High internet usage does not equal great service

04 Apr

I hope you all caught my little April Fool’s joke on Friday and that no one took me seriously. That post was a reprint of an op-ed written by Mirko Bibic, Bell’s head lobbyist, in the National Post last week. I couldn’t think of anything funnier to post than an article claiming that Canada gets cheaper, faster and better internet than many other countries.

In that vein, a lot of internet-related stuff happened last week, what with all the CRTC filings on usage-based billing and Netflix offering lower video quality and so on. Hopefully this week we can get back to talking about fun stuff.

Before we do, one last thing that probably needs addressing is the latest talking point that’s been popping up in recent polemics from telecom lobbyists and their idealogue allies. Over the past few months, the folks at internet marketing research company comScore issued some statistics on worldwide internet trends that have shown Canadians to be among the most frequent users of online services such as YouTube and Facebook.

In December comScore reported that about 21 million Canadians visit YouTube per month, where they watch an average of 147 videos each. Both measures are higher, per capita, than in the United States. Google backed that up by saying Canada is first in the world in terms of per capita YouTube consumption.

The research company’s more recent report, issued in March, also shows Canadians are first or second in the world in terms of total time spent online and how many websites they visit.

Some of these figures have led telecom supporters to make some rather far-reaching claims. First, one consultant/lobbyist suggested the “study appears to shoot down charges that usage sensitive pricing inhibits Canadians from heavy use of internet services” and that it “gives credence to why Canadian internet access networks may be experiencing different levels of stress from that experienced in other countries.”

Then, Martin Masse and Paul Beaudry - a pair of fellows at the Montreal Economic Institute, Maxime Bernier’s old stomping grounds - figured that all this time Canadians spend online is proof that they have great internet services.

And then of course there was Bibic’s piece last week, wherein he said that all of that YouTube watching is responsible for network congestion despite Bell’s investments in upgrading capacity.

Well, if one were to adopt the tactics of these lobbyists, the easy target would be to criticize comScore’s methodology. The reports don’t explain how the company came to its conclusions. In terms of website visits, for example, comScore doesn’t disclose how it monitored activity or even which websites were tracked. But hey, I’m not a telecom lobbyist (nor would I wish that fate upon anyone) so I won’t go there.

If we can take the results at face value, it’s far more constructive to try and explain why they are so. Why do Canadians spend so much time online and particularly with YouTube? Is it because it’s so cold here that we sit huddled in front of our computer screens for warmth?

Of course not. There are many factors that contribute to the likely explanation. The first is that Canada was, once upon a time, a world broadband leader. When our phone and cable companies actually competed against each other a decade ago, Canadians did indeed have some of the fastest and cheapest high-speed internet access around. This established a legacy - Canadians took to the internet and learned its value before much of the rest of the world.

As we all know, that early advantage has been squandered but the legacy remains. Canadian services aren’t the best anymore, but the public is still very much hooked on the internet. That’s probably why we surf a lot and connect on Facebook a lot.

As for YouTube, it is foolish to look at its success in Canada in isolation. YouTube’s success has, for the most part, been built on the back of copyrighted content. People don’t really go to YouTube to see user-generated content like some kid’s birthday party or someone’s cat chasing its tail, they go to see Fonzie jump the shark and crazy wrestler promos. Sure, in recent years Google has moved YouTube toward the straight and narrow so visitors can now watch the latest awful music videos legally, but let’s face facts - the site has historically been (and still is) a gold mine of copyrighted content that can’t be found anywhere else, especially in Canada.

In the U.S., not so much. Americans have many more legal sources from where they can get their video. Not only do they have Hulu, but their versions of iTunes, Netflix, Xbox Live, Playstation Store and so on have far better and deeper libraries than the Canadian equivalents. American online video consumption is therefore very likely to be far more fragmented among those sources, whereas Canadians are likely to focus their attention on the one source that provides the stuff they want to see, legal or not.

It’s a theory that’s backed up by another tidbit: Canadians appear to be prolific users of peer-to-peer file-sharing. While the statistics are from 2009 and somewhat dated, The Pirate Bay - the unkillable king of torrent sites - has shown Canada to be among the top file-sharing countries. By total number of peers Canada does well, as does the U.S., but it really kicks butt on a per-capita basis.

Some take this as a failure of copyright law but I take it to mean two things: first, Canadians are more aware of all the television and movies coming out the United States than people in other countries, which is natural given their proximity to it, but also that they don’t have proper online access to that video content. I’ve argued before that piracy only becomes a problem when there is a lack of easy and affordable legal options, not when copyright law is failing. The success of YouTube and Pirate Bay seem to figure into that theory very well.

Moreover, the fact that so many people are using YouTube and file-sharing to get their video content seems to indicate that they would rather sidestep traditional providers such as cable and satellite companies altogether. That’s ironic given those companies are also the same big internet service providers who think all this video consumption is somehow an endorsement of their networks.

So, don’t believe the lobbyists’ hype. Canadians’ proclivity for using the Web in general is the product of a bygone era - one where our internet services were actually the envy of the world. Our current fascination with quasi-legal video services is indicative of a desire to get video content online, but the lack of proper channels in which to do so. In no way should Canadians’ love of the internet be confused with having good and cheap services.

For Canadians, there is no turning back. They clearly want to live their lives and consume their content online, so perhaps the higher costs that usage-based billing would bring won’t deter them. That’s not to say that this online proficiency should be taken advantage of and milked, because it surely shouldn’t. As for whether all this activity is responsible for heightened congestion issues here in Canada, that’s another bit of nonsense put forward by the industry. For an excellent-if-somewhat-technical explanation of how networks work and how congestion happens - and why it probably isn’t really happening in Canada despite what the big ISPs say - check out a paper released last week by Bill St. Arnaud. Having served as the chief research officer for CANARIE, Canada’s advanced research network, he knows what he’s talking about.


Posted by on April 4, 2011 in internet, piracy, telecommunications


2 Responses to High internet usage does not equal great service

  1. Eric

    April 4, 2011 at 10:54 am

    FWIW…. When I got my US/UK proxy, I started watching hulu and BBC iPlayer a lot more and torrenting less.

  2. Rui

    April 5, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Same here. I like to watch shows from other parts of the world. They have a much different perspective than the Americans which is refreshing. We’re big on critters and you can’t beat the Brits for nature shows (which are extremely hard to come by here), or the Aussies for their slant on reworked shows, and of course the kiwis sense of humour. Traditional means do not have that sort of selection and, if I were to put my cynic’s hat on, we are being controlled by the limited scope of viewing available to us on traditional programming.


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