Why watching online video in Canada sucks

In the global digital economy, the speed and price of a nation's broadband is its currency. And right now, our digital current isnt worth very much; Canada's internet service hasnt kept pace with our global counterparts. 

Hockey, bilingualism, maple syrup, snow – all generally accepted as part of the Canadian experience. I’d like to add one more – jitter

We all experience jitter in Canada, be it when YouTube stops a video mid-stream for ‘buffering’ or when the latest episode of House of Cards freezes on an unflattering frame of Frank Underwood. Jitter is just one indicator of how Canadians are getting short-changed with regard to their Internet service, and what’s at stake isn’t just a better online video experience. 

In the global digital economy, the speed and price of a nation’s broadband is its currency. And right now, our digital currency isn’t worth very much; our Internet service simply hasn’t kept pace with our global counterparts. This means that Canada is less likely to attract foreign investment in our technology sector, and we are not providing an environment conducive to a home-grown entrepreneurial sector.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Canada has the digital infrastructure in place that could provide world-leading Internet access. However, some of our larger Internet Service Providers (ISPs) prefer to rely on American networks to carry domestic traffic, to the detriment of Canadian Internet users and our digital economy.  

The reason for this is in part routed in the history of the Internet. A couple of decades ago when the Internet was still in its infancy, few Canadian companies had the existing infrastructure that could be leveraged to bring it to the public. As a result, Canada’s big telcos ran circuits to major cities in the U.S. in order to buy transit from American Internet providers that were connected to the global Internet.

Over time Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) developed in cities with a high density of networks. IXPs are local switches that enable Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and content and transit providers to exchange traffic more directly and therefore utilize the shortest possible routes. A shorter transit route for Internet traffic results in increased speed, enhanced resiliency, and reduced costs (at IXPs, traffic is often exchanged in a ‘settlement free’, or no cost, manner).

It took longer for IXPs to become established in Canada, but we currently have eight located in cities across the country. With these IXPs, major centres in Canada have the infrastructure to decrease costs and increase the quality of many Canadians’ Internet experience.

There’s one catch, though – IXPs are entirely dependent on those organizations that choose to peer at them. Without service and content providers connected to share data the IXP’s value is diminished.

While many ISPs peer at Canadian IXPs, Bell, our biggest ISP accounting for nearly a quarter of all Canadian Internet users and a significant portion of Canadian Internet traffic, does not. Bell Aliant, Bell’s presence in Atlantic Canada, had peered at the IXP in Toronto (Torix) since 2010. That changed recently, however, when BCE, Bell’s parent company, purchased the shares in Aliant it didn’t already own, effectively privatizing the organization. Once that deal was finalized, Bell severed its only direct peering relationship with IXPs in Canada, as you can see from this list of peers at Torix in 2015 and 2016:

List of Torix peers in 2015 and 2016 showing Bell Aliant de-peered

Bell isn’t alone – Canada’s larger ISPs are generally less likely to peer at Canadian IXPs than their smaller counterparts. This means that for many Canadians, their Internet experience (pdf) is not as optimal as it could be – think jitter, less resilient networks and relatively high costs for Internet service.

Of course, the question is why large ISPs, like Bell, still choose not to peer at Canadian IXPs.

Canada’s big telcos are some of our nation’s main wholesale transit providers. At some point, it’s highly likely your Internet data transits on a network owned by one of them, for which they collect a fee. To them, IXPs, where Internet packets are freely exchanged without a fee, are competition. Why exchange traffic at an IXP in Canada for free when they can make money by exchanging it hundreds or thousands of kilometres away for a profit? It simply isn’t in their financial interest to exchange traffic locally. The fact is they can make more money from Canadians when they offer poorer quality Internet service, exchanging traffic in the U.S. To add insult to injury, that also means that your data may be subject to American privacy laws.

There are very few nations in the world whose Internet is so unnecessarily dependent on another state’s infrastructure. Big ISPs around the globe, such as Telecom Italia, Swiss Telecom and British Telecom, all peer within their service area, as do large U.S. ISPs like AT&T.

To put it bluntly, until Canadian ISPs like Bell peer at Canadian IXPs, we don’t have a national Internet. At best what we have is more accurately described as decent – albeit relatively slow and expensive – access to the American Internet.

I believe the time has come to repatriate Canada’s Internet traffic. Canadian Internet users deserve a level of Internet service at least on par with our international counterparts, and ensuring all of our ISPs promote the use of domestic traffic routing would be a big step forward. 

If you are interested in learning more about the route your Internet traffic takes, you can use the IXmaps online tool.

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