Bell’s throttling considered harmful

Copyright Bell Canada

Over the last week, many people became aware of Bell implementing throttling on their Internet services. Throttling, (or traffic shaping) aims to improve the overall Quality-of-Service (QoS) by delaying or limiting certain types of packets so that the network is not overloaded.

Traffic shaping itself is not insidious; in fact it’s a widely used method to maintain the stability of networks. However, the reasons that Bell and other providers have done this, as well as how they’ve carried it out, have created much controversy.

Bell says, you do

The way Bell has implemented their throttling has peeved off many users. Not only are they throttling their own Internet users, but they are also throttling their wholesale services, that is, the bandwidth that they sell to third-party ISPs who then resell that service to other users. This, in effect, extends Bell’s traffic-shaping policy to other ISPs and their users, all of whom did not agree to such contracts.

Furthermore, it appears they have not just throttled BitTorrent, but all encrypted packets as well. This is because BitTorrent is often used with protocol encryption and rather than have users circumvent their policies, Bell has chosen the shotgun approach of throttling everything that could bit BitTorrent. Clearly this blanket approach is effective, but it angers many people who regularly use VPN for work-related duties.

Furthermore, many people use BitTorrent for legit purposes. The CBC has chosen to use BitTorrent to distribute one of their shows; many open source projects use it to distribute their programs, such as Ubuntu Linux. Throttling the transfer rates here effectively reduces the level of service you expected when you signed up for Internet through Bell.

Chicken Little?

Providers have always said that throttling/traffic-shaping was necessary to ensure a certain QoS for all users. This has an element of truth to it – after all, bandwidth is a finite resource. However, what irks me is that ISPs clearly advertise a certain speed when it comes to their services. There’s often a “Basic” level of service, which is < 1 Mbps, and other, more pricey packages offering > 5 Mbps. If a provider cannot, or will not, provide such a level of service, they should not be advertising it as such.

There’s been some news lately (see this report from the CBC) about an impending “bandwidth crisis”. The journalists out there seem to have latched onto the idea that bandwidth is some sort of limited natural resource that needs to be dug out of the ground, and thus, we could run out of it. Other claim that soon the Internet will slow to a crawl and be so unusable that people will simply stop using it.

I call BS on all of this. These reports sound like nothing more than a reason for providers to justify throttling or their lack of planning for expansion of their infrastructure. After all, if bandwidth is so precious and we’re running out of it, wouldn’t it make sense to “ration” it?

As Internet providers who have a virtual monopoly on the market, these corporations should have the obligation to continually improve their networks, instead of throttling users and crying Chicken Little about the impending bandwidth doomsday. How come we don’t hear of such crises in countries such as Korea or Japan?


The aim of an Internet provider should be to deliver the best quality of service to its users, just as any other service. However, the fact is that BitTorrent is the target of throttling precisely because it is so
efficient; for once, users were able to maximize the bandwidth promised to them, and providers found themselves unable to deliver on their promises. Throttling is thus a way for them to renege on their promise without having to change the speeds that are advertised.

In a way, all of this is similar to the story of how the QWERTY keyboard layout was designed to slow down typists so that old typewriters of the day wouldn’t jam.1

We accept this level of service not because we are pleased with it, but instead because we have little to no other options. By limiting bandwidth and not investing in improving infrastructure as much as they should, Bell and other providers do not only their customers a great disservice, but also society as a whole. The fast and free flow of information is essential to improving people’s knowledge and acts as a catalyst for greater things.

  1. I realize such claims may be apocryphal, but I’m just trying to make a point!

One Comment »

  1. Monopolies are a dangerous animal. Just like in the cellphone industry, the major ISPs can basically do or charge anything that they want, and consumers have little to no options of recourse.

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