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CRTC Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
CRTC Chairman Konrad von Finckenstein. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Activist group, CRTC panelists spar at Web-usage hearing Add to ...

The second day of hearings into usage-based Internet charges got off to a lively start at Canada's telecommunications regulator on Tuesday.

Commissioners rigorously questioned the representative of an advocacy group who had quoted a heart-tugging letter from a consumer who fears rising Internet service costs.

"I am a disabled father of seven and (a) metered Internet is unfair for parents of multiple children of school age," Steve Anderson, executive director of activist group Open Media, had read from a letter he said the group received from Vince Dwyer. "I have seven children and get a disability cheque of $1,300 a month. I'm barely scraping by as it is. Please stop the metered Internet from happening, as lower income families will suffer and our children will suffer."

Sounding frustrated, CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein immediately reminded Mr. Anderson that the scope of the hearing does not extend to Internet access for low-income Canadians.

Len Katz, the agency's vice-chair for telecommunications, began quizzing Mr. Anderson about Open Media's "non-partisan" status in light of its links to union groups listed on its website. He also asked how many members it had, and who was funding it.

The vice-chair of broadcasting, Tom Pentefountas, quoted Open Media as saying in the past that Bell's position in the hearing is "self-serving," and noted bluntly: "Your interest is just as self-serving, is it not?"

It was advocacy by Open Media that led to the public outrage over Internet pricing and download limits that prompted the hearings in the first place.

In reply, Mr. Anderson told the commissioners that he represents the public, as well as any groups that want to get on board. He said he counts anyone who signed the group's online petition as a member - technically, making it 500,000-strong.

The hearing then settled into a more genteel back-and-forth over the technical minutiae that is more commonplace at CRTC hearings.

The hearings, begun Monday at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in Gatineau, Que., are debating the technical details of how usage-based charges will be applied to small Internet service providers that lease space on the networks of larger telecoms such as BCE Inc.

The scope of these hearings has been narrowed to exactly how the "usage-based" fees will be applied, after Bell asked to implement them in light of increasing Internet downloading. But critics have argued that expanding the industry's long-standing policy of "metering" Internet use on a per-byte basis could harm online innovation in Canada's high-tech economy and discriminates against low-income consumers.

Both Bell and Telus appeared at the hearings on Monday. Several large cable companies appeared together on Tuesday, voicing support for Bell's proposal that large companies be able to charge in aggregate, byte by byte, for all the bandwidth that smaller Internet providers take up on their bigger rivals' networks.

The Canadian Network Operators Consortium, an alliance of small Internet providers, on the other hand, elaborated and defended its own proposal, which would see small companies pay only for the maximum capacity they take up on the larger networks during peak downloading hours, rather than on a per-byte basis.

The hearings continue all week.

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