Message Received Loud and Clear

An editorial
By Chris Hibbard
Music Lover
(Originally written for http://www.labeat.ca, March 2011)

Message Received Loud and Clear

As a music lover, my interest is always piqued when headlines that might affect my CD collection begin to appear.

One such headline landed in my e-mail box in January, in the form of a petition put out by OpenMedia.ca; a non-partisan, non-profit group whose primary goal is to increase public awareness about proposed changes to our communications policies in Canada. In the early weeks of 2011, OpenMedia began circulating the news that the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) had given the OK for big national Internet providers (such as Bell Canada and Rogers Communications) to begin imposing extra fees on their services.

I realize this likely sounds complicated and boring to many, but I ask you to bear with me for a moment. This announcement raised a red flag in my mind. It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that I was paying $50 for phone, TV and Internet. Well if those were the good old days, well I for one am in no hurry to pay the potential prices of the future, and I’ll put them off as long as I can.

This increase would be trickled down by the big nationals to the smaller, more regionalized Internet Service Providers; of which Shaw or Telus would be two local examples. These smaller companies would thus have to resell the bandwidth to our homes and businesses, for slightly more money, depending on how much bandwidth the region (or even the individual home) is consuming. These extra-usage fees would be applied to those Internet users who use the most bandwidth or download/stream the most online content. It’s known as usage based billing, and the CRTC essentially had given the go-ahead for it to be implemented. Were this decision to go ahead unchecked, broadband or high-speed modem internet services would be about to cost much more for Canadians.

It was not long after their first announcement that OpenMedia went into action.

In an OpenMedia press release made public on January 25, 2011, OpenMedia.ca’s national coordinator, Steve Anderson, didn’t mince many words. “The CRTC has once again left the wolves in charge of the henhouse.”

Anderson and OpenMedia rapidly initiated a campaign called Stop The Meter, in which Canadians were asked to sign a petition to prevent this development from going ahead. By the end of the month, nearly 40,000 Canadians like me had signed it, via its circulation over e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other social media means. The reason that we signed the petition was simple. If private telecom companies can begin to regulate their own charging system in such a manner, they can slap extra fees on those of us who download a lot of music, watch a lot of online movies, and play a lot of online games.

Many Canadians might shrug this off, ignoring such a petition; claiming how they only use the Net to check their email and Facebook updates. I cannot make such a claim. I download new music all the time. I listen to it, enjoy it, play it for others and if it’s worth it – I’ll purchase it when I come across it in a store. (I’ve written previously for LA Beat about the difficulties one can have in Lethbridge in trying to find independent albums for a reasonable price.) Colour me a sinner, but I go where the music is – and an awful lot of choice, quality stuff can be found on the world wide web.

The good news is that our silent protest was a success – at least so far. The collected signatures proved to be a mighty weapon, for on Wednesday, February 23rd, Canada’s Industry Minister Tony Clement delivered the following message after a forum at the U of A. “We have asked (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) to review their decision and if they come back with the same decision, the cabinet would overrule it because it wouldn’t be consistent with government policy . . . promoting competition and choice…” “You can’t have competition and choice if you allow a major carrier to force its business model onto an independent service provider.”

Bang! You tell ’em Tony. The Harper government has heard us music lovers, game players and movie streamers, and they’re on our side! They have overturned the proposal, and will not allow this usage-based billing to take place.

Now, I will admit that the other side of the argument makes a certain amount of sense, and from a capitalist/business standpoint, Bell and Rogers are likely fuming. According to an article in the National Post, “it is a standing complaint from such major Internet providers that they must invest in their networks (in Bell’s case, $6-billion in the last two years) while smaller companies — and their clients–get a cheaper ride.” Some people might argue that as a utility, Internet access should be treated like water and electricity; and the more that you use, the more that you spend. With the amount of online use surging dramatically over the last five years, their networks are becoming more and more congested.

Previous business strategies to deal with this issue have involved reinforcing infrastructure with upgraded fiberoptics and underground cables. Beyond that, we users have been asked to sign on for special Net packages – tiered-billing plans in which customers pay more, depending on how fast their Internet can go. An unlimited bundle is the top of the line – and those at the top of the usage pyramid should be, accordingly, paying premium dollar for it.

While Minister Clement had seemingly shut ’em down temporarily with his public appearance and comments regarding the subject, OpenMedia were still not convinced. “Canadians have come out in unprecedented numbers and demanded an affordable Internet, and while there is evidence that this has moved the CRTC, they have not gone nearly far enough,” said Steve Anderson. He continued, “..it is deeply disappointing that the Commission has decided to give a few companies a free hand to engage in economic discrimination and crush innovation. Now is the moment for forward-looking, visionary policymaking, not half-measures and convoluted compromises with the companies trying to kill the open Internet. This decision is a step in the right direction, but it is clear to me that Canadians are going to have to continue to speak out on this issue.”

Well Steve-O my man, you’ve got me on the case. My main point with this editorial has been simply to make other Canadians a bit more aware that all of this has been taking place, literally right under our noses. I signed the petition, not just because it might add a few bucks to my cable bill, but because the whole idea feels like the top of a slippery slope.

I wonder who gets to choose what a ‘high-end’ user is? Is a ‘high-end’ user a person who downloads two movies in a month or ten? Do they play ten hours of multi-player Warcraft-time or one hundred? If it is these privately owned telecom mega-giants who are deciding, what’s to stop them from upping their rates every six months, to supposedly ‘keep up with demands’? Worse yet, if those users who go over the imposed Internet limits are charged extra, then what service is next? Will we pay more for TV depending on how many hours it’s on? Will I pay more for my ‘free’ local calls if I’m a chatty type of person who happens to work out of my home office? What happens if you are not computer-savvy and your neighbour across the street has been scamming off of your unsecured wireless connection? In my mind, there are just too many questions.

That is likely why OpenMedia sounded the alarm when this legislation was put on the table. That’s likely why OpenMedia felt the need to circulate a petition, and likely why when you visit the OpenMedia site today, you’ll note it’s been signed by over 470,000 Canadians. Now if only we could get as many Canadians out to the polls come election time, this democracy thing just might still have a chance.

For a bit more information about the issue, and to sign this and/or future petitions to keep the Internet as an inexpensive alternative to mainstream entertainment, check out these two links:

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~ by Chris Hibbard on March 9, 2011.

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