2010 Villain: Bandwidth Caps
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2010 Villain: Bandwidth Caps

Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

While it may seem a tad cliché to take a few whacks at Bell and Rogers, Canada’s foremost internet service providers, this year they deserve our scorn more than ever for one clear reason: bandwidth caps.
Bandwidth caps are limits to the amount of data that internet subscribers can use each month. Everything you do online, from watching YouTube videos to playing games to checking email, uses data. But with bandwidth caps, use more than your plan allots and you have to pay extra—sometimes as much as fifty dollars in a single month.
While bandwidth caps have always been a spectre looming on the horizon of Canadian surfers, their effects were really felt this year when Rogers and Bell reduced limits to a paltry fifty to sixty gigabytes a month for their most popular plans while upping the “overage” charges.
What’s especially bad is that the changes come in a year when Canadians finally have an array of decent options for accessing video online—the activity that uses the most data. According to traffic analysts Comscore, Canadians’ use of online video is up 156% compared to last year.
It’s easy to see why. In addition to unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows from Netflix, all the major broadcasters have most of their shows online, while everyone from Apple to Sony and Microsoft to even Rogers themselves offers some kind of streaming of film and TV. Trouble is, when you add some moderate consumption of video to regular surfing, the odd game download, and—if you have them—the video game console or iPads or smartphones that access the web through your home network, you can slip over those bandwidth caps pretty easily. So much for the unlimited web; in Canada, it’s increasingly becoming the “carefully-watch-the-meter-tick internet.”
Worse still is what seems to be the arbitrary nature of the caps. While Bell and Rogers claim it’s all part of “traffic management,” so their networks don’t get overloaded, there’s little evidence to support their choice of those specific numbers. As Deloitte’s technology analyst Duncan Stewart said at a Rogers event in Toronto recently, Canada isn’t struggling with bandwidth problems, unlike many countries. It has plenty. So how Bell and Rogers have arrived at magic figures like fifty gigabytes and sixty gigabytes is anyone’s guess, particularly since providers like Teksavvy are perfectly happy offering two hundred gigabytes a month for less money.
Couple that with a recent ruling by the CRTC that makes smaller, independent ISPs—who provide service atop Bell’s and Rogers’ networks—enforce the same bandwidth caps on their services, and you can see where this is headed: the entirety of Canada’s internet will be artificially constrained by the greed and shortsightedness of a few big telecom players.
But worst of all is the fact that cheap, unlimited bandwidth is exactly the kind of precondition necessary for people to set up new online companies in their basement, or kick-start innovative video services that create jobs and investment in Canada. Unless Canadians make their voices heard en masse to the CRTC, it seems little will change in the foreseeable future.