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Shaw's main office building in Calgary (TODD KOROL/Todd Korol/Reuters)
Shaw's main office building in Calgary (TODD KOROL/Todd Korol/Reuters)

Shaw move on Internet billing draws fire Add to ...

Critics of usage-based billing for Internet services are slamming Shaw Communications Inc.'s plan to "clarify" its Internet pricing and packages late this spring, including a possible move to ask heavy users of its services to pay more.

On a conference call with analysts on April 13 to discuss the company's second-quarter results, chief executive officer Brad Shaw said there will be announcements about Shaw's Internet pricing strategy in May, or possibly in early June.

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As Canadian consumers download more television shows and movies than ever, the files they use are becoming increasingly larger.

"We're still formulating a plan," Shaw president Peter Bissonnette said in an interview Monday. "We're assessing, should the caps be higher, and if so how high? ... And if someone goes over a cap, how do we deal with that?"

Shaw held a series of 34 public meetings in February and March. At these meetings in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, the company asked customers for their views on usage-based billing, or UBB.

The debate gathered steam in January, when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission approved a proposal by BCE Inc. that would have let the communications company raise prices for smaller Internet service providers that lease space on its network. Bell proposed charging so-called "overage" fees based on the amount of data downloaded by individual customers on smaller providers such as Teksavvy. Following a public outcry over higher Internet fees that attracted political attention in Ottawa, Bell proposed instead that it would charge smaller players for overall data they use, not for each individual user who goes over a set limit.

Before the debate heated up, Shaw was on the cusp of announcing a system where it would charge customers who went over certain data-use caps, Mr. Bissonnette said on Monday. That plan was put on hold, but the company is now exploring how to charge appropriately for its Internet service while still investing in its network.

"We've never charged anybody for usage-based billing," he said. "We had just started the process, because the congestion was happening at such a rapid rate that something had to be done."

Shaw's most popular Internet package currently is the "Extreme" tier, which costs $59 per month (or less, if bundled with other Shaw services) and has a monthly data cap of 100 gigabytes. But so far, there are no charges for exceeding it. On the call on April 13, executives said they are examining their Internet rates again. There is no clarity about those plans yet because announcements have not been made about Shaw's plans for its "thresholds" - the word executives now use to talk about data caps.

"We are certainly going to clarify our pricing and packaging plans probably in the late spring," Mr. Shaw said.

But an organization that lobbied against UBB has criticized Shaw, pointing to the comments during the conference call as evidence of "skewed language" the company has used to characterize its customers' views. These include Mr. Bissonnette's statement on the call that customers recognize that "the principle of, if you use more you should pay more, holds true."

"Shaw expects Canadians to forget the outcry surrounding usage-based billing," said Steve Anderson, founder of Openmedia.ca, in a statement on Sunday. The group launched a "Stop the Meter" petition encouraging Canadians to speak out against metered Internet prices. It says roughly 500,000 people signed the petition.

"This serves as a reminder that Big Telecom companies are not going to move on their own," Mr. Anderson said in the statement. "We need smart policy that restructures the telecom industry so it works for Canadians again."

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