The CRTC’s Decision Would Send Us to the Digital Dark Ages

Graphic Michelle Lannan

There are two kinds of gatekeepers currently standing between us and the Internet.

There are two kinds of gatekeepers currently standing between us and the Internet.

There are the big guys like Bell and Rogers, who create the tubes and sell access to them at astronomical rates. Then, there are the smaller companies who are allowed to rent parts of the infrastructure from the big guys and sell it to their own customers, usually for cheap.

The decision of which gatekeeper to go through depends on whether or not you are looking for unlimited bandwidth—because that option is only offered by the small guys.

The question of the methods of doling out the Internet affects every Internet-connected Canadian, which, according to Statistics Canada, was 80 per cent of the population in 2009. That’s 21.7 million people, and the number has surely only gone up since then. Allowing small Internet Service Providers to offer unlimited bandwidth ensures at least minimal competition among ISPs.

It has become even more important since all of the large ISPs adopted the Usage Based Billing method for their customers. UBB is a flat fee for up to a certain amount of bandwidth, but if you go over they can charge you $1 to $5 per gigabyte. UBB is how most Canadians are charged for their Internet.

A recent decision by the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission, Canada’s broadcast regulator, was set to change all that.

The CRTC decided that large ISPs will now be able to force small ISPs to instate UBB instead of allowing them to offer unlimited bandwidth.

The large ISPs argue that it’s not fair for the average Internet user who logs in to check their email and maybe poke someone on Facebook to have to pay the same amount as the porn-addicted gamer next door who is using 100 times the bandwidth. The logic is: the more you play, the more you pay.

This logic does make sense in certain cases. It’s a simple concept; if I go to the store and want ten oranges, I will have to pay more than someone who only wants one orange. The large ISPs would like to have us believe that bandwidth works the same way. They want us all to share this precious resource and not go over our allotted amount lest we find ourselves in some sort of Internet fallout. (Remember the South Park episode where Randy Marsh takes his family west in search of the Internet?)

But this simply is not the case. Ironically, while the price of bandwidth has steadily increased for consumers, the cost to ISPs to provide the bandwidth has steadily declined. An average gigabyte of bandwidth costs no more than three cents to produce. That’s right, ou might be being charged 33 to 166 times the amount it cost to produce that single gigabyte you just exceeded.

So, where do the large ISPs get off thinking that they’re entitled to all of this extra cash? It probably has to do with recouping losses from the great migration that brought us from television to the Internet.

Bell, Rogers et al are effectively losing money to the small ISPs they are required by the CRTC to sell bandwidth to, and they’re pissed about it. This migration is only going to get worse as more innovative and bandwidth-intensive sites like Netflix keep popping up.

Another problem with UBB is that it stifles Internet creativity and competition nationwide. UBB forces new and growing Canadian companies to develop less advanced websites just so they can stay within their restricted bandwidth.

These small companies, with limited money to pay for bandwidth, can hardly be expected to compete against successful and developed companies. So while the rest of the developed Internet world is booming with creativity and beautifully designed multimedia websites, Canada’s entrepreneurs are being sent back to the digital dark ages.

Thankfully, the federal government and opposition parties have all stepped forward to say that UBB does not make sense. The CRTC has been asked by the government to go back and review the decision, effectively delaying the implementation of UBB for 60 days. Industry Minister Tony Clement has said that if the policy is not overturned that his government would step in and do it legislatively.

We can be sure that one reason the government has been so strong in their stance is because they heard, and listened, to the response of their citizens. It is important right now that Canadians stand strong and fight for fair access to the Internet. We, as loyal Internet users, need to ensure that the government keeps their promise of allowing Canada to have a bright and prosperous cyber future.

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