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The CRTC, UBB, and the Politics of Digital Space


Pat yourselves on the back, Canadians. Enjoy the victory—a great one, for sure—but don’t get complacent. This isn’t over yet.
That was the message OpenMedia.ca was trying to get across this morning. The victory, for anyone currently living under a rock, is in the fight against the CRTC’s decision to permit leviathans like Bell and Rogers to impose usage-based billing, or UBB, on smaller, independent ISPs, many of whom lease bandwidth from these larger companies. On a per-byte basis, bandwidth caps would shrink from two hundred gigabytes to twenty-five gigabytes—in the case of Chatham, Ontario–based Teksavvy [PDF], for example—and users would face charges not unlike those imposed on data transmitted via mobile networks. Effectively, it would put an end to the idea of a free, open internet, turning it instead into a metered, for-profit enterprise of the corporate telecom giants. Competitiveness in the online marketplace would be crushed. For those working in the digital domain, the resulting restrictions wouldn’t necessarily kill innovation, just severely curtail it by degrees of affordability. What is now a mostly equal playing field would become a system of tiers.


Overnight, Facebook lit up like a Christmas tree. “OK, I know we are a lazy, complacent generation,” wrote one user, “we love to express outrage on forums, and then never take any action. But they are coming for our internets, people.” The previously unengaged emerged from the shadows. A year ago, Facebook triggered waves of protests against Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament, heralding a new era, some said, of grassroots organizing in the digital realm. This time, the same thing happened—not just a defence of democracy in its official capacity, but of the new, innovative, and continually evolving ways we facilitate it in the twenty-first century.
So it just figures that it was a member of Harper’s cabinet who threw a little weight behind the push.
As early as January 20, the federal parties were also sounding off on the issue of usage-based billing, one that was gaining rapid momentum among Canadians. “We’ve seen this all before with cell phones,” said Charlie Angus, the NDP’s digital affairs critic, in a press release. “Allowing the internet service providers to ding you every time you download is a rip-off. Canada is already falling behind other countries in terms of choice, accessibility and pricing for the internet.” In Ontario, users were writing their members of parliament and members of provincial parliament, piling on the pressure, letting government know in no uncertain terms that this was simply unacceptable. By February 1, the Liberal Party had announced its opposition to the CRTC’s decision, the same day that Harper announced a review. The CRTC suddenly found itself on the wrong side of a line in the sand. On the other, it seemed, was nearly everyone in Canada and their elected representatives, with the exception of friendly industry faces.

torontoist_02032011.jpg
The CRTC’s UBB decision is a major threat to net neutrality, an issue at the heart of protests like this one from 2008. Photo by JasonWalton.


Confronted by this near-unanimous upswelling, Tony Clement, Harper’s minister of industry, lowered his government’s boot with a tweet on Wednesday night. The CBC’s Rosemary Barton put it to the Tories’ most social media-friendly politician, asking Clement whether he would intervene if the CRTC didn’t back down from its decision. A pertinent question on the eve of the regulatory body’s parliamentary grilling, it also carried all the overtones of a burgeoning election issue—a promising one for the party with the most influence. “True,” Clement replied. “CRTC must go back to the drawing board.”
“It’s a huge issue for a country that wants to move forward on the internet for jobs, for creativity, for innovation,” Clement said on Thursday morning, somewhat more verbose. UBB, he said, is the wrong way to handle problems arising from bandwidth capacity, “[forcing] a business model on independent service providers if they do not want to use that model.” And while he admitted a “healthy balance and tension” exists between the government and the CRTC, Clement conceded that “there are times when we, acting on behalf of government, have to weigh in. That’s our responsibility and that’s our role.”
And just like that, Canadians have been heard. The issue’s done with, in the can. Right?
While noting that Clement’s announcement was a “massive win” for the 330,000-plus signatures on its Stop The Meter petiton, OpenMedia.ca’s response was optimistic, although measured in tone. “In short, this is an amazing and unprecedented victory for innovators, creators, and Canadians of all stripes,” was the official word this morning. “[But] we are not at the finish line.”
It’s an issue whose resolution can’t be accepted quickly, considering the far-reaching threat posed by a metered internet. With a usage-based billing system, “it’s going to be a lot more difficult for citizens to come together online,” Lindsay Pinto, communications manager at OpenMedia.ca, told Torontoist. “The cost of data and the threat of punitive fees will make creating ‘viral’ videos, for example, much less feasible for the average Canadian. Internet metering will act as an impediment to user-generated content.” Even worse, to echo net-neutrality fears going back to the honeymoon days of YouTube, “[internet metering will] pave the way for big media to dominate many discursive realms.” At a time when the political role of corporations is on the rise, the fight against UBB is a critically pivotal one, keeping such control and influence out of the public domain. Decisions made and actions undertaken today mark the thin, precarious line between what is and what’s yet to be.
Faced with an array of hypothetical endgames, Pinto offered her own worst-case scenario. “The internet becomes prohibitively expensive, online content is monopolized by major corporations in the same way that televisual content is, and the potential for the internet to be the great facilitator of cultural and democratic discourse and action is eroded.” It’s what happened with TV, after the glory days when broadcast news held a public light to the foreign policies of the Vietnam era. “But we’re not there yet,” Pinto added.
More positively, we’re also not there with today’s announcement, but we’re getting closer. “Considering a lack of details, and a huge spectrum of possible actions before the government,” Pinto wrote, “OpenMedia.ca vows to increase the pressure until we see an end to unreasonable Internet usage fees, and big telecom is held accountable to the public.” On the site itself, Steve Anderson, OpenMedia.ca’s national coordinator, was more pointed about what comes next. “The next round will likely be with the CRTC,” he wrote. “We have momentum behind us, we have the government and major opposition parties behind us, [and] we have over 330,000 of us who have taken a firm stand in favour of an accessible open Internet.”
Which means that rallies like tomorrow’s, held from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at Yonge-Dundas Square, will go ahead as scheduled. Politicians will continue to seize upon the rippling discontent as a wedge issue, particularly when a spring election looks increasingly likely. And that means keeping an eye on those who make grand, populist statements, especially surrounding enormous issues uniting voters across the political spectrum, and especially when those who make such statements aren’t exactly an open internet’s best friend themselves.
But at least playing David to many corporate Goliaths hasn’t been all doom and gloom. “Big Telecom lobbyists,” Anderson concluded, “are waiting to go back to business as usual: the backroom meetings, the captured regulator, the uninformed citizenry. Let’s not go back there—this has been too much fun.”

UPDATE: February 3, 5:50 PM Just after this story was posted, we learned from 680 News that the CRTC has announced it will delay making changes to internet billing practices for sixty days. An update was also added to the Facebook page for tomorrow’s protest at Yonge-Dundas Square. Despite the two-month reprieve, the event will still go ahead but will now take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Comments

  • g026r

    “So it just figures that it was a member of Harper's cabinet who threw a little weight behind the push.”

    Except, of course, that the CRTC heads mentioned at today's hearings that, even before Clement made his announcement, they were already going to review the decision.

    (Interesting tidbit: Clement actually intervened in favour of the telcos earlier in the process that lead to the CRTC ruling.)

  • Jeremy Wilson

    Yeah, I'm waiting to see what actually comes of this. It's one thing to say it and another to do it.

  • http://twitter.com/maharper82 Matthew Harper

    What I find lost in the all this coverage is why Bell and Rogers are selling bandwidth on their networks to the 3rd party ISPs in the first place? Was that originally a requirement from the CRTC, that the recent decision just amended? I can see the benefit to society of limiting the number of companies tearing up the countryside laying fibre, so naturally there should be a fair rate for competitors to access those pipes. It is a balancing act as there should be a healthy of incentive for the big telcos to go through all of the logistical work of expanding the footprint and capacity of their networks.

  • John Duncan

    Saying that Bell and Rogers are forced to wholesale bandwidth on their network isn't an entirely accurate description of what's happening. It's not really so much their network as it is their last-mile infrastructure. (Which was partially built with public money and essentially gets a free ride in using public rights of way)

    The actual transfer of bits and bytes over the 'net is not done through Bell's or Roger's networks, but over connections that the independent ISP is already fully paying for separately (at prices of pennies/GB). Bell wants to be able to charge wholesalers the same vastly inflated price that they choose to charge their own retail customers for this usage, despite not carrying the data for most of its trip. This is completely unrelated to the service they're providing or the economics of the situation.

  • http://twitter.com/shinigamidono shinigamidono

    I am all for regulatory bodies that work to keep government in check but i am also for the opposite. If the regulatory body (CRTC) proves to be completely incompetent and out of touch with not just the reality of Canada and the wants and needs of its citizens but also with the simple reality and trends of the world, then the government has absolute right and responsibility to step in and correct it. There is no way the government should sit back and watch as this incompetence sets Canada back on the global market by a decade. Access to online resources and its use as basis for innovation (services such as OnLive cloud gaming platform) is in increase demand in the world and the CRTC wants to cut off the entire Canadian population from the possibilities these new innovations and trends offer consumers in favor of a handful of large telcom. company. This will not be tolerated by the Canadian population. My message to the CRTC: sugarcoat what’s happening here all you want. Tell lies through your teeth that this only affects some 30,000 Canadians. Fib about how this doesn’t affect Canada’s economy and future. turn users against other users to turn attention away from the blatant greed of a few corporations. attempt to charge 2000-5000% markups on the costs of bandwidth. try it… we won’t stand for it. YOU WILL BACK DOWN!

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    After being disappointed by the last couple of elections, federally and locally, I'm so happy to see this level of attention and concern from regular Canadians. Of course the fight isn't over yet: Bell and Rogers just came a hair's breadth from Absolute Power, they will make further bids for it in the months and years to come.

    We used to be pioneers in telecommunications, but have fallen far behind Asia and parts of Europe with regards to networking technology and access pricing, largely because the government still thinks the internet is a toy, and the CRTC seemingly exists only to protect an oligarchy from competition.

  • http://twitter.com/mousky1967 Adam Szymczak

    Usage based billing isn't the problem. Natural gas, electricity and water utilize usage based billing. UBB is an excellent way to allocate scarce resources.

    The real problem is the lack of competition that leads to situations such as ridiculous overage fees.

  • http://piorkowski.ca Jarek Piórkowski

    Well, we don't exactly have much competition when it comes to water, do we? Of course, that's where regulation comes in…

  • Toronto_Dave

    “UBB is an excellent way to allocate scarce resources.”

    You may be correct, at least depending on how much we're being billed and if the resource in question is actually scarce. Bandwidth is not – despite what Bell and co. would like us to believe.

    Our Internet usage continues to grow rapidly, but the capacity of our networks to accommodate that usage is growing at a faster rate – while the per-gig cost of delivery continues to drop. No, we're not going to run out of space anytime soon, and no, it's not getting more expensive for telecoms to deliver the service. It's just that they're constantly looking for new streams of revenue and UBB is it. Problem is, they needed to concoct a crisis in order to justify its implementation.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    If Bell wants to impose UBB or traffic shaping or download throttling on its own retail customers, that's their business. But that isn't the issue at hand. They want to impose it on their competition. They already throttle my connection and I'm not even a Bell customer, I'm with TekSavvy.

  • http://twitter.com/fantasticmio Becky

    This is how it was explained to me: Imagine there is a pipe that is providing water to several houses. The company has sold you a package that allows you access to 10% of what comes through the pipe. The problem is, the company is banking on the fact that you're not going to just keep your taps on all the time, and so they sell 10% to more than 10 houses.

    It doesn't matter how much water comes through the pipe, it matters that you've bought the use of 10% of it, and the company is now telling you that you can't have all of that 10% because your neighbour is using all 10% of his, and isn't he a jerk for doing so?

    Keep in mind, the company is only providing the pipes and the access to them, they have no part in producing the water.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    “Keep in mind, the company is only providing the pipes and the access to them, they have no part in producing the water. “

    That's not entirely the case when Bell and Rogers are also content providers and operate on-demand services in competition with other online providers (such as Netflix and torrents, etc). Bell wants you to drink their <del>kool-aid</del>water because they can charge you an additional fee.

  • Eric S. Smith

    They already throttle my connection and I'm not even a Bell customer, I'm with TekSavvy

    …and TekSavvy is a Bell customer. The copper between your house and the telephone exchange is Bell's, but so is the behind-the-scenes connection between the DSL modem at the exchange, which is a few kilometres away from you at most, and Teksavvy's network (including their authentication servers, mail servers, and links to the Internet) which could well be in another city.

    There is an argument to be made for using traffic shaping on that “backhaul” connection to balance the interests of users who expect acceptable latency in their Skype, gaming, and remote access sessions, and users who want to saturate their links all day every day with torrent traffic. This is not to endorse Bell's current throttling scheme, which is pretty clumsy despite all the scaremongering about sinister “deep packet inspection,” or these new caps and fees, which are an arbitrary cash grab.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    I know TekSavvy is a Bell reseller, but if I wanted Bell-quality service I would have signed up with them in the first place. The throttling wasn't in place when I got my account, it was added later when Bell went to the CRTC, hat in hand, saying we were clogging their pipes.

    To be fair it seems like they've eased back on the throttling a bit in the last month or so, though I haven't done thorough testing by any means, but I'm still not getting the speeds I pay for and received when I signed with TS three years ago.

  • http://twitter.com/fantasticmio Becky

    Oh, I agree! I was just trying to describe what Bell means when they talk about your neighbour hogging your bandwidth.

    It's my opinion that if the big companies are going to play these games, they need to stop offering both content and distribution system. They obviously can't stay neutral, and it was a bit silly of us to expect them to.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    They should be broken up, yes.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    They should be broken up, yes.