When the government surprisingly listened to a public outcry this week and ordered the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to review its recent decision on Internet-billing issue, a lot of people were left wondering what just happened.
Perhaps the primary concern I've heard expressed - and the most understandable on a human level - is that if we're not vigilant, "bandwidth hogs," a group of monstrous e-gluttons, will waste all of our precious Internet with their ravenous downloading, surfing and streaming of what we should all assume to be content of questionable taste.
That's pretty much how this debate had been framed - prudent Internet users who "just want to check their e-mail" in a decent Presbyterian way, versus people who probably make sandwiches for Julian Assange while he torrents the secrets of the universe from the futon on their basement floor.
There are a number of misconceptions here that fed into the CRTC's initial ruling, which would have allowed large telecom companies such as Bell and Rogers to force independent Internet service providers (ISPs) to adopt the same usage-based-billing (UBB) structure they use.
Applying supply-and-demand logic to this problem confuses people because information is infinite. Fear not, Canada, we're not about to run out of this thing you call Internet. Internet's not something you can save for your retirement. There are no children toiling away in data mines. There are no data slag heaps in Kentucky. We can consume data without guilt. It's more like unrealized potential. It's best to think of it this way: Whenever you watch a panda roll down a hill on YouTube, a billion pixels are set free.
Information is infinite. All of this discussion and regulation is about the delivery system of that data, how we're billed for it and how that system of billing can potentially alter the way we use the Internet. And how we use the Internet will pretty much decide what kind of economy Canada will have in the future.
UBB isn't new, and I think most of are sympathetic to the idea that we should pay for what we use. That's just basic, decent capitalism. What is fairly unusual is that any company operating in a rapidly expanding market, such as the telecommunications companies, should seek to curtail growth.
One would imagine that any companies lucky enough to be in that situation would want plow some of that profit back into improving infrastructure in order to facilitate still more glorious growth. You wouldn't expect them instead to ask to be able to place prices on their product that are disproportionately high, when compared with the cost of delivering that product (the CRTC had sanctioned charges of $1 to $5 per gigabyte, when a reasonable actual cost to the suppliers, according to multiple sources, is 10 cents at the very most) - and thus to make their product cost-prohibitive to many Canadians. Unless, of course, that same profitable product, the Internet, delivered another product - say, Netflix or the Steam gaming platform - that threatened to compete with a separate product that a telecom offered, or intended to offer in the future.
Overage charges amount to a disincentive to using the Internet. The charges that would been levied once the user surpassed his or her 25-gigabyte data-transfer cap are essentially a "sin tax" on Internet usage - and the problem with that is we're all about to become big-time sinners.
We all need to become big sinners and e-gluttons at home and in our business, in fact, or other countries without these sin taxes will trounce us while we're "only checking our e-mail" like Internet puritans. If we really don't have the infrastructure to support more sinning, then we need to get on that right now.
Telecoms, I don't think the answer is scapegoating independent ISPs, with their 3-per-cent market share, for your apparent inability to deliver the product you sell. The number of people checking their e-mail and walking away is dwindling. Soon, just using the Internet to check your e-mail will be like turning on the radio only to catch the time signal, as if you were saving up radio for a rainy day.
Either the major telecoms think that Canadians must sharply curtail their Internet use because it's "everyone panic!" time in Canada - in which case we're essentially telling the world that we have the equivalent of tech breadlines - or we're right to be going back to the drawing board.