Internet costs need to make sense for consumers first

To gain an appreciation of how fast technology can transform a society, one has to look no further than the internet. In less than 20 years the web has gone from being relatively new and viewed with some suspicion to permeating nearly every corner of society.

In those early days, the only way to access the internet was by dial-up modems. While that technology still exists – especially in some parts of Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing - the way that we go online has expanded to formats that have helped increase the speed that people receive and send data as well as the way they are able to interact with the web.

As one can imagine with such speedy technological developments, many issues will arise. Some will settle themselves quietly and others will spark vigorous debate with calls for the government to act. We had an example of an issue coming to a head this past week.

While the CRTC had told internet service providers that they were able to begin usage based billing (UBB), the significant vocal protest of consumers swayed the government to act. This week the Minister of Industry ordered the CRTC to reverse that decision, something New Democrats have been calling for, along with repeated calls for improved internet access and speed.

The push for UBB from internet service providers is explained by these companies as a way to protect the little guy customer from subsidizing the resource-hog consumers who are gobbling up all the available band-width. They argued that UBB would make things fairer, but they neglected to address a number of glaring problems while managing to ignore the probable reason they want this – the entry of Netflix into Canada.

Many of the big internet providers are the same companies that have rented Canadians movies, sold them cable and generally made money off consumer’s entertainment dollars. With the advent of serious competition from the likes of AppleTV, Netflix and fairly reliable live streaming, the companies responded by ensuring they would make that money, even if they weren’t really providing the customer with much more, if any more, service.

They asked for and received the blessing for UBB from the CRTC, who should have secured better protection for Canadian consumers in the process, especially since there are significant problems with the arguments presented in defence of UBB.

Providers claim they are addressing resource hogs who tie up the system, but setting limits over a month-long period ignores the fact that a person could use their entire month’s allocation all at once. Many consumers could do such a thing at the exact same time which could truly tie-up bandwidth, if that is the real reason.

The CRTC should have demanded better justification and seen that the proposed UBB accounts also have a minimum bandwidth that generally exceeds the needs of a lot of people who only use the internet sparingly; for example, to send and receive e-mail and surf a few websites. That alone ensured the lightest users would subsidise the heaviest ones and exposes the seemingly altruistic intentions of providers.

Add to this the fact that the internet in Canada now lags behind much of the world in both speed and cost, and we can see that the Minister had little choice but to act. He has indicated he will study the issue and the big internet providers should too because we just learned that the best educated people in this debate have been the consumers.