What Is Throttling, and Why Should You Care?
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What Is Throttling, and Why Should You Care?

Bell Canada is dropping its widely-despised traffic shaping practices in March. We explain what it all means.

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At the end of December, Bell Canada—Canada’s largest Internet service provider—quietly announced that it would be doing away with its current, long-criticized, peer-to-peer traffic shaping practices as of March 2012. Most of us, whether we know it or not, are well-acquainted with P2P network communication–basically, any exchange that enables data sharing between hardware and software without the aid of a specific server. Skype uses P2P, for example, as do most online chat and file-sharing applications.

Bell’s was a major announcement, and it may soon cause other ISPs to follow suit. But, what does this actually mean for ordinary internet users? We turned to University of Ottawa law professor and tech critic Michael Geist, who has written extensively on the topic, for answers.

Torontoist: You’ve mentioned in the past that “Bell’s current throttling practices may now violate the Canadian Radio, Television, Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC’s) internet traffic management guideline.” How is the internet regulated in Canada, and why would Bell’s (soon-to-be-former) throttling practices be a potential violation?

Michael Geist: The internet isn’t governed by anyone in Canada. The CRTC has rules for internet service providers, however. These cover how ISPs manage their networks, particularly when they use technologies to restrict or slow down access. Bell’s throttling practices may violate those rules since the CRTC mandates that any technical limitations meet certain criteria, including being as limited as necessary. If Bell is no longer experiencing congestion on its network due to P2P, throttling P2P traffic might run afoul of the rules.

What is P2P traffic shaping, exactly, and how does it work?

P2P traffic shaping limits the amount of bandwidth available to peer-to-peer traffic. For example, say a subscriber has a 10 Mbps connection. Traffic shaping might limit the use of P2P to only one Mpbs. In other words, the traffic would be slowed down by technically limiting the available bandwidth for P2P. (Torontoist note: This means that the transmission of P2P content would be selectively blocked, slowing the transfer or disallowing it completely. The logic behind this is that, in limiting high-bandwidth content exchanges, traffic congestion will be reduced. The practice in itself is, however, fundamentally restrictive by nature. More concretely: what this means is that you could be scrambling for a download of the latest of-the-minute mixtape, click your click, and have nothing happen.)

How does Bell’s announcement change the status quo and why does it matter?

Bell’s announcement is important since for several years it claimed (along with other ISPs) that P2P was causing great network congestion that required traffic shaping. The announcement indicates that this is no longer the case and so the justifications for shaping are disappearing.