Mind the Cap

Chances are you have a love-hate relationship with your wireless provider: you love being able to use your smartphone wherever you go, but hate the high prices that companies like Bell and Rogers charge for service.

If you’re like many Canadians, you use your smartphone or tablet to access the Internet. In fact, three out of four of us use the mobile Internet to stream video – but thanks to the wireless carriers’ expensive plans and low data caps, you probably think twice before catching up with the news on the way home from work or streaming Epic Meal Time with your friends, because you could wind up in bankruptcy on account of data overage fees.

Bell and Rogers know that Canadians are worried about bill shock, so when they started offering their own streaming video apps to compete with services like Youtube and Netflix, they threw us a bone – 10 hours of their video won’t count against your data cap. American Idol, Ellen Degeneres, the Daily Show, and other quintessential incumbent-approved Canadiana, all available for an additional $5 a month.

How are they able to do this you ask? Isn’t spectrum – the radio waves that connect your phone wirelessly to the Internet – a scarce, limited public resource, as the carriers told us in their ads last summer? Aren’t wireless networks plagued by network congestion due to too many cat videos streaming across the airwaves? Why would Rogers and Bell charge encourage you to watch wireless video content?

Here’s why: This past January, Industry Canada auctioned off a new block of spectrum in an effort to promote some much needed competition in the wireless market. Unfortunately, the incumbents snapped it all up – no new competition – but they have been able to use it to upgrade their networks, which are now capable of handling plenty of video.

With the new 4G networks, the old data caps just don’t make sense anymore, and so Bell and Rogers can offer data without the old, restrictive limits. The problem? They’ve decided not to extend the new, more generous caps to you, if you’re a customer who wants to use the Internet services you already pay for to do anything other than stream video from their apps.

That’s right. You could be using e-mail, Youtube, Google Maps, you name it without worrying about data overage fees. Competitors like Wind Mobile, SaskTel, and MTS are already offering reasonably priced unlimited plans that let you do exactly that, but many Canadians don’t have the option to choose service from those competitors.

Bell, on the other hand, would rather you watch their videos instead, so they can collect ad bucks, and Rogers isn’t exactly making a secret of its plan to jack up the prices once enough people are locked in, just like they’ve done with cable TV. They’re continuing to cap your services even though they don’t need to. Need to check the weather? Mind the cap. Want to watch an episode of Trailer Park Boys on Netflix? Mind the cap. Looking forward to listening to CANADALAND on your way home from work? You get the idea.

These companies have been bragging to anyone who’ll listen about how they’ve rolled out their new, ultra fast LTE networks, capable of handling all your surfing and viewing needs, but instead of opening the doors to to Internet innovation and expanded consumer choice, they’ve been busy building up walled gardens to lock you into their version of wireless cable TV.

And, to add insult to injury, the spectrum that the incumbents are trying to use to turn the wireless Internet into cable TV was until 2011 used to provide free, over the air access to the very same channels Bell and Rogers are trying to charge you for now.

That hasn’t happened yet, and there is still a chance that Canadians could come out on top.

Unlike America, as Internet advocate Michael Geist has written, Canada has strong net neutrality rules. And applying different data caps to different Internet video services violates those rules.

This winter, consumer groups, independent ISPs, myself and others called on the CRTC, Canada’s telecom and broadcasting regulator, to prevent Bell and Rogers from picking winners and creating losers on the mobile Internet.

The CRTC has heard our call, and will soon have to decide whether to preserve a neutral Internet for the benefit of all Canadians, or allow Bell and Rogers to wrap their tentacles around yet another part of the Canadian media sphere.

How do you think the CRTC should decide?

If you’re like me, you’ll want them to stand up for the open Internet. You should let the CRTC know that you don’t want Bell and Rogers to turn your smartphone into a dumb TV.

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