The iron fist of the Big Telecom giants

The following is an article written by one member of the editorial board. The opinions expressed in this article represent a consensus formed by The Sputnik’s editorial board. They do not, in any way, reflect the position of WLUSP on any particular issue.

On January 25, the CRTC decided to allow Bell Canada to impose a usage-based billing regime on its customers.

This move by the CRTC is, to say the least, disappointing (there are other, more accurate adjectives but let’s keep things civil for the time being).

To the uninitiated, here’s the low-down on the debate: usage-based billing (UBB) allows Internet service providers, or ISPs, to charge Internet users based on their amount of download. Bell purportedly went to CRTC and played the “woe is me” card, citing that 80% of its bandwidth is being used by only 17% of its subscribers, also known as “Internet hogs.”

According to Bell, these “hogs” need to be put on the proverbial leash. The CRTC acquiesced, allowing Bell to place a download limit of 25GB a month on its customers. Users will then be charged for every gigabyte of downloading over that limit.

Allegedly, Bell’s move is meant to hold these Internet hogs accountable for their above-average usage. The implicit outcome of that decision, however, is that the bulk of Bell’s customers – the 80% whose usage is well below average – will also bear the brunt.

Understanding the CRTC’s decisions of late requires impressive mental acrobatics. First, the CRTC puts in a proposal that would allow the broadcasting of false news, essentially paving the way for Fox News’ northern cousin, Sun TV Media (colloquially known as “Fox News North”). Now it’s caving to capitalist interests by giving in to pressures from telecom giant Bell Canada.

Naturally, the decision caused a public outcry., a non-profit organization, launched a campaign that called on the public to write letters and petition the CRTTC to reverse that decision. A dozen protesters showed up at Dundas Square in Toronto on Friday February 4 to stage a public protest. They were later joined by NDP’s Jack Layton and his posse, who attracted most of the media’s spotlight.

Consequently, CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein announced last week that the decision’s implementation, scheduled for March 1, will be put on hold for 60 days. He cited “public outcry” as part of the regulator’s reason for reviewing the decision.

Like the majority of the public who took to the streets and Facebook in protest, this editorial board is of the consensus that UBB “will kill innovation in Canada,” as one editor put it. As it is, Canada is one of the few countries in the world to charge users per gigabyte downloaded. We also rank somewhere at the top for highest cell phone costs. This recent decision by the CRTC is only propelling us further in the direction of undemocratic communications policies.

“The Internet is supposed to a level playing field,” said another editor. Allowing profit-driven telecom giants to arbitrarily shackle users with stricter pricing will turn the Internet into an exclusive playground of the rich.

National Post’s Tony Corcorran painted the UBB debate as another political tug-o-war; specifically, it’s Liberal MP’s Dan MacTeague’s “talking point” in cabinet. It’s true that of the 2,300 or so people who replied as “attending” the protest against UBB on Facebook, only 12 of them actually showed up. It’s also true that NDP’s Jack Layton and his crew later boosted the protest’s dismal head count to a respectable one.

However, one editor noted that the absence of supporters during the protest does not prove that the UBB debate is purely political. Newspapers had already reported the day before that PM Stephen Harper and Minister of Industry, Tony Clement would address the CRTC regarding this issue. That, and most likely the weather, may have dissuaded people from showing up for the protest.

Some may argue that our discontent with UBB is indicative of our skewed priorities – we should instead try to cultivate relationships with people outside of the virtual world rather than just on Facebook. There are more important things in life than catching up on the latest episode of Jersey Shore.

But is that all we use the Internet for?

One editor points out that not all movies viewed online involves illegal downloading. University student are often required to watch documentary films as part of their classes and assignments. Since university students often live in shared housing, a 25 GB download cap can easily be used up by one student household in far less than a month. The UBB pricing regime, in this sense, would severely impede our learning process as university students.

So what’s the possible solution? One imaginative editor suggested that imposing UBB will only give rise to a “Napster of the Internet” – the one rogue free Internet service provider that will liberate Canadians from the shackles of telecom giants’ dictatorial terms of agreement. Provided, of course, that it doesn’t get sued into non-existence and goes underground.

Imaginations aside, there are organized individuals out there who see the problem going beyond immediate issues like the UBB debate., for example, believes that information access and, by extension, Internet access is an inalienable human right. Every individual on the planet, from the political blogger in Quebec to the cocoa farmer in Cote d’Ivoire, should be able to access the Internet from their respective locations.

What plans to do is simple: “[build] a free communication network that is available anywhere.” According to the organization, Earth is covered several times over in a day by satellites, and very few of them are operating at full efficiency. plans to procure used satellite dishes and get satellite owners to donate their unused bandwidth to build a global, unfettered communications network. Access to the network will then be given free of charge to anyone, anywhere.

Sounds like a pie in the sky? You bet. But at least it’s one that could potentially feed us more gigabytes a month then Bell and the CRTC can.

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