Battling for Bandwidth

What a Controversial CRTC Ruling Means for Canadian Internet Users

Graphic Clément Liu

On a mild February afternoon, a small crowd descended on Montreal’s Dorchester Square. Amid high snowdrifts and throngs of Habs fans in bleu-blanc-rouge on their way to an afternoon hockey game, the group traded off bullhorns, ranting about the powers that be.

The target of their ire? The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the regulatory body that rules over the Canadian airwaves. In late January, the CRTC announced plans to cap Internet usage for those who shun large providers like Bell or Videotron, and opt instead for unlimited packages from smaller, independent ISPs.

The CRTC, whose mandate is “to ensure that both the broadcasting and telecommunications systems serve the Canadian public,” has managed to piss off not just Internet-users-turned-activists, but politicians of all stripes, ranging from the NDP to the Conservative Minister of Industry, who has announced that the cabinet would not look kindly on user-based billing being pushed through.

The entire furor boils down to a question that has persistently popped up since the web went ubiquitous. Namely, to whom does the Internet belong, anyway?

Who’s a Heavy User?

An important fact that has gotten lost is how few Internet subscribers would be affected by user-based billing—only 6 per cent of Canadian Internet subscribers, according to CRTC chairman Konrad Von Finckenstein’s Feb. 3 speech to Parliament (when reached by telephone, the CRTC referred The Link to Von Finckenstein’s speech and declined further comment). With so few people directly affected, can you be forgiven for asking “Who cares?”

Andrew Moore thinks that everyone should. Moore is an independent software consultant, and one of the organizers of the Montreal rally.

“The CRTC decision is not necessarily just about money,” he told The Link. “[It’s about] innovation in Canada. When you think about it, sites like Facebook or Google were started at home. […] If you make Internet packages more expensive, you’re basically stopping that kind of innovation from happening, because there will be a large cost to whatever you’re doing. Those innovative ideas won’t come from Canada anymore, they’ll come from countries like the States that do still have unlimited packages.”

Moore himself will be directly affected. As he works from home, Bell refused to install a commercial connection. He says he is at risk of seeing his Internet bill go up by as much as $200 per month.

Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on the subject of Internet law. While he doesn’t see any direct danger to Canadian businesses, he does acknowledge that there will be economic ramifications from user-based billing.

“I do think it affects the potential for innovation in the economy,” he said. “Not so much for business use, but public adoption of innovative and competitive services can be affected. [For example], companies like Netflix and other sorts of independent services essentially face hidden costs and fees if you’re a consumer, because you have to pay for the additional bandwidth.”

It’s an interesting perspective on the situation. The CRTC decision seems to be aimed at reducing Internet usage in a time where constantly being plugged in is becoming an economic necessity. In Von Finckenstein’s speech, he said, “More bandwidth is being eaten up by consumers who are accessing information, downloading or streaming music and video content, or playing online games.” The CRTC cited the idea that “heavy users”—a term they don’t define—are piggybacking on the backs of normal users via the set fees they pay for unlimited activity. Geist dismissed this idea as a “bad decision.”

“They seem to have prioritized the notion of heavy users being subsidized by so-called light users,” he said. “It’s hard to understand who they think is a heavy user. I think they ought to be prioritizing facilitating as much competition in the marketplace as possible. […] It’s hard to speculate as to why they arrived at the decision they did.”

United Over Internet

In a country of over 30 million, only 550,000 people would see their Internet bills increase. And yet the controversy has given rise to an online petition calling for the disbanding of the CRTC that at press time had almost 15,000 signatures. The issue has struck a nerve, evidence that Canadians realize the Internet has become more than a service. It is a requirement for living in the modern world, essential to any education or industry.

Moore pointed out that countries such as Finland have ensured their citizens have access to broadband connections.
“Today, citizens of Finland have the right to a one megabyte per second unmetered connection,” he said. “It’s not just a tool to bridge people together, it’s [vital] to today’s education, business, communication and entertainment. Should it be a human right? I think that expressing ourselves publically should be a right, and if the Internet is a medium to do so, why not?”

Should it be a human right? I think that expressing ourselves publically should be a right, and if the Internet is a medium to do so, why not?”
–Andrew Moore,
Software Consultant

Among those making themselves heard on the subject were politicians of all stripes. During a House of Commons debate on Feb. 2, NDP MP Charlie Angus declared that “Canadians are fed up with the Internet usage caps and the rip-off that they have been receiving,” and asked if Minister of Industry Tony Clement would “insist that all the usage caps come off individual home Internet accounts?”

While Clement did not directly respond at the time, later that day he told reporters that “we do expect the CRTC to reverse its decision and to basically go back to the drawing board on this issue, and if they do not do this, we wanted to make it clear cabinet would take its responsibilities to do the same.”

On Feb. 3, Von Finckenstein announced a 60-day review of the policy that will begin on March 1—the day the policy was to have come into effect.

In a funny way, the CRTC has done more to unite disparate factions than the Internet ever could. Unfortunately, a good ending to this controversy is far from assured. Geist wrote on his blog that “there is considerable reason to be skeptical of the review on both procedural and substantive grounds.”

Moore shares the feeling of unease, saying that should the government overrule the CRTC, legislation would have to be passed to specifically set out what ISPs can and cannot charge, and there is no way to know what such legislation would look like.

For the People

In Dorchester Square, the rally went on. There was a palpable sense of irony that a group of strangers had gathered to protest against infringements on the anonymous medium that brought them together—the ball got rolling after a mass of posts on the subject appeared on the website Gripes got aired as toes got cold. There was talk of the importance to democracy of the free passing of information. This is what the protesters believe is at stake.

The Internet, to borrow from the late Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, is more than just a series of tubes.

It is people, bouncing ideas off each other, crossing borders at the speed of light. And as we are reminded almost constantly, it is an incredibly efficient means of protest. Ask the people in the streets of Egypt, or right there in Dorchester Square. More and more, the Internet belongs to them.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 22, published February 8, 2011.