Internet debate reminiscent of water meter vote

Kamloopsians will sense a certain déjà vu over the debate on internet metering. When asked in a referendum whether they wanted to pay a flat rate for water or pay according to usage, most rejected metering. Canadians feel the same way about internet metering. In an Angus Reid poll, 75 per cent of Canadians wanted unlimited access to the internet despite the fact that only a small fraction are heavy users. It’s the equivalent of paying for someone else’s excessive use of water.

watermeter

This amounts to a subsidy for a small number of high volume users by the majority, claim some internet users. Why should they pay for expensive infrastructure that benefits the data hogs? And if the size of the data pipeline is limited, high volume users are slowing everyone’s rate of flow to a trickle.

Other users counter that metering is a cash-grab. Not only are the extra fees excessive but there is no way of knowing how much data you are using; the equivalent of driving a car without a fuel gage, running out of gas and paying a premium to go further. It’s disingenuous for cable companies to levy a surcharge on a limit you don’t know you’ve exceeded until it’s too late.

Remarkably, the internet is only recently indispensible. What was unknown two decades ago has suddenly become essential. Human rights advocates argue that access to the internet is required to close the gaping digital divide that separates the rich and poor. Finland has made basic internet access a guaranteed right of citizens and others will likely follow.

Unlike water, however, data is not distributed over publically-owned systems. Telephone and cable companies are not in the business of dispensing human rights. Cable companies complain that they have to build expensive infrastructure to carry large volumes of data. They are less candid about their desire to suppress the competition such as on-line movie distributors like Netlflix which compete with their own movie channels, and the small cable companies that they sell wholesale access to that don’t meter use. Why allow unlimited access to competitors over their own utility, they argue.

Enter the CRCT, Canada’s broadcast regulator, who ruled in favour of metering. CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein claims that metering fees go towards building better infrastructure and everyone should chip in. And he also points out that cable companies are not exactly metering the internet. Consumer can buy plans according to data use without paying extra fees. For example, Shaw cable’s high-speed plan allows up to 60 gigabytes with no extra fees which seems sufficient considering that the average Canadian uses one-third of that limit. In the face of the recent storm of protest, Shaw has suspended extra billing.

With an election blowing in the wind, politicians are sensitive to the public mood. Jack Layton, leader of the federal NDP, signed a petition conducted by the lobby group OpenMedia.ca and told a crowd of supporters: “Here we have a decision which is really going to limit people’s access to what’s available in a very unfair way.”

Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are using public outrage as revenge against one of their favourite targets and he senses support on this one. Harper is still angry at the CRCT for scuttled his plans to bring “Fox News North” to Canada and it’s payback time. Harper’s Industry Minister warns: “Regardless of the outcome of the CRTC review, under a Conservative government this ruling will not be implemented.”

He may have to eat those bold words in light of a recent Supreme Court of Canada that ruled that Harper doesn’t have the legal right to override the CRTC. The case involves the sale of public airwaves to cell phone companies. The CRTC said that one bidder, Egyptian-based Orascom, was not Canadian and therefore prohibited from buying frequencies according to the Telecommunications Act which bans foreign ownership. Harper overruled the CRTC on that one too, and now faces contempt of court.

Even cities are weighing in. Victoria passed a motion against usage billing because it interferes with citizen’s “ability to become educated, communicate with others, and hampers the free and full exchange of information.” In the passion of the moment, I wouldn’t be surprised if governments added “the right of free internet access” as founding constitutional principle.

With water meters on the way, don’t look to Kamloops City Council for any such grandiose resolutions.

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