Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Per-Usage Internet Problems

First things first, if you've come here for awhile you'll notice that things look a bit different. I've been toying with the display settings and such, and hope to find something I think gives the blog a sleeker look. I like this new format, but I have a few problems with it, so don't be too alarmed if the blog undergoes some major format changes...Or if I can't find anything I like better, don't be too alarmed if it stays as it is now.

CTV News: Tony Clement Reviewing CRTC's Internet Billing Rulling

When I woke up this morning, I didn't really expect to find something as technologically based as this in today's political news; especially given the huffing and puffing over the budget, which I presumed would take up most of our political posturing until March, when the Finance Minister brings the budget down to the House.

Now, imagine my surprise to find out that the issue revolves around a usage-based fee for internet bandwidth.

I'm going to confess a few things here: Regardless as it may appear, I'm not a technical expert. I understand broad concepts and ideas, and I can usually hand my own computer problems, but I'm by no means a master of technology.

Recently, the Canadian Radio-Television Commission made a decision that says major internet service providers (ISPs) can charge smaller internet service providers for the amount of bandwidth that their customers, and as a result they, use.

So, in the least technical terms possible, what exactly does this mean?

Let's say Company A is a major ISP (like Rogers); they sell access to their network to Company B, who in turn provides internet service to customers. Company B makes money off of their customers, while Company A makes money off of Company B.

What this ruling will do will allow Company A to charge Company B more money if their customers use more bandwidth, aka if they access higher amounts of data/information on the internet.

Now, why is this a problem?

This is a problem on a few fronts, both for smaller companies but also for consumers.

For companies, especially smaller ones, there is the problem of increased fees for access to a larger ISP. This in turn is going to lead to the smaller ISPs raising their prices to cover for the increase in fees, which in turn will push customers away to other ISPs.

Effectively, a motion like this would be a death knell for smaller ISPs, who would either have to raise their prices to cover their fees and still make a profit or would be forced to place bandwidth restrictions on their networks. Larger ISPs use a form of this by allotting bandwidth and charging for any bandwidth gone over; though, I would imagine that smaller ISPs could perhaps be forced by the larger ISPs to enforce a bandwidth block, in that after meeting your monthly limit the ISP could block your access to the internet.

The other option, is to do what we've seen done with cell phones. Text messaging used to be one of those features that cost an extra amount of money and you were given so many messages a month. Cell phone companies made who knows how many thousands, if not millions, of dollars off of people with limited text messaging capabilities who went over their allowed texts per month.

As such, unlimited text messaging is now a common feature in most cell phone plans and is built into the contract price.

The point I'm trying to make here is this:

Right now ISPs more or less allow unlimited access to the internet for so-much money a month. If a motion like this is approved, we will not see per month prices for access to internet disappear. Rather, I believe that we would see a per usage based system coupled with a newer, expensive per month rate.

By adding the threat of per usage billing, major ISPs could then turn around and take unlimited high speed access from say $60 a month, to $120 a month to cover the idea of unlimited bandwidth.

What I'm saying, if I can be so bold, is that what this effectively constitutes is nothing more than a cash grab by ISPs. By introducing the idea of per use billing, Canadians would much rather jump on board with a higher charged monthly rate to avoid paying surprise fees later on. And don't say it won't happen, because if there's on thing I've come to trust on in life, it's the unscrupulous nature some companies operate on to make an extra dollar.

And now for the impact on consumers, some of which I've already mentioned.

In the technological era we live in, per usage billing is not a good idea. There are many types of people who use the internet that would be affected by per use billing:

1.) Students: We live in an era we having the internet is not an option for secondary and post-secondary students. Downloading readings (PDF. files, word documents), maps, and other course materials are sometimes essential to doing well in a course. As such, students are already using more bandwidth because of needing to download and upload files accordingly.

2.) Businesses: Obviously, this is a big one. Do any small business not have at least one computer in their buildings? The uses for these business computers are unlimited, from online advertising and again to uploading and downloading presentations, spreadsheets, and numerous other documents.

3.) 'The Tech Savvy': This is my 'big-tent' category. Technology is changing and as such the ways we use technology are changing with it. A common example is Netflix; where for about $8 a month, a person has access to a rather massive online collection of television shows and movies, which can be streamed to computers and most modern video game consoles. Obviously, this is a high bandwidth activity.

Add to that the legion of internet gamers, in which I include myself, who regularly play video games either on computer or on video game consoles with other people. How much bandwidth does spending one or two hours a day playing games with friends and family eat up?

As I've noted before, this entire idea of per usage billing sounds like one big cash grab to me. And in the end, it will do more to hurt Canada's already weak technological infrastructure by pushing more people away from it because of the cost. In a day and age where the internet is becoming a necessity, we should be finding ways to improve access, not restrict it.

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