Word is finally spreading that the usage-based billing being implemented by Canadian internet providers this month is a really, really, really bad thing. In response, a Toronto rally is being organized for Friday 4 February 2011 followed by a Saturday rally outside Parliament Hill to communicate the dissatisfaction of pretty much all Canadian society. (Information is available after the jump for those who don’t use Facebook.) While it is likely to be an impressive demonstration, we must remember that all of this public demand may yield nothing more than a slightly less outrageous, but all-too-similar, compromise.
Thanks to a CRTC decision from last August, internet providers in Canada will be able to charge their subscribers for any internet use that goes over their bandwidth cap. Anyone who uses Netflix, YouTube, Crunchyroll, Steam or basically anything that isn’t regular broadcast television on any practical basis is virtually guaranteed to go over their bandwidth limit. The most devastating part is that independent internet providers who lease bandwidth space from the larger telecom companies are being forced to pay these fees and subsequently carry on similar pricing to customers. The most prolific of these has been the case of TekSaavy, which has been forced to drop its more competitive 200 GB/month cap to a pithy 25 GB/month.
Thankfully, as we’ve all seen over the past few weeks, the public response has grown well beyond the crusty-eyed, basement-dwelling leviathans you would normally expect to be the sole dissenters of such an issue. The Stop The Meter petition is nearing 400,000 signatures, making it the biggest online petition in Canadian history, and it is only shown signs of growing. The Canadian government has announced a review of the CRTC ruling. Nationwide rallies against UBB will continue through the end of February, when the government is expected to make a decision.
The most baffling thing is that despite the unprecedented outrage this has sparked, Bell and the other ISPs have used surprisingly few PR tactics to defend themselves. Almost no money and effort into defending their decision through propaganda or public statements. In fact, the now Bell-owned CTV stations have shown no restraint in portraying this development in a negative light. The story has been slightly different with CTV News Channel, but not by much. Bell certainly has the money sell the public on this idea, as we all saw a couple of years ago through the ridiculous fee-for-carriage debates, yet here they’ve simply allowed their public image to be cannibalized from the inside.
It seems all too likely that this level of extreme backlash was foreseen, and that Bell’s entire scheme was to introduce a plan so outrageous that the public would never accept it. They probably expect that a meagre compromise, such as a slightly higher cap or slightly less crippling restrictions on reseller, will be enough to quell the angry masses. Sadly, there is a significant risk that they are correct. It’s easy to imagine that the huge bulk of people who have only suddenly become aware of UBB may praise the internet providers as heroes for making a slight concession, and then leave it at that.
No matter what the public, or the government, or the regulators demand, a fundamental shift towards usage-based billing is still the ultimate goal of Bell and its contemporaries, and having their dastardly plan turn slightly less grandiose isn’t going to discourage them too much. Even if the companies compromise to the point that the average monthly charge stays roughly the same as it is now, the results will still be disastrous not only for Canada, but other countries that will likely follow the precedent being set by our internet providers.
The public has to fight not for a slight improvement, but for a fundamental change in their favour. A 25 GB bandwidth cap with subsequent overage is not acceptable, but neither should be a 100 GB cap. Or a 200 GB cap. Or a 500 GB cap. With this growing level of backlash, the end result of all this needs to be outright revolutionary, whether it be the major internet providers being forcibly broken down into smaller companies, being forced to sell off their infrastructure to smaller independents, or even opening floodgates and allowing foreign competitors start business here. A thorough investigation, if not complete dissolution, of the CRTC in its current form is probably in order at this point as well.
The first Stop The Meter Rally will take place this Friday at 9am at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, with the second taking place at Parliament Hill in Ottawa at 1pm. Be there if you can. A larger nationwide rally is planned for 26 February. Hopefully, public interest in the subject will not be waned by an inevitably minor government intervention by that point.