Talking Internet data caps with Open Media

Regulators are starting to come around, says the activist group

When it comes to broadband Internet, it seems like you can always count on regulators to turn a positive into a negative. Such was the case earlier this week when the U.S.’s Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski defended so-called tiered pricing by internet providers–known in these northern climes as usage-based billing–as worthwhile efforts in fighting network congestion.

Critics in the U.S. quickly jumped on Genachowski for swallowing the industry’s excuses for shrinking caps, which was ironic given that his comments came only days after Comcast–the country’s largest cable provider–announced it was raising or doing away with its limits.

Up here in Canada, the reaction was similarly negative. York University professor David Ellis pointedly noted that Genachowski, who was once admired for his supposed progressiveness on Internet issues, has now apparently been suckered by the same fallacious reasoning our own regulators were once (and might possibly still be) enamoured with.

It’s a cliche that Canada might as well exist in a bubble, particularly technologically, as far as the U.S. is concerned because Genachowski should have looked north, where this topic has been debated ad nauseum, before making such a foolish proclamation. As Ellis points out, caps-as-congestion-fighters is an argument that has been largely discredited here. Too bad nobody told the Americans.

That said, I’m still wondering why many Canadians have such ridiculously low caps compared to Americans (typical plans on Bell and Rogers offer 60 to 70 gigabytes, compared to 300 or more on Comcast and the like). I put the question to Steve Anderson, head of activist group Open Media, and we ended up having a bit of a back-and-forth over email.

He said the reasons why Canadians are still paying too much for Internet services boils down to the following:

We only stopped things from getting worse with UBB – and now we’re only starting to actually fix the market – it’s a slow process. The government has completely failed to do anything to encourage next generation broadband. Other countries like the U.S. are investing I think like $100 billion. Here’s a bunch of other things they could be doing. [Network owners] repeatedly make it difficult for indies to deliver services.

Anderson also advocates patience with regulators, who are starting to come around:

I’m frustrated that we’re not really moving forward more quickly here in Canada. That said I actually think the CRTC is doing a reasonable job as of late – the state of the market developed over decades and it will take some time and multiple good decisions to fix it. I actually think the UBB decision was mostly good. They got the model right and costing wrong. The indies have survived and Distributel actually moved in to Quebec to offer serious competition to Bell and Videotron etc.. When they did so they explicitly cited the UBB decision for enabling them (they sent a letter to the CRTC to thank them). Also, more importantly – when the decision came in our main issue was that the costing was off and that they needed to start a transparent process to get at what the costs should be. The CRTC actually listened and is holding a consultation to considering that matter now… I think we need to be encouraging not slamming the CRTC right now.

I suggested that perhaps Open Media was being too Canadian, as in too polite. With Americans screaming bloody murder about their 300 GB caps, shouldn’t Canadians–and Open Media by extension–be more vocal in their opposition?

Anderson doesn’t think Canadians or Open Media are apathetic, but they’ve quieted down somewhat because there is positive movement in the right direction:

The CRTC really has taken a positive turn, and I think it’s just smart to give them space to do good things. If I just piss in their face even when they start moving in the right direction then I don’t carry much weight later when they fuck up… When the CRTC messes up, or the telecoms do something to create an inflection point – the outcry will happen again…  If you look [at] the campaigns about internet issues we’ve run in the last year and a half it’s amazing how many people are active on these things. I actually think we have the most robust pro-internet movement in the world. Groups in the US and UK are copying our campaigns, and not the parts Open Media dreams up, the parts like #tellVicEverything that creative pro-internet [people] came up with after we raised the alarm. It’s inspiring to watch the EFF try to use that with CISPA and UK with their own issues.

One other issue we touched on was structural separation, one of my favourite topics. In some countries, governments have forced telecom giants to spin off their network operations into completely separate companies. Those companies then sell access to the network to all comers on equal terms, with the idea being that no one ISP is unfairly advantaged. Each is free to compete on items such as price, speed and service.

Anderson says the CRTC is starting to seriously listen to Open Media’s suggestions that such a system should be implemented in Canada. But with incumbent companies fighting like hell to avoid structural separation in countries where there’s just one of them, I retorted by suggesting this is a pipe dream in Canada. With the combined lobbying power of a whole host of big cable and phone companies, there’s no way it’ll happen.

On that, Anderson capitulated somewhat.

“I still think it’s still worth raising separation,” he said. “It’s wise to ask for more than you think you can get.”