The ongoing, heated debate over usage-based billing for Internet services in Canada has often been focused on a mysterious, hard-to-define figure: the so-called "heavy user." These bandwidth hogs, most of Canada's major Internet service providers claim, constitute a tiny amount of the overall customer base, but are responsible for a much larger portion of the country's residential Web traffic.
But with the rise of movie and video-streaming services such as Netflix, ISPs must either keep redefining what constitutes a heavy user, or accept the likelihood that a lot more customers are about to start downloading a lot more data.
"One thing we recognize is that network usage is going up dramatically," said Peter Bissonnette, president of Calgary-based Shaw Communications. "Last year, usage went up 100 per cent."
Just about every demographic is downloading more, from teenagers buying and playing games online to seniors watching streaming movies. Canadian ISPs have often advertised their Internet plans based on speed. But as even the most basic plans now come with relatively high speeds, users are becoming more concerned about how much data they can download, rather than how fast they can do it. Consider an imperfect analogy: a 300-kilometre-an-hour sports car is no use if it can go only a kilometre on a tank of gas.
Right now, about 10 per cent of Shaw's customers exceed monthly bandwidth allowances on the company's plans, which come with different download speeds and bandwidth caps. Other ISPs, including Rogers, report roughly similar numbers (Rogers and Telus spokespeople say the "vast majority" of their customers do not go over their bandwidth limits).
But both companies have been raising those limits. Telus, for example, increased its caps last November, around the time Netflix, the popular movie-streaming service, came to Canada. In the case of its most expensive plan, Telus raised the cap from 150 gigabytes to 250, according to spokesman Shawn Hall. Rogers recently introduced a high-end, "Ultimate" plan with a bandwidth cap of 175 gigabytes, compared to its previous best, a 125-gigabyte plan.
A Bell spokesman could not respond to questions on Tuesday.
Bandwidth use can vary wildly. A customer who has an inexpensive, 15-gigabyte plan, for example, can probably surf the Web for hours every day if they don't visit video-heavy sites, and send a thousand text e-mails while consuming less than 1 gigabyte a month. Downloading just one of the latest video games, on the other hand, could wipe out half or all 15 gigabytes at once.
For years, the people who used the most bandwidth on many major ISPs' networks were those with the technical skills to use services such as BitTorrent to download large files. However, services such as Netflix have given casual Internet users the ability to download huge files with ease (very rough estimates put the average HD Netflix movie at about 1 or 2 gigabytes). That's a double blow for many ISPs: not only are more users easily exceeding what would have constituted "heavy use" just a few years ago, but many are also ditching traditional movie and TV options - which the same ISP companies often also provide - in favour of Internet-based offerings.
Andrew McCoubrey is a good example of the new face of Canadian Internet users. The Ottawa resident has a middle-tier plan with Rogers, but pays extra for an 80-gigabyte cap instead of the normal 60. Still, because he downloads up to 20 podcasts a day, watches TV shows and often downloads games via the Internet, he says he still frequently runs up against his monthly data allowance.
"I used to buy CDs and physical books and DVDs like everyone else," he said. "Nowadays, I download it all."
Mr. McCoubrey, who said he isn't opposed to bandwidth caps, added that he considered signing up for Netflix, but found the increased data use would be cost-prohibitive.
Although most Canadians don't have unlimited Internet plans, many who do take full advantage. Mark Horseman, who pays for unlimited DSL Internet through SaskTel, estimates he downloads more than 300 gigabytes a month.
"Purchasing a game is about 20 [gigabytes]" he said in an e-mail interview. "I buy one or two games a week."