There has been much hand wringing this week here in Canada over the decision by the CRTC that allows large network operators to charge their wholesale customers – generally smaller Internet service providers – using a “usage-based billing” model. What this means, in simple terms, is that wholesalers who’ve been paying companies like Bell Canada for unlimited access to an Internet “pipe” of a certain diameter are now going to also be billed for how much data “flows through the pipe.”
It’s a move similar to that being implemented by the City of Charlottetown’s water utility, moving residential customers from a flat-free billing, where we pay a fixed amount and can use all the water that we like, to water-meter-regulated billing, where we pay for what we use.
Much of the hand-wringing this week – take this rant by George Stroumboulopoulos – is simple-minded and makes it appear that the CRTC decision is much broader than it actually is.
But usage-based billing isn’t something new, and usage-based billing by the large networks to their retail customers is not only not new, but it’s also something that the CRTC doesn’t regulate: “The Commission notes that carriers’ retail UBB rates are market-based and are not subject to prior Commission approval – that is, they are forborne from regulation.” writes the CRTC in its decision. The decision only applies to wholesale customers, and so while consumers will be affected, it’s only consumers of smaller independent ISPs that will be affected directly.
While I’m the first to admit that using the Internet with a meter is a completely different experience than using a free and unlimited Internet – I still have visceral unpleasant memories of using dial-up when I was paying “by the minute” – I strongly believe that we have only ourselves to blame for the situation we’ve now found ourselves in.
We didn’t have to end up with an Internet controlled by a few large companies: the Internet is designed to be a cooperative, decentralized network, and if we (the people) had been more active and alert in the 1990s as our Internet access future was being plotted, we would have advocated for a cooperative, decentralized Internet – we would have built our own Internet, in other words – rather than lazily outsourcing the task to the incumbent telecommunications companies.
Where we ended up instead is with an Internet not unlike the telephone and cable television systems that preceded it, with not only the billing and the usage rules beyond our control, but the very nature of the network itself.
Back in the early 1990s, when the Internet was ours to build, those of us in the thick of it had to become versed in routers and switches and bare copper circuits and the mystical incantations of TCP/IP. Much of that knowledge has died on the vine in the intervening years, and we’re now all content to simply plug in an Ethernet cable to a port controlled by an opaque third party that handles all the messy bits.
Metered Internet isn’t good Internet, and I’m as concerned as the next guy about how this trend is going to affect how we all use the network.
But those who are protesting the CRTC’s decision, like those behind SaveOurNet.ca, appear to want the private-sector companies that control the network to operate on some loftier public-minded plane, and that seems completely unreasonable. Large network operators should be able to charge as much or as little as they like for their services, using whatever billing mechanism they want. If Eastlink decides that it wants to charge me $5 more to watch a movie on streamed Netflix, why shouldn’t it be able to do that? Companies are supposed to be greedy: that’s their mandate.
The answer to this quandary lies not in regulating the private sector Internet, but rather to realize that ultimately the only way the Internet is going to be a truly revolutionary force is if we rebuild it as non-profit public infrastructure, free from market forces. There’s no technical reason that we can’t have unlimited, unmetered Internet running into every home in the country; to get there, though, we’re going to have to do it ourselves, and not gripe endlessly when private companies, well, behave like private companies.