With the arrival of next-generation video game consoles, Canada’s woeful internet usage limits are about to be thrust back into the spotlight. As a National Post article by the eminent Chad Sapieha explained this week, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 come with some innate issues in this country.
A simple update for Dead Rising 3 – a Canadian-made game for the Xbox One – released last week is a whopping 13 gigabytes in size. This sort of thing, where higher-resolution games require bigger and bigger downloads, is a growing problem because it’s going to cause many gamers to exceed their monthly usage limits, according to the article. Internet subscribers in Canada’s most populated regions typically get between 20 and 80 GB a month before they start seeing usurious overage charges.
I can sympathize, having downloaded Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition last week in order to review it (its multiplayer mode, by the way, is courtesy of Eidos Montreal while the Xbox One remaster is from Vancouver’s United Front Games, making it a very Canadian product overall). That file was a whopping 16 GB. Fortunately, I switched to a smaller internet provider a while ago and have 300 GB of monthly usage. Even still, with frequent game downloads like this one and a healthy amount of Netflix usage, my household comes close to even that limit on a regular basis.
I wrote about the same issue last week for the Globe, except it was in the context of PlayStation Now, Sony’s upcoming cloud-streaming game service. A Sony executive initially told IGN the service would be launching in Canada as well as the U.S. this summer, but MobileSyrup reports it may not be happening after all. I’ve asked Sony Canada for clarification, but I’ve yet to get a response.
If PlayStation Now does come to Canada it will be problematic because it will chew up bandwidth even faster than simple downloads. At Sony’s prescribed connection speeds of at least 5 megabits per second, the streaming service would use between 2.5 GB and 3 GB per hour. As I reasoned in my Globe piece, the company’s estimate seems rather low and could in fact turn out to be much higher. Either way, with games often requiring dozens of hours to complete, gamers are going to be burning through their monthly allotments quickly. If PlayStation Now doesn’t come to Canada, it won’t take a rocket scientist to explain why.
But hold on a second: major internet providers do give customers the option of larger usage packages. Both Bell and Rogers, for example, allow customers to add unlimited usage to their accounts for $10. Aren’t all these concerns about low usage limits therefore overblown?
Well, no, because there are lots of conditions attached to those offers. Both companies require customers to subscribe to at least three separate services, expressly including television, otherwise the fee goes up to $30. If you just want unlimited internet by itself, well then that becomes crazy expensive.
The requirements look blatantly anti-competitive and not too dissimilar to the net neutrality complaint that’s currently in front of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The complaint states that Bell is charging $5 for its own hand-picked wireless mobile television content, but effectively charging $40 for the same amount of data that would be used for non-qualifying video, which includes Netflix, YouTube and the like.
The CRTC’s net neutrality rules say “economic measures” such as data caps should be used to combat network congestion, but the $10 unlimited add-on it looks very much like an effort to discourage online video usage overall. After all, chances are good that anyone wanting unlimited internet probably wants it because they’d rather not have to pay for a TV subscription. It certainly has nothing to do with congestion and is in fact an insurance policy by the internet providers against losing TV subscription revenue.
At the very least, it’s a case of tied selling, which is theoretically prohibited by the Competition Bureau but which is never enforced despite its rampant prevalence in telecommunications services. To gamers who might just want an unlimited internet connection and don’t want anything to do with TV, it’s particularly egregious.
Privately, I hear game company executives and developers gripe about Canada’s poor internet usage limits all the time. The industry’s lobby group, the Entertainment Software Association, has also made noise about this. In a submission to the government a few years ago, the group said:
A robust broadband infrastructure is crucial to the development of new digital products, services, distribution methods and business models and fundamental for the gaming industry and the digital economy. Online games and online delivery models for the gaming industry are a tremendous area of potential growth. Therefore, policies that encourage more affordable, more accessible, and faster broadband would have the beneficial effect of fostering job growth within the video game industry.
Pathetic usage limits are clearly bad for the industry too, but it’s Canadian gamers especially who get the short end of the stick. As games get bigger and digital distribution becomes more prevalent, they will increasingly have to think twice about their gigabyte counts before enjoying some of the amazing entertainment that’s being made in their own backyard.