Making pirated movies at home sucks up a lot of internet bandwidth.
So when a customer in Inuvik began consuming an unusual amount of internet service, Northwestel decided to look into it.
The company found out, informally, that movies were being made and gave the customer a notice to stop.
“It was just hearsay and we had to tell them,” said Anne Kennedy, spokesperson for Northwestel.
“That’s what triggered that notice,” she said.
It’s only one of the ways the internet service provider is forced to control the network’s speed so that the service remains intact.
Internet throttling has become a new common practice for internet service providers in North America due to rising and heavier internet use.
Bell recently had to face down a group of its wholesale users in a hearing at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission over the throttling issue.
The group argued that Bell had never openly proven that its service was congested.
The risk was that the telecom giant could throttle service on uses that competed with its products, like peer-to-peer programs.
The commission sided with Bell for the most part, but made plans to hold more general hearings on throttling next year.
“We’ve had to deal with some traffic-management issues,” said Kennedy.
“We do monitor that when there is a sudden peak usage that doesn’t fit the usual pattern,” she said.
The most common reason for throttling is congestion, she said.
And that means targeting heavy users.
“It’s putting checks and balances for overuse,” she said.
The problem is worse in Old Crow.
“Most of the Northwestel network is terrestrial in the Yukon, in other words it’s done through fibre-optic cable or microwave radio,” said Kennedy.
Old Crow is the only Yukon community served by satellite.
“Satellite tends to be our smallest bandwidth,” she said.
“We have to buy the bandwidth from Telesat. They feed most of the Canadian satellite public telecommunications networks.”
Without the capacity to supply the desired bandwidth, Northwestel must shape who gets the faster and the slower lanes on the internet highway.
“We buy what we hope is sufficient, but it’s always something that is adjusted,” she said.
Excessive bandwidth use can also raise an eyebrow.
“There have been a few odd instances where we have gone further to look at what may be suspicious bandwidth usage,” said Kennedy.
Spam is sometimes the culprit.
“It’s called undesired traffic,” she said.
“(A spam producer) will target a certain domain extension, like northwestel.net, and target all the addresses and we will see millions of messages,” she said.
Spam ends up flowing out of an infected computer.
“(The throttling) is there to save legitimate bandwidth users when we get millions of attacks,” she said.
“That’s traffic management.”
Northwestel may put restrictions on customers who do use too much bandwidth.
“(Internet service providers) can do that if it looks like a particular customer is exceeding the contract,” said Kennedy.
“That’s where we may put some restrictions on it,” she said.
Northwestel deals on a smaller scale with the same problems plaguing the large providers to the south. The contentious debate over throttling has raised questions about the fairness of internet service if companies can control traffic to favour their businesses.
Northwestel hasn’t decided whether it will participate in the communications commission hearings next year, but the company is preparing for inevitable changes.
The Bell hearings were just an omen of the coming discussion on internet throttling.
“What I think will happen is that the (commission) wants the telecoms to make (throttling) very clear,” said Kennedy.
“What the (commission) will be stabilizing is defining how the telecoms need to make their management transparent.”
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