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The apology of Shaw-crates

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Attendees of Shaw’s consultation in Vancouver, the second of 35 invite-only sessions across Canada, impressed me today with their wealth of knowledge and critical outlook at the future of Canadian Internet. A response to the mass outcry over usage-based billing (Internet metering), the Shaw consultation is an attempt to restore the telecom giant’s tarnished public image.

While colourful charts indicated steep hikes in broadband usage, participants held that Big Telecom ought to attempt to meet increased demand with increased supply, rather than instituting punitive fees. Someone at my table mentioned to me that the visual also misrepresented the fairly steady nature of the growth in Internet usage in Canada. Our own research for an upcoming OpenMedia.ca report shows that the increase in web traffic has indeed remained relatively steady. Traffic growth and congestion appear to be red herrings.

Questioners moved easily from the topics of increased vertical integration, and the conflict of interest surrounding the major ISPs’ acquisition of the content provider Canwest Global, to Canada’s falling rank in key broadband metrics in the developed world.

Shaw representatives assured the room that their company’s cable losses were “marginal…and not cord-cutting types of losses.” They asserted that they were doing well “within the space of the Canadian landscape”. But they stopped short of responding when asked why they had wanted to charge per gig beyond a certain cap. 

“We made an awful lot of mistakes,” said Jay Mehr, the freshly appointed Senior Vice President, Operations, referring to Shaw’s implementation of usage-based billing and the quiet lowering of their caps over the December holidays.

Shaw reps made no promises tonight, stating only that their previous plan for usage-based billing would not go forward, boldly avoiding the statement that the future holds an unmetered Internet. “We’re going to hit pause,” they said, and, “This [the consultation] isn’t a small undertaking,” but not “We will not gouge.”

Mehr himself was really quite personable. He smiled as I told him I was from OpenMedia.ca, and managed to emit a laugh and a polite nod when I asked if he had heard of us. I felt some resistance, however, at the end of the session when I crossed my arms and leaned over the table: “I’ve been dying to know,” I started, “How much does it cost you to route a gigabyte?”

“That’s a bit of a gotchya question,” he responded. Much to my chagrin it turned out he didn’t know the answer to this jealously guarded Big Telecom secret. Misguided as it sounds, I was genuinely hoping to be given some privileged information, despite it not being available even to the CRTC. 

A part of me expected Mehr’s lack of answer – his statement, “I don’t know exactly what usage-based billing means” illustrated that his job probably hadn’t required him to read this CRTC document.  

Shaw seems to be on the defensive, but we can all remember how they viciously defended UBB before taking a step back. As long as the public remains engaged, they'll tell us they're on our side. What they say behind closed doors, is surely less warm and fuzzy than what we heard the consultation. 

The Shaw executives I met tonight made their point though: they’re not themselves evil.  While I enjoyed speaking to Mehr, however, I and others must remember: these people are just bits of a massive conglomerate that controls the Internet for 3.4 million Canadians, and that has heartlessly threatened their communications interests time and again.  

No these people are not the enemy, but their companies’ and shareholders’ goals lie only in our favour for as long as it is profitable. This monster has no head.

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