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Canadians continue to rage against metered billing


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The dust has at least temporarily settled on Canada's controversial decision to let its biggest ISPs charge smaller, competitive ISPs on a metered, or Usage-Based Billing (UBB) schedule, a decision later suspended by The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission. Judging from a sample of the surly comments coming into the CRTC's new public proceeding on broadband billing issues, it's going to take a while before Canadians trust their telecommunications regulator again.

"I'm an unemployed 50 year old single father with a son and future daughter in law and a granddaughter to support and it gets harder every day," warns one writer to the CRTC. "There must be something done to guarantee the Internet which I would now liken to an essential service.

"The CRTC has been told BY CONSUMERS in no uncertain terms what needs to be done. Stop catering and making decisions in favor of Big Business (Bell & Rogers) and start looking after the interests of Consumers, such as your mandate states. If required, dissolve the CRTC completely as they seem to be useless in protecting the interests of Citizens and Consumers."

Stress on the Internet

To recap: in January, as UBB was preparing to go into effect, Canadians made it abundantly clear that the policy was completely unacceptable. Over a third of a million people (around one percent of Canada's population) signed openmedia.ca's petition against wholesale metered billing. In early February, Canada's Prime Minister heard the message, and told the CRTC to suspend the decision—or have it blocked from above.

This is a "bread-and-butter issue," an unnamed senior government official told newspapers as smaller ISPs began publishing their far more expensive UBB-based subscription rates.

The Commission's Konrad von Finckenstein quickly assured everyone that it would be done. But von Finckenstein also made it very plain that he saw UBB as a way to "discipline the use of the Internet." Companies like Netflix are "putting a great stress on the Internet and there's no incentive for companies to invest in maintaining the Internet," the regulator warned.

When Bell Canada asked for permission to impose usage-based billing on their wholesale customers, "Bell wanted to create economic incentives for users to stay within their bandwidth caps and ensure that those who use more bandwidth pay their appropriate share," he told the House of Commons. The CRTC sympathized with this concern in allowing wholesale UBB.

"In short, our decisions were based on two fundamental principles," von Finckenstein continued:

  1. Ordinary Internet users should not be made to pay for the bandwidth consumed by heavy users.
  2. Small ISPs offer competitive alternatives to the Large Distributors, and it is in the best interests of consumers that they continue to do so.

Following these remarks—and as Bell Canada admitted that it was having difficulty tracking the broadband usage of some of its customers—the CRTC suspended its UBB ruling and launched a new proceeding on the problem, asking for comment on a replacement policy.

But CRTC's new questions are pretty much the same as the ones that led to wholesale metered billing in the first place. They reiterate Von Finckenstein's framing of the problem, asking for comments on statements like "As a general rule, ordinary consumers served by Small ISPs should not have to fund the bandwidth used by the heaviest retail Internet service consumers."

We are not fools

And that has Canadians eyeing this proceeding with suspicion, to put it mildly. Their commentaries tend to merge pretty much every worry into the discussion, from UBB to bandwidth caps.

From an Ontario-based software firm:

Internet access should not be billed the same as utilities. There is virtually zero cost of goods attached to sending bits through our telecom infrastructure. I use the word "our" because this infrastructure was subsidized by middle-class citizens of Canada, and the notion that heavy users should pay more is ludicrous. Internet access should be billed at a flat-rate for unlimited data transfer. Anything else puts a clamp on Canada's ability to innovate.

From a Web developer:

Today's already inflated prices by Bell and Rogers cause families to limit Internet usage. There is a clear agenda behind Bell proposing such low caps—to get all subscribers in front of TV boxes, to fight competition from Netflix and fight off possible online competition from other online multimedia projects already existing in United States.

We are not fools and I am constantly educating family members [and] colleagues on how devastating [it] would be [for companies to] increase prices for data transfer for everyone.

I do run business online as a Web developer and increased prices means less business initiatives being created in Ontario.

From a communications consulting company:

We as a developed nation must have one of the advanced and comprehensive Internet solution. Being [one] of the top G8 countries, we are far behind in connectivity, even below South Korea [and] Japan. If we get hit with these billing rules, we will be even far[ther] behind in technologies. USA has far more unlimited and faster service than Canada. It is no time to introduce such [a] billing practice but rather [time to] find an innovative way to find a solution.

From a crabby consumer (one of many):

I pay over $70 per month for 90% crap from Shaw cable. Telus decides to enter the market and I thought, "great, some competition." No such luck. $70 per month for twice as much crap. I guess competition as viewed by the CRTC is that every service provider will guarantee itself a $70 tax per month on every household that wishes televised entertainment. Do you know the difference between collusion and competition? I'm still waiting for a credit from Shaw for each time the Internet is down but I'm sure that doesn't interest the CRTC. What does interest the CRTC?

Failing a political solution

Some statements support the CRTC's position on this issue. "Experiences on college campuses have shown that students can consume all the bandwidth they are given, no matter how large," writes a Vancouver-based Web developer. "Increasing the bandwidth to residential users will not solve the congestion problem.

"Failing a political solution that makes content hoarding pointless," his letter concludes, "we need to either build out bandwidth faster than the increase in consumption (which may be impossible), or throttle it in some way that allows all citizens to have reliable access to basic services. Doing so via UBB seems reasonable."

But this appears to be a minority position so far.

"I do not support use-based billing," writes one of the students of whom the previous writer may have been speaking.

"Companies should react to increased need with increased services. Bell is rich. They can afford to upgrade their servers. As Canadians, we already pay Internet/telephone/television rates much higher than many countries. If we desire more bandwith we should have it, with no increase in the already massively profitable usage fees."

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