Just more misleading information and corporate bluster
It’s reasonable to expect that when a government or major corporation holds a public consultation session, it will at least present the issue truthfully then stand back and listen to people’s opinions without trying to influence their response. Shaw’s recent attempt at public consultation on user-based billing did neither.
At issue was the CRTC’s decision in February of this year to allow the major telecoms to charge independent Canadian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) by the amount of data their customers transmitted, effectively negating their entire business strategy. Previously, small ISPs could purchase bandwidth wholesale from the big telecoms, reselling it as high bandwidth unlimited Internet.
Reaction to the decision from the independent ISPs and many Internet users was overwhelmingly negative. To its credit, Shaw decided to conduct a limited public consultation exercise rather than following Bell and Rogers in immediately imposing user-based billing on its wholesale clients. Thirty-five sessions were set up across the country, with invitations issued selectively to users who applied for admission.
“Our objective is to have an open, honest discussion followed by break-out groups aimed at finding fair solutions for all customers,” Shaw stated in its email to session applicants. Nice words, but unfortunately no cigar for Shaw.
Great graph — but no numbers?
The first anomaly attendees noticed was the steeply-rising graph of Internet use offered by Shaw as the reason why bandwidth caps were needed. It had no numbers on its bitwise axis. When queried about this, Shaw’s IT Service Management VP Peter Taylor, Shaw’s front man that evening, mumbled that it was “just bits,” a statement that did not go down well among the attendees.
Taylor, an articulate and self-assured man who oversees Shaw’s customer help, tried to divert attention to a recent small spike in the graph. “We want to know why that happened,” he repeatedly asked attendees. When I pointed out that the graph was a normal J-curve of new technology adoption that was entirely foreseeable, and asked whether Shaw was prepared for continued future growth, Taylor must have marked me as a troublemaker because he avoided my raised hand long afterwards.
Shaw’s network topology diagram drew a direct link between each customer and the local network node, the first control point after a user’s cable modem. So your Internet connection is not exclusive to you; it’s shared with your neighbours. Any one customer hogging bandwidth with an ultra-highspeed Nitro download can choke a local node, slowing the service for others.
In my opinion, VP Peter Taylor was his own—and Shaw’s—worst enemy at the session. Rather than letting attendees express themselves, he tried to counter each question or statement with Shaw’s perspective. As a result, his assertive Aussie twang dominated the session, taking at least half the speaking time.
Taylor’s incessant responses plus the apparent information anomalies, gave many attendees the impression that the corporation had already decided to impose UBB on its ISPs and was just looking for a way of reducing negative public perceptions.
Shaw staff were on hand to take notes and guide the discussion tables, but compared to other professionally-managed public consultation sessions I’ve attended—and I’ve attended quite a few over the course of my career as an environmental and social justice advocate—this was an amateurish affair indeed.
Suggestion to Shaw: if you are serious about public involvement, don’t send out an opinionated VP plus a bunch of underlings to handle a public opinion session. Spend the money and hire real public involvement professionals. You’ll be glad you did.
The Big Lie about congestion
But the evening was not a waste of time. By good fortune, I sat next to Kevin MacArthur, a Victoria-based web developer who is very concerned about open Internet access and has taken part in OpenMedia’s social media discussions.
Kevin demonstrated the speciousness of Shaw’s claim that the huge rise in Internet data transmission is degrading service quality, and that it is caused by a relatively small number of “heavy” (hinting at ‘illegal’) downloaders. The major telecoms have successfully planted the idea that the ‘average’ Internet user shouldn’t have to subsidise the few data hogs, so user-based billing is only the only fair and balanced approach to collecting the revenues they need to pay for Internet traffic growth.
Blaming a small number of low-speed Bitnet torrent users for data congestion is not accurate, says Kevin. While dedicated Bitnet users may download their full data allowance each month, it’s done at a very low speed. Just one of Shaw’s high-end Nitro clients legally downloading a Netflix or YouTube movie at extremely high bandwidth can overload a local node, disrupting service for other local users.
It’s not the total amount of data transmitted, it’s how fast and when it’s used. Blaming data congestion on a few Bitnet users is a fabrication to justify even higher user charges—as if Canadian Internet users aren’t paying enough already. This “straw man” strategy was devised by some very clever minds, I’m sure, as all the telecoms are using it to divert attention from the real source of ’Net congestion.
Linking data plan speed with download caps and focussing on monthly data use diverts attention from the major issue, which is that Shaw reserves parts of its cable data channel for its own Internet services such as VOIP telephony, on-demand movies, and IPTV. This reduces the available bandwidth for competing Internet services such as Skype and Vonage in telephony, and iTunes and Netflix in IPTV.
By setting up low-bandwidth downloaders as straw men, the telecoms pit users against each other while concealing their real agenda, which is to eliminate competition and corral their customers into subscribing to the telecoms’ services. Despite its mandate of fostering competition, this anti-competitive behaviour has been legitimised by the CRTC in its decisions, while the federal Competition Bureau has been silent on the issue. Government is not protecting the consumer on this.
When finally VP Taylor acknowledged my raised hand and allowed me to speak, I pointed out that Canadian Internet users are already paying among the highest costs for comparatively the lowest Internet service, as well as being stiffed by the same telecoms with absurdly high cellphone charges, and that imposing user-based billing with the acquiescence of a compliant CRTC was just milking consumers of even more money to pay for the Internet growth that Shaw must have been able to anticipate and should have planned for.
My statement was the only one of the evening to meet with audience applause.
What is User Based Billing?
User-based billing (UBB) imposes additional user charges for exceeding a designated monthly download cap on top of a speed-based access fee. Data caps have always been a source of irritation for Canadian consumers as they are markedly ungenerous when compared to the Internet plans offered in other developed countries, especially as Canadians already are paying a relatively high price for Internet access.
Shaw’s access plans range from one megabit per second (1 Mbps) download speed with a 15 GB (gigabytes) download cap for $25 a month if bundled with other Shaw services ($35/month unbundled), up to 100 Mbps with 350 GB of data for $150 per month (bundled, $160/month unbundled).
Shaw’s most popular High-Speed plan offers 60 GB of data at 7.5 Mbps at an introductory price of $29.95/month for new users for the first six months, rising to $37/month (bundled) and $47 (unbundled). Upload bandwidth speeds are much lower, ranging from only 256 kilobits/second (1 kbps=1024 bits/second) for the slowest package, to 5 Mbps (1 Mbps is a million bits a second) for the fastest package.
Monthly downloading limits were never a problem while consumer Internet access speeds were limited by the access technology—remember those telephone modems? Now, with ubiquitous high-speed Internet enabling bandwidth-hungry video services such as Youtube and Netflix, those monthly data caps are easily exceeded.
You’ll be paying a dollar for each additional gigabyte of data over your monthly data allowance, and with an average movie between one and four gigabytes depending on whether it’s normal or HD quality, over-limit charges can quickly mount up. Internet activists claim that the telecoms’ cost of downloading data doesn’t exceed 3.5¢/GB.