Rogers, Bell and Net neutrality

I do not blog on political issues, but this one is kind of different.

Couple of weeks ago I received a letter from my ISP provider (Rogers Cable), stating that days of unlimited downloads are over. More or less. Rogers capped the monthly transfer depending on your subscription plan, which in my case means maximum 95 GB / month for sum of upload and download.

They started to monitor the traffic in December and will start charging for the transfer exceeding the cap in June.

After overcoming feelings of being cheated (after all, I signed up for “unlimited” service and that !@#$ ISP did change the level of the service unilaterally) and discovering there is probably no real alternative (I could not find reasonably priced ISP that would not be reselling Bell ADSL service), I started to think about what does this actually mean and what are the consequences.

If you have limited capacity resource (like bandwidth) and potentially unlimited demand, some measures must be taken. In ideal world – when the number of subscribers is optimal with respect to capacity and their behaviour is not trying to consume as much bandwidth as humanly possible – you may get by without restrictions.

In real world where some people are downloading movies in hundreds of gigabytes, this approach does not work quite so good. Limiting consumption of the bandwidth is the solution most providers end up implementing.

This can be done two way: transfer cap and traffic shaping. In transfer cap, ISP measures the total volume transfered. In traffic shaping the ISP goes after protocols that usually related with really high volumes and try to throttle them. Usual victim is Bittorrent, which is quite often used to download illegal copyrighted content in form of movies and music, as well as other Peer-To-Peer protocols used in file sharing.

It is not easy to choose between these two bad (from consumer standpoint) solutions to congestion problem. I am no way a Rogers fanboy (despite of – or because of – being their customer for almost 10 years), but I think that their solution is better one.

I do not download movies or MP3 from torrent sites, but I have two large issues with traffic shaping approach. First, who decides which traffic is being throttled and how ? Torrent is preferred way how to distribute large binary images of Linux distributions or VMWare appliances, and targeting torrents significantly affects the open source communities, which cannot pay for data bandwidth and host the downloads on sites like Amazon S3. These projects are put into same category like PirateBay just because they use same protocol – so this approach is violation of the presumption of innocence.

To make absurdity of the approach more obvious, this is same logic as if somebody would start dropping HTTP just because there are sites on the net that are providing illegal or dangerous content: viruses, exploits, pornography … For the argument that (unlike in HTTP case) most of torrent traffic is illegal (which is an assumption, because nobody has really good data), let’s have a look at email: assumably around 90% of all email traffic is spam. Why not fight the bad guys by crippling SMTP/POP3 traffic, if we use same logic ?

My second issue is that, once the traffic shaping is acceptable business practice, who guarantees that only reason for throttling is to (assumably) limit possibly illegal content and not e.g. hurt the service of competition providing e.g. VOIP services ?

Recently the whole issue of traffic shaping got lot of attention in Canada – read the excellent blog of Michael Geist. There are even plans to organize a Net Neutrality rally on Parlament Hill – see the http://netneutralityrally.ca/ – so if you are in Ottawa on given date, give it a thought.

So however I hate Roger’s cap, I have to agree that this time, they approached the problem correctly. Only two concerns: with more and more services moving online, the 95GB is definitely not enough. I am subscriber of MSDN/Technet as well as Apple Developer’s Connection and with updates, patches etc I can easily need 40-50 GB a month just for the downloads they provide. Also more and more audio and video is delivered online – I just checked the size of Movies folder in iTunes, containing only video’s of Apple developers series and few selected videocasts and it has well over 120 GB. Add using YouTube, Lynda.com, Safari books online and similar and the final number will be well above. Unless the monthly allowance will increase, we will run out pretty soon.

Second concerns is about reliability of the traffic data. I am not measuring my internet traffic, but quite often I think there may be pretty large gap between what I was doing online and what daily meter (available from Roger’s website) reports.

I think that what we in Canada really need is more competition in the telecom and ISP area. The comparison of what Canadians can get for their money to USA in data and wireless plans looks pretty depressing – and do not even try to compare with Scandinavia or some Asian countries. Unless there is real alternative to Rogers (other than Bell), there will be hardly any pressure on prices and services offered. Maybe we should think about opening the regulation of the telecom market and allowing more foreign competition during next election campaign ?

Oh, one more thing: Steve Gibson of Security Now! fame did excellent coverage of the issues network capacity and network congestion. I highly recommend to listen to this episode if you haven’t done so.

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5 Comments on “Rogers, Bell and Net neutrality”

  1. Peter L Says:

    I support your conclusion(s) on the assumption that Rogers is choosing to cap instead of traffic shaping. Based on Rogers history, I would not be surprised if they employed both…

  2. kingthorin Says:

    This is no big surprise. It’s my understanding that the majority of European ISPs have always been pay/charge based on bandwidth usage.

    http://gizmodo.com/387901/comcast-considering-monthly-data-caps-and-overage-fees

    Unfortunately bandwidth is finite and someone has to pay for it, and as with most things the few spoil it for the majority.

    In my humble opinion, 95GB is plenty for the majority of users today. I understand your argument about MSDN etc but I’d ask why you don’t do those transfers @ work where it’s likely to be faster anyway. perhaps I don’t understand what you do for work etc but I don’t see any convincing argument for downloading 40-50GB every single month. Are you downloading a lot of content over and over again? Do you download 40-50GB then delete 90% of it? Are you maintaining historic Terabytes of information for some reason? Even then we’re still only talking ~60% of your 95GB cap.

  3. Miro Says:

    As a matter of fact – I do delete a lot. Let’s take just the iPhone SDK and Apple seeds – in last 2 months there were about 15-20 GB only in these DMG, and I usually keep just the latest.

    I also watch a lot of video (usually close-to HD quality) online and that is all throw-away content :-).

    From what I think my bandwidth consumption is, I should not go over 30-40 GB / month. What the meter shows is about 50-100% more. And this is my other issue – how trustworthy are reliable are the measurement data ?

    As we start really watching HD movies online (and we eventually will), one single movie will be about 4-6 GB or more, depending on compression. Add this to normal downloads and Web (average size of Web page in 2008 is about 300K-400K according to TWIT), the 95 GB is not enough.

  4. kingthorin Says:

    Hey again Miro, I see what you’re getting at but I think it’s a bit of a apples vs oranges thing. Yes you’re likely to start accessing more and more higher and higher quality content online in the future but two other things will likely happen at the same time.

    1) You’ll upgrade your 3MBit (or whatever) connection, which will likely (though not definitely) come with a higher cap.
    2) Compression of the content you’re accessing will improve, to help you (us) get more for less so to speak.

    Over the past 10 years Bell and Rogers (and the majority of other ISPs) have flip flopped back and forth on the topic of bandwidth caps a number of times, 95GB far exceeds anything I previously saw. I don’t think anyone (Bell, Rogers, etc) believe that 95GB/month is a future proof number in anyway, but in order to deal with their present issues they had to pick something.

    I predict it will end up being like your cable/satellite service. While Joe down the street may be perfectly happy with his traditional analog cable and 30 stations for $20 a month most people have moved to digital & PVR for $40 a month, and now more and more are moving to HighDef & PVR for $60 a month. Consumers will be forced to either adapt (like Joe down the street) or pay.

    I definitely agree with your concerns around the transfer meter you’ve been using, I wonder if it “phones home” with your numbers or if it’s just supposed to give you an idea of what you’ve used while Rogers is actually pulling numbers directly of their routers/switches? If you’re bored sometime it would be interesting to do some quick research and pick up a recommended OpenSource meter and compare it’s output against whatever it is that Rogers suggested (which gave you the 50-100% variance).

  5. Miro Says:

    Actually, getting some “second opinion” on traffic size is exactly what I plan to do as soon as I start getting regularly close to 95 GB :-).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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