It did not take long for the "Network Neutrality" debate to go from simmer to boil. What was once a topic relegated to the tech and trade side of the media has quickly become a mainstream, hotly debated issue.

While Leslie Ellis, an independent analyst and regular CED contributor, summarizes in this month's issue (Click Here) the Net Neutrality players, their positions and what's at stake, I think it's also worth applying the microscope to Canada to see how this subject is beginning to play out between Shaw Communications and Vonage.

Jeff Baumgartner
Jeff Baumgartner
There, Vonage Canada is alleging that Shaw's discretionary $10 per month "Quality of Service Enhancement" is tantamount to a "thinly-veiled VoIP tax." Vonage acknowledged that it doesn't really know what the fee covers, but is nonetheless requesting that the Canadian Radio-Television & Telecommunications Commission investigate the matter.

Intrigued, I took a look at Shaw's "Quality of Service Enhancement" and how it was being explained on its Web site. It did a great job poring over the technical advantages of Shaw's QoS-based PacketCable phone service and how it is delivered over a managed network. But it is also short, very short, on detail about what customers actually get.

So I called Shaw to learn more. A CSR kindly told me that the fee covers an upgrade to the MSO's "Xtreme-1" tier, which caps speeds at 7 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. The service, of course, remains "best effort."

When this was presented to Shaw officials, I was told that the CSR was incorrect, and that this optional fee included a DOCSIS 2.0 modem and a clearing up of RF interference in the home. The modem's MAC address is also "marked."

I remain puzzled as to why any customer—when presented with these facts—would sign up for this "enhancement" in the first place. I was also perplexed as to why Shaw would not provide more detail in its general description of the package.

I was then told that Shaw doesn't give customers a technical run-through on how they transmit hi-def signals, so why should they do so for VoIP? "In terms of giving them (customers) a technical explanation—it just doesn't make sense for us to go to that extent," it was explained to me.

Maybe, but that's anything but a pro-consumer approach. And the HD argument doesn't hold much water, either. All of the consumer studies I've seen recently show that there's still massive consumer confusion about HD, so it could use more explanation. Besides, I don't think it's wise to sell Vonage customers short. They are a tech-savvy bunch.

Cable operators have already said they will not block or purposely degrade legal third-party services, and I think that's the correct stance. To do otherwise is like handing your enemy a weapon to use against you. But network operators should also have the ability to manage their networks so that all customers can enjoy a quality experience.

But, not fully explaining to consumers something as seemingly trivial as this "enhancement," discretionary or not, only invites criticism that is easily avoided.