Is this the week in which the never-ending saga that is usage-based internet billing finally sees its dramatic conclusion? With the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission set to rule on the whole scheme’s pricing, let’s hope so.
A quick refresher: the UBB drama began back in 2011, when Bell sought to impose its own low usage caps on wholesale internet providers. Indie ISPs said offering generous and/or unlimited monthly plans were the only way to differentiate their services from the big guys, so they fought back. With more than half a million Canadians signing a petition to stop UBB from going through, the press and eventually politicians took notice.
At the 11th hour, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then industry minister Tony Clement told the CRTC to go back to the drawing board. After months of hearings and submissions, the regulator indeed returned with a “capacity-based billing” compromise that would let small ISPs continue to offer unlimited usage plans, with Bell and other big network owners getting some more cash out of them.
The scheme was more or less accepted by all parties, but the indie ISPs felt the fees being demanded by some network owners – especially Bell – were too high. Hence the continuing saga, which this week’s ruling will hopefully end, although that might be optimistic. These things have a tendency to drag on and on in one form or another.
There is reason for internet subscribers to be hopeful, however, with both Bell and Rogers recently unveiling their own unlimited usage plans. As some observers have noted, the companies probably wouldn’t have introduced such plans if they didn’t have a sense that the CRTC ruling is going to go against them – that indie ISPs may be getting the lower rates they asked for, which could translate into cheaper services for customers.
As is par for the course, both Bell’s and Rogers’ offerings come with a number of handcuffs. For one, the unlimited usage costs $10 extra, but that’s only if you’re already subscribed to internet, home phone and television with the respective provider. If you have fewer than three services, it’s a whopping $30 more, which would boost the average subscriber’s bill by about 60 per cent to $80 or $90. What a deal! (UPDATE: Videotron is looking to get in on this too in Quebec with promises of unlimited internet for an extra $10, although it hasn’t yet announced full details.)
The image at the top of this post is a pretty clear indictment on the state of internet competition in Canada. Not only are Bell and Rogers offering the exact same service for the exact same price with the exact same limitations, they’re even using the exact same marketing imagery. How sad.
Savvy internet users would be wise to wait until indie ISPs have a chance to digest the CRTC’s ruling before locking into the big guys’ extortionately identical plans. Many indies have continued selling large or unlimited plans during this whole usage-based-billing saga, but this week’s ruling should give them some final clarity on what sort of prices they can offer in the long term. Cheap, affordable internet without a host of limitations looks to be just around the corner.
Of course, there is always the chance that the ruling goes in the opposite direction and grants the high wholesale prices that Bell and others want. In that case, the expensive and limited unlimited plans being sold by the big guys may be the only options.
In other words, this week will be a good test of just how consumer friendly this new CRTC is.