why it’s being done.
According to their network management policy, Rogers only applies traffic shaping to activity related to uploads on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. All other types of internet use should theoretically proceed at normal speeds. But the more Murphy and Naets continued, separately from one another, to investigate the problem, the more they each became convinced that Rogers was mistakenly deprioritizing World of Warcraft network traffic. This would have been in contravention of Rogers’ own policies, and, possibly, the CRTC’s requirements.
Box art for Cataclysm, the latest World of Warcraft expansion pack. Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.
Murphy was the first to take decisive action. On January 17, she opened a thread on an online message board operated by Rogers for the use of its internet and home-phone customers. The message board works, essentially, as a conduit for customer support, and it’s full of gripes about Rogers’ home internet service.
It wasn’t long before other users began to chime in with similar stories. The problem, it quickly became clear, was widespread, at least in Ontario. Players complained of network performance issues dating back to October and November, not just in World of Warcraft, but also in Starcraft II, another game produced by the same company, Blizzard Entertainment. All of them used Rogers as their internet service provider. A Rogers community manager posted a few times in the thread, assuring the increasingly agitated World of Warcraft aficionados—each paying as much as $15-per-month in subscription fees to Blizzard—that the issue was being investigated.
Other internet providers have had instances of complaints over traffic-shaping policies from customers who play online video games, but rarely has any provider admitted to being at fault for disconnections and slowdowns. The one exception we were able to find was the case of British ADSL provider Virgin Media, who owned up, on their customer support forums, to accidentally shaping World of Warcraft traffic, only to recant a few months later and lay the blame with “general network” issues.
Keith McArthur, a Rogers social media spokesperson, wrote in October on an online forum that Rogers’ traffic shaping may sometimes have unintended consequences “under a specific combination of conditions.” But in the particular case of the World of Warcraft problems, about two weeks went by after Murphy’s initial forum post without any promise of a solution, or any admission from Rogers that the issue might have been related to its network management practices.
During a phone call, McArthur told us that Rogers has a protocol for addressing customer complaints. “We have millions of customers and the number of complaints we receive about network management is extremely low,” he said. “But when we do get complaints we look into them immediately. We don’t wait for the CRTC to contact us.”
But Naets, who had been paying attention to the discussion on the Rogers support message board, didn’t have the sense that Rogers was acting quickly enough. He sent the CRTC an email.
“Without cooperation from Rogers, there is nothing [Blizzard Entertainment] can do to resolve the problem,” wrote Neats in his January 31 letter to the CRTC, “and the hundreds of thousands of paying Rogers customers (who pay both for their Rogers internet service, as well as for the game subscription) are left with a game that has, quite frankly, become unplayable.”
Two weeks later, with Rogers still not publicly moving to placate the irate World of Warcraft players, Murphy again took matters into her own hands: she sent the CRTC an email of her own. The CRTC registered both her and Naets’ letters as complaints, and forwarded them to Rogers.
On March 22, the exact day their response to the two CRTC complaints was due, Rogers filed a letter in which they explained that: “Our tests have determined that there is a problem with our traffic management equipment that can interfere with World of Warcraft.”
McArthur further clarified the situation to us. “The long-term fix is something that is done through Cisco, which provides the tools we use for managing the network,” he said. Rogers believes the problem occurs only when players are running peer-to-peer file-sharing applications while playing World of Warcraft. This is complicated by the fact that the game uses peer-to-peer to transfer update patches, but players can turn that feature off.
Rogers is now in contact with Blizzard, and is working to sort out the problem. They’re expecting to have everything back to normal, but not until June.
This could be construed as a small victory for net neutrality (which is a doctrine advanced by those who favour corporate non-interference in the way traffic flows over the internet), though Murphy and Naets both say that they hadn’t expected such a swift response from federal regulators, nor had either of them had much previous involvement in advocacy.
“It’s actually gone much further than I ever hoped,” said Naets. “To be honest, I don’t have much faith in the CRTC, so I was actually very pleasantly surprised that they did take it seriously, and that Rogers was then kind of forced to at least acknowledge the issue.”
“To me, it was the one thing that brought net neutrality out of the abstract and made it something that was clearly tangible.”
For the time being, Naets remains a Rogers customer. Murphy, on the other hand, called to cancel her internet service on February 14, in what could only have been a satisfying Valentine’s Day breakup.