Games, throttled: complain about Rogers, blame the CRTC (2)

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Complaints resolution flowchart, as appended to Rogers’ Sept 27 letter to the CRTC

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[Includes correction to the “plot” timeline]

As the news breaks (see petition link below)

I was just finishing this post (#2) when Jason Koblovsky sent me the much-anticipated response from Rogers to last week’s “warning” letter from the CRTC. The letter, which runs about 1200 words, was addressed to the CRTC’s Joanne Baldassi over the signature of Ken Thompson, Rogers’ Director of Copyright and Broadband Law. Get your red-hot pdf here.  

The Rogers letter is an exquisite piece of evasion, obfuscation and self-congratulations. It indicates to me that when you put together the Commission’s ass-backwards approach (consumer complaints are first and foremost the consumer’s problem), along with Rogers’ business philosophy (the customer is always wrong), then the use of end-user complaints as a policy tool under the new guidelines won’t change a damn thing. The plot so far:

CGO fights Rogers, CRTC over WoW for 2+ yrs > CRTC issues warning to Rogers (Sept 16) > CRTC issues new complaints guidelines (Sept 22) > Guidelines get tepid reception (esp from CGO) > Rogers responds to CRTC warning (Sept 27) > CGO issues statement (“something doesn’t smell right”) > Petition launched at OpenMedia.ca (here).

Jason K sends the following correction: “The World of Warcraft case is almost a year old.  It’s been ten months since the complaint was handed into the CRTC in January 2011. The CAIP and myself brought up the issue of misclassification prior to the WoW complaint in 2008.  The CRTC has known about this misclassification problem now for over 3 years.”

I’ll parse the Rogers’ letter in the followup post, along with any early reactions from the blogosphere. Meanwhile, please have a look at the following comments from some of the usual suspects (including me) on what the new guidelines do and don’t do for consumers.

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 Subscriber, heal thyself

The CRTC’s new “guidelines” on the handling of ISP complaints landed last week to decidedly mixed reactions among those who care about consumers (Telecom Information Bulletin CRTC 2011-609). PIAC counsel John Lawford dropped me a comment (see prior post) in which he expressed satisfaction with the general direction:

“Not a model of total clarity but a start. CCTS-like procedure, some transparency requirements and some threats of sanctions. I am concerned the actual online complaints form is not prepopulated with the requirements for this type of specialized complaint – nor the requirements the CRTC will be looking at to judge the complaint (see paras. 13-14 of the Information Bulletin).”

On Peter Nowak’s Friday blog post, we got treated to an interesting compare-and-contrast between the complaint guidelines and the previous day’s CRTC decision on vertical integration. In the end Nowak places some blame at the doorstep of the Conservative government for creating “conflicting” policy messages. Not that he’s really impressed:

“Welcome to the party, CRTC. Nice of you to show up. Where have you been? It’s hard not to be cynical about the apparent change of heart. After all, this is the same regulator who for years has been endorsing and pushing anti-consumer regulations and decisions, like the bone-headed approval of usage-based billing, the attempt to block the launch of Wind Mobile and the ongoing failure to enforce net neutrality in the first place.”

Geist stood somewhere in the middle with his reaction, seeing hopeful signs in the Commission’s decision to stop making complaints a big secret:

“The best aspect of the ruling is a commitment to publish quarterly reports featuring a summary of the number and types of complaints it has received, including the number of active and resolved complaints. Moreover, any findings of non-compliance will be published on the Commission’s website and will include the ISP’s name and the nature of the complaint. The move toward greater transparency is welcome and an important step in pressuring ISPs to comply with the guidelines.”

I’m not so sanguine about the power of bad publicity to make ISPs act more responsibly. For sheer exposure to be effective, Rogers and the gang would have to have something to lose – like customers. In any case, Geist qualifies his optimism by citing what is for him a serious shortcoming in the guidelines:

“If the Commission is serious about enforcement, it should supplement the user complaints-based approach with pro-active audits of ISP practices (the Commission contemplates third-party audits only after a statistical pattern of user complaints about a specific ISP).”

Jason Koblovsky also had reactions. Calling them really negative would be an understatement. He had already posted several comments, on both his blog and at OpenMedia.ca. His biggest criticism picked up where Geist left off: the Commission shouldn’t be asking consumers to do their work for them.

“We find this policy update to be more of an insult to consumers, and puts the responsibility of monitoring ISP’s use of ITMPs directly on the back of consumers. This is not acceptable by any means, and none of the policy recommendations we made that were thrown out by the CRTC in our initial complaint were taken into consideration, or for that matter seriously by the CRTC. This is a slap in the face to what we have been fighting for, and that is the CRTC has the responsibility to follow through, monitor and enforce its policies.”

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That’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

In my previous post, I tried to illustrate – once again – just how difficult it is for people who aren’t technical or policy experts to fathom any of this stuff about their Internet access. Heck, even the experts can’t agree on this Rogers/WoW fiasco. On Friday, I had a second conversation with Jason, and he told me Rogers engineering staff have been working with reps from the vendor that supplies the DPI equipment at issue – Cisco. So here we have one of North America’s largest cable MSOs, teamed with the world’s largest Internet gear-maker, and they either can’t or won’t make this “bug” go away. At least not until Rogers got the warning letter from the CRTC (Cisco has apparently tested its equipment on hundreds of online applications).

“Bug”? In his comment here the other day, John Lawford added this new twist:

“Re your “bug” comments at the top, it’s not a “bug” it’s a FEATURE of ITM software that it scans for what IT considers to be P2P packets that are masquerading as something else. That is what leads to most of the providers’ upset – they have to ask the DPI box guys to change the software.”

Why would Rogers be upset about asking Cisco to change out their ITM software? Because it costs money and offers no return except to get a few annoying customers, and now the regulator, off their backs. But Rogers has something in common with the CRTC in this regard: Rogers also thinks annoying customers should figure out their own problems. If the subscriber never gets to the bottom of an issue, or simply gives up because she can’t muster the time, skill and effort, then for practical purposes the problem doesn’t exist.

I think Lawford is onto something here. What if the software was designed to err on the side of protecting the ISP, such that the benefit of any doubt in the inspection of packet headers for protocol type would construe all suspect packets as belonging to P2PP. Shoot first, ask questions later. Why not?

Taking integrity for a spin

In addition to its breathtaking attempt to con the Canadian public with its astroturfing campaign on LTE, Rogers showed what it’s really made of when staff approached Jason about getting into bed together – just prior to release of the CRTC guidelines. In a blog entry re-posted to OpenMedia.ca, Jason revealed that he and his co-founder Teresa had received two emails from what he referred to as “the social media spin doctor for the company, trying to court [CGO’s] support.”

Mary, the spinner at issue, wrote to invite Jason, Teresa and other CGO members to a meeting with Rogers, including a member of their network engineering team, in order to address the CGO’s questions (Mary, like Bell’s IVR jockey Emily, has no last name). After getting told for two-plus years by Rogers to piss off, Jason and colleagues didn’t suddenly find this invite all warm and cozy – what a stunner. This overture, whatever its true intent, smelled a lot like a cheap and easy way to get the job done for them – or to gag the critics with friendliness. Per Jason:

“The responsibility of this testing lies directly with the developer of the software you use and with Rogers, and we are expecting this testing to take place without our help at this time.”

But in her second email, the expansive Mary put the lie to this testing theory and went for something bigger:

“[J]ust so we’re clear, the intent was not to involve you in testing of any kind. It was merely an invitation to share information and get your thoughts/opinions on how we should engage customers in future. Also, we were hoping to discuss the creation of a Rogers Gamers Panel, intended to be an open forum between Rogers and our gaming influencers.”

The gamers weren’t having any of this thing that quacked much like a co-opted duck. What really irked Jason – something he confirmed in our talk last Friday – was Rogers’ determined attempt a) to end-run formal rules, and b) to pass the buck back to the consumers. So it was Jason’s turn to tell Rogers to take a hike:

“We also request at this time, that any further communications relating to this matter, be formally submitted to the CRTC and related to compliance with the current order and CRTC policy.”

The next day, the Commission pretty much pulled the rug out from under the CGO’s regulatory deference by refusing to include in its guidelines the one thing that Jason and the CGO have insisted on all along: get the CRTC to audit for ITMP compliance, then investigate and punish as appropriate. No such luck, as Jason noted in his Sept 22 OpenMedia.ca post:

“Not one ISP has been found by the CRTC to be acting against net neutrality policy since they acted on this in 2009, with several complaints sent to the CRTC by consumers being dismissed due to lack of evidence over years of enforcement failure by the commission. There is no indication here that the CRTC is going to be dealing with [the] very high evidentiary threshhold put on the consumer to launch a CRTC investigation in this policy update. All this update does is provide information on CRTC complaints procedures that are already in place, and consumers are already abiding by.”

When he and I talked, Jason indicated his team was weighing the “political” option, i.e. going over the Commission’s head to Minister Paradis and possibly other senior members of the government. For now it seems the CGO doesn’t have a lot of faith in more filings with the regulator.

What ISP customers really need

After hearing this hard line from Jason, I was taken aback to see the September 23 followup in the Wire Report, entitled “Consumer advocates say CRTC’s net neutrality guidelines a ‘good step’” – a lot more bullish than the CGO for one. Yes, as reporter Nick Kyonka points out, the guidelines now provide a “name and shame” angle that at least gets complaints out of the CRTC’s secret file drawers. But that in itself means nothing unless we see the desired effect – ISPs actually changing their behavior and cooperating plenty more than they have in the past. And of course there’s another barrier left in place by the guidelines. If customers don’t complain and the Commission continues to sit on its butt, the world will go on much like before. Even the slightly bullish Lawford expressed this kind of concern in his WR interview on Friday:

“Lawford said the commission’s website does not yet offer a specific complaints form for traffic management related issues, and that the conditions for making such complaints are not included on the general complaints form page. This, he said, could lead to complaints being rejected for lacking the necessary information.”

That’s the thing: it’s all about the information. The  complaints fuss is a sad microcosm of  the Commission’s much larger problem. Its staff are incapable of stepping outside the canonical texts intended for wonks and then extending support, education and outreach initiatives to the great unwashed public. Serious public education – connecting with the public, not “consulting” with them – constitutes the only meaningful policy alternative to ex ante rules (which we’ll never see) and audits (which aren’t likely to be Ottawa’s priority). Yes, that translates as developing broad social and economic policies to foster digital literacy in our broadband banana republic.

In the meantime, Rogers has told the WR “it would comply with an audit if ever asked.” Easy for them to say, since they won’t have to start worrying about the consequences of compliance until Denis Carmel gets up on the rooftops and starts shouting: “We are a consumer-protection agency.”

D.E.

One thought on “Games, throttled: complain about Rogers, blame the CRTC (2)

  1. As far as I’m concerned, any throttling or cap to my account should result in a lower bill.

    Years ago when broadband first came to be, the concept of a bandwidth cap or throttled speed was unheard of. You were paying for an “always on” connection. If you chose to use that connection to its fullest speeds, 24/7, then you were getting what you were paying for.
    What’s changed since then? Your bill has continued to climb and climb. Yes, speeds have increased (as is the progression of technology), but the service itself has been stunted.
    This is a classic case of demand being greater than supply. Everyone has broadband but Rogers (like many other ISPs I could name) is unwilling to increase the number and capability of nodes to meet the ever-growing demand of their paying customers. They’d rather stunt and discourage use – and make more money from charges.

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