There is no doubt that usage based billing (UBB) is the hot topic among Internet users right now. While I don’t want to pay more for Internet access than anyone else, I also don’t think we’re looking at the problem in the right way, trying to address the real issues at hand, nor pushing for changes that might help.
Yep, this is going to be the alternative view on UBB.
Let’s, first, be clear that when you sign up with Shaw, Telus, Bell, or Rogers you are signing up for a service from a private company, not the government whose goal in life is to make a profit. Also Canada does not, unlike Sweden, have broadband access set as a fundamental right (personally I think the Swedes are onto something there). So there is nothing about having kick-ass Internet access that is a right for you and I. The issues we’re grappling with are First World Problems.
Now let’s get to some of the issues at hand. On the surface I don’t see a problem with companies saying “you are allotted this much bandwidth for downloads, go over it and you’ll pay extra.” This is how cell phone companies have been offering data for years and we learn to live with it. Honestly, we’ve had the threat of download limits hanging over our heads for years it’s just that they were rarely enforced. Essentially, we’ve been spoiled. This isn’t to say that there are serious problems with how things are going right now. It’s these problems that we should be screaming about…
- Anti-competitive issues. Bell, Shaw, and Rogers are treading in dangerous waters right now. Netflix is one of the most cited potential victims in a UBB scenario. Having $8/month all you can watch video doesn’t do much for you when it starts costing an arm and a leg to watch more than a few movies. On the other hand, Shaw and Rogers have been promoting their video on demand services which you can watch through your cable box or online. Yeah, so if I watch a ton of movies through Shaw (my cable and Internet provider) and go over my monthly limit, will I be charged? For Shaw’s sake, I certainly hope so. Competing online video services is only one part of this situation, what about the broadcast networks all three of these folks own? What about people watching shows on demand through them? Will Shaw only enforce limits if we’re using non-Shaw services? Yeah, this is a much, much stickier question than whether or not I should be billed for downloading a ton of games.
- We don’t have the tools to manage or monitor our bandwidth usage. According to what I’ve been able to find, I can’t check how much bandwidth I’ve used (according to Shaw) through my online account management on the website. This is a huge problem. With my cell phone I can check my minutes used and remaining, date used and remaining whenever I wish. If I’m running close to the limits I can choose to change my behavior to avoid additional charges. Shaw, specifically, says that they are going to give people warnings and inform them when they go over so they don’t expect people to start getting charged for at least a few months from now. Not good enough. I want to know month-to-month on my statement how much bandwidth I’ve used and be able to check on a day-to-day basis online to see where my usage is. It isn’t fair to offer a level of service included, but charge if you exceed it, but not let them check where things are in the interim.
- The usage limits are too low. This is directly related to point 1 and inspired by an opinion piece I read from the Vancouver Sun this morning (on my iPad, downloaded over the Internet). I subscribe to High Speed Extreme which is listed at $30/month (for six months) and am allowed 100 gigs of transfer a month. The next step up is Warp at $100/mo, but only 150 GB of transfer. Yeah Extreme gets you 15 megs down/1 meg up and Warp 50 megs down/3 megs up but only 50 gigs more transfer allocated? What? Oh and btw if you have the “High-speed” option that gives you 7.5 megs down and 512 K up…yeah you get 60 gigs a month of transfer. Oh and don’t forget “transfer” includes downloads and uploads, so if you use torrents to transfer that large file…well you really are getting it coming and going.
See, the issues aren’t as clear cut. Personally, I think that if you use a lot of bandwidth you should pay for it. Shaw isn’t offering me “unlimited” Internet, sure it’s been de facto unlimited since Shaw rarely (if ever) clamped down on bandwidth hogs, but if you look at what you’re pay for, it isn’t unlimited. The issues around third parties are pretty complex as well. If you lease the line, but offer a service that makes it hard for the owner to maintain an acceptable level of service for other customers…don’t you think that’s a problem?
I do, however, completely agree that affordable, high-speed Internet access is essential for Canada’s economic growth and competitiveness. We used to lead the world in this, and we can again. We have some of the sharpest minds in the world and some of the best business ideas going, but if we have sub-standard Internet access; we’re hooped. What needs to happen now is:
- Net neutrality enshrined into law
- Providers need to give us the tools to manage our bandwidth use (and not by being forced to download their tool to do it)
- Bandwidth allocations have to come into line with how Canadians want and do use the Internet on a daily basis.
Maybe then we’ll have the kind of Internet access we all want.
Originally posted on the Future Shop Tech Blog