The final word on usage-based internet billing in Canada came down yesterday and it’s pretty much as everyone expected: so long unlimited internet, it was good knowing you.
The issue, in brief, if you’re not familiar with it: small internet providers lease the networks of big companies such as Bell and Telus to sell their own internet plans. But while the big companies like to set modest usage caps and charge extra for more, the smaller guys have been selling big buckets, if not unlimited. Bell asked our regulator, the CRTC, to allow it to implement those same caps on its smaller wholesale customers and, after much ado, the company got what it wanted. The small guys are therefore going to see their ability to offer unlimited usage buckets severely curtailed.
The CRTC did throw the small ISPs a bone yesterday – it gave them a 15% discount on whatever the big guys want to charge them for usage. By most accounts, that might be enough to keep some of the smaller ISPs in business, but it doesn’t give them much room to differentiate their services or make any actual money.
Interestingly, there was an op/ed in The Globe and Mail yesterday from David Beers, editor of The Tyee website. The headline pretty much said it: “A metered internet is a regulatory failure.”
I’d go a step further and suggest that by allowing this to happen, the CRTC has actually failed to do its job as enforcer of the Telecommunications Act and it has failed to follow the government’s 2006 policy direction.
The policy direction was an unusual set of marching orders that had never been made before because the government and the regulator were supposed to operate within arm’s length of one another. It happened because the industry minister at the time, Maxime Bernier, was a hard-core market purist and he wanted to de-fang the CRTC as much as possible.
Bernier, who I got to know through regular on- and off-the-record chats back in the day, believed there wasn’t a competitive problem that can’t be solved by simply having a free and open market. For the most part I agreed with him except – as I keep belaboring – we don’t have openness in telecommunications services because we have foreign ownership restrictions that act as a major barrier to market entry. Bernier knew that and wanted to change it, but he was shuffled off into a different job before he could make such a move (and then there was that whole disgrace with the biker girlfriend scandal, but that’s neither here nor there).
In any event, the government has stuck with Bernier’s policy direction for more than four years now and the CRTC has referenced it in pretty much every decision it has made since. Indeed, yesterday’s ruling concludes with a statement that usage-based billing is indeed consistent with that policy direction. I beg to differ.
The double failure is very simple, as it comes from the first points in both the policy direction and the Telecommunications Act. The government’s marching orders state the CRTC must “rely on market forces to the maximum extent feasible as the means of achieving the telecommunications policy objectives.”
In the first instance, by allowing Bell and Co. to dictate the business models of smaller competitors, the regulator is in effect interfering with market forces.
Furthermore, the Act’s first objective is “to facilitate the orderly development throughout Canada of a telecommunications system that serves to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the social and economic fabric of Canada and its regions.” Its third objective is “to enhance the efficiency and competitiveness, at the national and international levels, of Canadian telecommunications.”
The Telecom Act is a long and convoluted piece of legalese, but if we break it down to that first all-important objective, the question inevitably arises: Exactly how is cutting down or limiting Canadians’ internet usage safeguarding, enriching and strengthening the social and economic fabric of Canada?
We can argue ideologically till we’re blue in the face about how to achieve all the other goals of the Telecom Act and the policy direction – i.e. that allowing all comers to access incumbent networks cheaply is the best way, or that shutting the small guys down so the big guys have investment certainty is the best way, etc. – but that just muddies the waters. The first goal is a good one and the most important since it pretty much covers everything else.
In that vein the one point I think everyone, except perhaps the network owners, can agree on is that using the internet more, not less, is the best way to achieve the Act’s most important goal: the strengthening of the social and economic fabric of Canada. Ladies and gentlemen of the court, I therefore submit to you the CRTC’s first objective and policy direction failure.
What about the Act’s third objective? As the wise guys like to say: fuggedaboutit.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada is only one of three member countries (out of 30) where unlimited internet service is practically impossible to find (see table 4G on the OECD’s broadband portal – it’s worth noting the numbers are from 2009, which means Canada is likely to look even worse now that we’ve got usage-based billing). Australia and New Zealand are the other two, and don’t even get me started on those countries. Having lived in New Zealand and covered this issue there, we should actually consider ourselves lucky here in Canada. As for Australia, it’s no surprise the government – at war with Telstra, its own version of Bell Canada – is spending billions on building its own internet access network.
The point is, unlimited or practically unlimited internet is commonplace in almost every other developed nation. Canada doesn’t sound too internationally competitive in that light, now does it? That, my friends, is the CRTC’s second epic failure.
There are many ways to interpret the Telecom Act and the policy direction, but the above two things are clear as mud: we’re being prodded into using the internet less, which is out of whack with what’s going on in other countries.
There are tens of thousands of Canadians who are fed up with this situation and their numbers are only going to grow as 2011 continues. Sooner or later, the government is going to have to sit up and take notice that the market, such as it is, is failing those Canadians badly.