Taking on Big Telecom: A Trip to the CRTC's UBB Hearings
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Taking on Big Telecom: A Trip to the CRTC’s UBB Hearings

Photo by BruceK from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The CRTC began hearings this week to help it decide whether to uphold or reverse its controversial January decision on usage-based billing. Mark Coatsworth, owner of a small business in Toronto that relies heavily on high-speed internet access, gave a presentation at those hearings in Gatineau. He wrote about that experience, and why he felt it was important to be there, for Torontoist.
It was an evil January night when I got the news that internet prices were about to go way, way up. Many years ago the Big Telecom providers like Bell and Rogers had imposed brutal, expensive usage rate caps into their internet service plans. Now the CRTC had passed a ruling allowing them to impose these usage-based billing (UBB) caps onto independent ISPs across the country.
Like many Canadians, I reacted with shock and anger. We already pay among top third in the world for high speed internet—and we Canadians sure love our internet. According to a recent comScore report, we’re among the most active internet users in the world.
Yet Bell/Rogers service is unreliable, customer service is non-existent and overage data charges are hilariously expensive. Our only respite comes from independent ISPs like Teksavvy who offer quality service at fair rates. It’s no surprise Big Telecom wants to rein them in.

The Canadian public’s reaction to the CRTC ruling was immediate and overwhelming. Phone calls, letters, emails, and faxes flooded government offices. Advocacy group OpenMedia.ca started an online campaign and petition that drew record numbers of signatures. Within days, Industry Minister Tony Clement sent the proposal back to the drawing board.
When the CRTC announced a new round of hearings for this summer, I jumped at the chance to take part. I run a small business called Built By Giants; we deal in web-based software and web-based business services. We’re part of the growing shift towards cloud computing, which has seen the explosive growth of online services like Netflix, YouTube, Skype, and iTunes. These sorts of cloud services are the future of computing and media, and Big Telecom’s data caps will effectively shut Canadians off.
Moreover, Bell was hardly sitting idle. They were now pushing a new model called aggregate volume pricing (AVP), which was slightly better than UBB but still a vulgar display of price-gouging.
My intention was to explain to the CRTC how UBB caps will stifle innovative Canadian businesses, make services like Netflix and iTunes impossibly expensive, and effectively put Canada in a digital ghetto. In early February I submitted a proposal and was delighted to get an invitation a few months later.
I took the train into Ottawa/Gatineau the morning of July 11 for my presentation. The week-long hearing was split between consumers, businesses, and advocacy groups, as well as lobbyists from Bell, Rogers, Cogeco, and other telecoms. I spoke on the consumer panel and only got five minutes (compared to 45 minutes for the telecoms), but this suited me just fine. This was my first appearance at a public hearing and I was quite happy to keep it short and sweet.

Representatives from OpenMedia.ca give their presentation on UBB to the CRTC in Gatineau. Photo by Mark Coatsworth.

My presentation focused on the effects that UBB/AVP would have on innovative Canadian technology businesses. I argued that the U.S. is paying significantly less for internet and data usage, which has fuelled a massive digital economy that they now export globally. Canada has all the talent, innovative thinkers, and venture capital to be a major player, yet we’re being shut out of the market by our own telecoms who are posting major profit margins. BCE paid out a 1.37 per cent dividend last quarter, higher than the major banks and oil companies, yet they continue to push for higher pricing. As a result, Canadian businesses cannot compete against Americans, and we get forced out of the global digital economy.
It was intimidating going up against the telecom giants. Bell Canada has an army of lawyers and policymakers whose only purpose is to deal with internet regulations and government policy. These people make a full-time job of studying, researching, and proposing rulings to advance corporate profit margins. Bell also has the cash to bring a whole team of experts and executives to Gatineau to make their case. It’s a far cry from my contribution—I’m an over-worked and underpaid small business owner who did all my research and writing while in a nearly hallucinatory state after 14-hour work days. I paid my own way to Gatineau and faced the commission exhausted, overwhelmed, and alone.
This whole process did give me a better understanding of how the CRTC works and how policy happens in Ottawa. The CRTC is an independent public organization—they cannot present their own evidence against corporate rulings. When Bell and Rogers propose price-gouging policies like UBB/AVP, the commission depends on advocacy groups and citizens to come forward and present counter-arguments. Without any opposition, the telecoms have an open floor.
The UBB/AVP debate is far from over, and I expect it will continue for several more years. These current hearings have been encouraging, and commissioners seemed to be giving the Bell team a particularly hard time. But the corporate lobby is persistent and always comes up with new ways to take us to the cleaners.
But the biggest thing this experience has taught me is that regular Canadians have the power to stop them. This is democracy, and we all have a right to show up and make ourselves heard. If Big Telecom wins this fight, it will be partly the result of our own failure to stand up to them.