Canadians have been in an uproar about the CRTC’s latest catastrophic move, the decision to allow Bell Canada to implement usage-based billing. Usage-based billing (UBB), which has also been described as Internet metering, means that users are charged a penalty on top of their regular monthly bill for exceeding a predetermined threshold of bandwidth use. Many suspect that this is also the first step toward ISPs charging us per byte, the way they do with data plans for smart phones.
Since the Commission’s decision, more than 20,000 people have signed a social media-based petition hosted by OpenMedia.ca – possibly the most popular campaign targeted at a telecom issue in Canada’s history – to “stop the meter” on their Internet use. They are not without their reasons: market homogenization is a concern, yes, but this issue is made personal by the financial penalty citizens face for accessing or disseminating content that requires any more than the gigabytes they are allotted.
Consequences for the Communications Industry
This pricing regime has been applied not only to the individual Internet user, but also to independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that purchase broadband access from incumbent ISPs at wholesale prices. Indie ISPs will be forced either to somehow absorb the cost of ‘overages’ or to mirror the pricing plans of the corporations with which they compete. The former is unfeasible, and the latter threatens the small amount of diversity that remains in Canada’s telecom market.
Plurality in media is more than just an ambiguous ideal; it is a cornerstone of democracy in a country that holds the cultural mosaic that Canada does. Given this, it is irresponsible to risk the most accessible and egalitarian multicast medium in our nation by allowing it to be regulated by corporations. The CRTC itself described the role that diverse ownership models play in this:
“Separately owned undertakings will make use of their own editorial and programming resources. In this way, a diversity of voices is preserved because no one person - no one voice - within an element has sole responsibility for choosing the programming to which Canadians can have access (CRTC 2008-4).”
In its May decision, the CRTC concluded that Bell’s proposal to impose usage-based billing on indie ISPs was a financially motivated move. Bell had then told the Commission that UBB was intended to incent “heavy users” to reduce their usage, but this has now been exposed as a cheap excuse. Why would Bell or Shaw care about how indie ISPs manage their traffic, unless they sought to control those practices and eliminate the competition?
By adding limits to the Internet, these major ISPs are discriminating against the public web. It’s likely no coincidence that those companies are also vertically integrated, and capitalize on content and applications in addition to broadband itself: UBB disadvantages those who use the web to deliver competing services.
Canada has already begun to lag behind other OECD countries in terms of price, consumer choice, and broadband penetration rates. This will only be exacerbated by the implementation of a pricing system that favours a market oligopoly comprising only four incumbent ISPs. It is not difficult to see that diverse ownership models would help to ensure more competition and innovation in markets, and a greater diversity of voices in our media landscape.
More than just markets
Usage-based billing is discriminatory insofar as it makes video and other high-bandwidth communication modes more cost-prohibitive. In doing so, video and audio are transformed into media that can be uploaded, accessed, and shared only by those with the financial means do so. This further deepens the digital divide, and stifles the use of the Internet for the dissemination of creative endeavours.
Those who produce art, independent news, Internet television, and more, depend on the Internet to broadcast their work. There are endless uses for this content – from students who use this data to contribute to their education, to immigrants who seek to learn about Canadian culture, to those with mobility impairments who use the Internet to more easily connect with the outside world.
The thing is, audio and video content won’t suddenly be replaced by textual discourse. We’re not going back to the days of bulletin board systems and gray-scale monitors. Simply put, those with the means to do so will continue to produce costly content and those who can afford to will continue to access it. People with low or limited incomes, youth, and residents of rural and remote area will be excluded. In this, the Internet will cease to work as an equalizer, and the economic divisions we face in Canada will further extend to the social realm.
Hope for the future
This isn’t over yet. The CRTC has allowed UBB to enter our communication system, but Canada’s government can still step in and ask for a reassessment after the 90-day appeal period, which ends in late January. Canadians can come together and participate in campaigns, such as the petition at http://stopthemeter.ca, and show politicians and regulators that they are passionate about this issue, and won’t accept anything less than a fully open Internet.
Lindsey Pinto is the Communications Manager of OpenMedia.ca
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