Canadian carrier sues to block net neutrality rules for wireless TV

Bell Mobility is taking legal action to stop new rules that forbid Canada’s phone carriers from excluding their own wireless TV services from customers’ monthly data caps, a practice that regulators claim is anticompetitive.

In a filing last week with the Federal Court of Canada, Bell made a technical argument that the rules are illegal because wireless TV is a broadcasting service, not an internet service.

The legal fight comes just weeks after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) outlawed the data cap exemptions, which let Bell customers watch up to 10 gigabits of wireless TV streaming for a nominal $5 fee — provided the streams came from Bell’s own TV partners, and not a competitor like Netflix.

In announcing the decision, the CRTC’s Chairman said the agency would intervene in cases where customer perks offered by “large vertically integrated companies” stepped on the toes of equal access principles.

The tussle over wireless TV is likely to bring further attention to a practice known as “zero rating,” which is growing more contentious in both Canada and the U.S. at a time when regulators are moving to tighten net neutrality requirements.

Zero rating is when mobile internet providers exclude certain specific apps or services from customers’ data caps as a feature of their monthly plans. One current example in the U.S. is T-Mobile, which offers uncapped music service to its phone customers.

While such services are a nice feature for consumers, they can also amount to a violation of net neutrality principles, especially when offered by oligopolists like Bell, which controls large stakes in Canada’s internet, mobile and TV markets — including rights to the Super Bowl.

Critics like consumer group Open Media fear it will lead the telecom industry creating de facto fast lanes, and freezing out competing services like Netflix. The issue is also a hot topic in Europe where several countries have come out against zero rating.

Bell’s legal challenge, which was reported by the Globe & Mail, is likely to be the first of several on both sides of the border. In the U.S., AT&T has already warned the FCC that it will sue over new rules that are going to a vote this Thursday.

Canada cracks down on zero-rating in two net neutrality rulings

The list of countries that find zero-rating to be a violation of net neutrality just keeps on growing, with Canada the latest to crack down on the practice.

“Zero-rating” or “positive price discrimination” refers to carriers providing certain services or apps for free or at a cheaper rate than they charge for regular internet traffic. Many (including me) see this as a net neutrality violation, because it treats different services unequally and damages the ability of non-zero-rated services to find an audience.

It’s a much more subtle net neutrality violation than straight-out blocking or throttling certain services, though, which is why some – such as the European Commission – don’t tend to see it in that light.

Apparently, Canada does see zero-rating as a threat to the “open internet”. On Thursday, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) issued a decision against carriers [company]Bell Mobility[/company] and [company]Vidéotron[/company], which were exempting their own Bell Mobile TV and illico.tv mobile TV services from their regular data plans (for a small monthly fee of around $5) while counting traffic for rival services against those data caps. Video content is, of course, about as data-heavy as it gets.

Vidéotron has until the end of March to confirm that it has withdrawn its mobile TV app as it promised it would, and Bell has until April 29 to stop its violations. According to the CRTC, the result will be “an open and fair marketplace for mobile TV services, enabling innovation and choice for Canadians.”

Pro-net-neutrality organization OpenMedia.ca reacted with delight, saying the ruling “sets a precedent for mobile providers across Canada.” The group quoted telecoms researcher Ben Klass, who filed the original complaint over Bell’s behavior, as saying:

In a world where Bell could charge 800% more for competing services it seemed unlikely that innovation could thrive. It’s heartening to see the CRTC side with Canadians and strike down this unfair practice.

Over the last week, Dutch and Slovenian regulations have hammered carriers for zero-rating violations, although those cases involved the favored services of commercial partners such as [company]HBO[/company] and [company]Deezer[/company], rather than the carriers’ in-house efforts. Chile has also banned operators from offering services such as [company]Twitter[/company] and [company]Facebook[/company] for free, and Norway’s regulators have advised the same.

A study by bandwidth management firm Allot Communications last year found that half of mobile carriers around the world are now zero-rating certain traffic, most frequently Facebook’s. The practice is also key to developing-world schemes such as Facebook’s Internet.org – they’ve struck deals with carriers that see selected services offered for free, with the idea being that people will start paying for the wider web once they’ve seen what it has to offer.

Canadian Broadcasters: Regulate Netflix Like TV

Netflix could soon be forced to spend more money on Canadian content and run programming “that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity,” if Canada’s TV incumbents have their way. An industry consortium asked regulators this month to treat Netflix like plain old TV.

Canada’s Netflix Rebellion Against Bandwidth Caps

Canada’s Netflix users can expect cough up some extra cash starting March 1, thanks to regulation forcing smaller ISPs to bandwidth caps and overage charges. Bandwidth caps will be as low as 25 GB — unless growing public pressure will make regulators change their mind.

BitTorrent Inc. Shares Internal Data About P2P Throttling

Stop slowing down our torrents! That’s the message BitTorrent Inc. has been sending to Canadian ISPs this week with a last-minute submission (PDF) to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Bell, Rogers and other Canadian ISPs have been throttling their subscribers’ BitTorrent traffic for years, and the CRTC recently started public hearings to figure out if government intervention is necessary.
The whole episode is reminiscent of the controversy that broke out when Comcast started to slow down its subscribers’ torrent downloads in the U.S. — especially when it comes to BitTorrent Inc.’s allegations. The company did, however, share a few interesting tidbits in its submission that clarify how much of an impact such throttling measures have and what BitTorrent is doing to address network congestion issues.
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Canadian Content Producers Take a Stand for Net Neutrality

Oh, Canada: Your health care is universal, your forests are green, and your creative industries are against BitTorrent throttling. The Canadian Film & Television Production Association (CFTPA) and two other trade groups representing filmmakers and TV producers testified in support of net neutrality in front of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) this week. The CRTC has been conducting hearings to look into Bell, Rogers and other Canadian ISPs throttling their subscribers’ BitTorrent traffic.

Bell’s BitTorrent throttling is very similar to what Comcast (s CMCSA) tried in the U.S. until it got forced by the FCC to stop interfering with torrent transmissions. However, the reactions from entertainment industry representatives were very different on this side of the border. The MPAA and NBC Universal (s ge) came out in support of Comcast, making clear that they viewed BitTorrent throttling as the first step towards a world in which ISPs are proactively policing their networks against copyright infringement.

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Canadians Rally for Net Neutrality

As a few hundred scruffy protesters gathered in Ottawa yesterday to support Net Neutrality, busloads of teenagers on school trips to visit Canada’s seat of government walked past them, blissfully unaware that the fight to keep Facebook free was happening right next to them.

Neutrality should be an easy sell: Nobody wants ISPs to be able to treat traffic differently, fearing it will lead to monthly “Google plans” or “Skype charges.”

But it quickly gets complicated. Rather than trying to win one battle, special interest groups bring in other fights: Tier-two ISPs want unfettered access to the last mile on wholesale links. Privacy advocates warn of prying eyes on the wires and at the borders. The specter of copyright enforcement looms large. And telcos complain that peer-to-peer is breaking their networks. Read More about Canadians Rally for Net Neutrality