Mike Editorial — My Thoughts on ISP’s

By Mike Pfaiffer

My topic for thought this time is something in Canada which has even made its way to some American media. Our ISPs have been given permission to implement Usage Based Billing (UBB). The way our ISPs currently bill their customers is based on speed. In Winnipeg the two major ISPs are Shaw (cable) and MTS (DSL). Through out Canada we have three more large ISPs. All charge based on speed. Certain ISPs like MTS have set things up so they can be sure their customers can not transfer more data than their lines will allow. Shaw has a feature where if things are slow they can temporarily increase the speed of transfers to the user. If someone goes over an arbitrary limit with Shaw they get a nasty phone call from the ISP telling them to knock it off or pay for the next level. For the most part the limit they use is fairly flexible. Since they are only paying pennies for any overage and they have many more customers who use less than that limit, they don’t really get too upset over it.

The new billing plan is similar to the old one except they charge the customer for any over use. On the surface this sounds fair. The way they are going to implement it is not. What about the customers who use less than the limit? The ISPs are not going to reduce their bills one cent. If they are going to go to UBB then speed becomes irrelevant. Right? Nope. They still want to charge more to get data faster. Well, if people don’t want to be billed for overages then they should download less. Good plan except the ISPs don’t tell the customers how much they’ve downloaded. This is more of a problem for people who connect through routers and for families who have multiple members using computers. Shaw had a page where customers could check out how much data they transferred each month. Apparently they took it down. I say apparently” because the page was a Windows only page and I don’t use Windows.

Having said all this, there may still be people who think UBB is still justified in these circumstances. My reply is the potential for abuse by the ISPs is very high. There was a documentary a number of years ago which was filmed in the Toronto area where there are four of the five major ISPs in different parts of the city. The documentary showed the customers were getting no where near the connection speed they were paying for. The industry response was the customers were still getting good service because their connections were all above the minimum speed. The ISPs don’t publish the minimum speeds or make them very hard to find. The one time I did see the minimum speed of an ISP for a “normal” account, the ISP said the minimum speed was that of a 14.4 dial-up modem. Frankly the customers in Canada aren’t getting what they’ve paid for.

Then there is traffic shaping and bandwidth limitation. A good example of this is when I download say a Linux DVD using Bittorrent… While this DVD is downloading all other programs connecting to the ISP (such as e-mail or web browsing) slow down to a crawl and become unstable. The ISP claims it isn’t on their end and it must be the Bittorrent program using too much bandwidth. This is clearly false because the program I use can control the speed of upload and download. In fact as a test I reduced the speed of the program to 1% of the maximum speed I was to get from my ISP. Although the download of the DVD slowed down, the other programs were still slow, unstable, and did not show any signs of improvement. I know it’s not the Bittorrent program because people around the world on other ISPs aren’t complaining about it. Again, the customers aren’t getting what they pay for.

Under the new billing plan the number of abuses increase. I’ve already mentioned the charges for over use and still charging the same for those who use less then their limits. In fact a number of smaller ISPs reduced their limits from 200GB/month to 20GB/month for the same fees. I’ve also mentioned the ISPs are charged pennies for their data consumption. Everything I’ve read suggested the rates the ISPs pay are from ¢1 to ¢3 per gigabyte. The rates they are going to charge their customers are from $1.00 to $5.00 for the same data.

Considering the ISPs are advertising how easy it is to download or stream video with their service, I’d say it’s bad faith on their part. Videos take A LOT of data. If the customer watches more than one full length movie per week they run the risk of going over their limit.

Then there is the major pain in the back side the customer can’t control. Spam! Any customer who is a Microsoft fanboy will be forced to download all the spam sent to them. With Thunderbird and Linux (presumably the Mac as well) it is possible only to download only headers and delete the spam without looking at it. This is what I do with my call-A.P.P.L.E. account. At least with web ads I can block them with ad blockers and completely remove the more aggressive ones with my /etc/hosts file.

What about the poor Windows users who are constantly getting their machines infected by virus programs? If their machine gets turned into a zombie or co-opted into part of a bot-net they can blow through their limit in a couple of days. Before anybody starts a religious war about this statement, bear in mind I volunteer repairing these machines every Friday. Yes, they ARE ALL WINDOWS machines.

How did this all come about? It started when Bell (the supplier of the physical lines) was given permission to charge the ISPs based on UBB even though they were making money “hand over fist”. The ISPs complained to the CRTC (the regulator) saying this was unfair. The CRTC turns around and tells the ISPs they can charge based on UBB as well even though the ISPs were in no danger of losing money.

One American blogger suggested this situation was because of excessive corporate rights and a weak regulator (much like what happened to the American banks).

Current developments are the minister in charge says he is “looking at the situation”. The Prime Minister wants the CRTC to reconsider the ruling. There is a petition with over 200,000 signatures (last time I looked). The opinions are strongly divided with the minority (corporate rights supporters) in favour of UBB, opposing everybody else.

Here is a bit of background. Of the five major ISPs, two are Canadian owned. The rest are American companies. Bell is also an American company. The Canadian government is a minority government run by with the Conservative Party (same views as the American Democratic party but are Republican wannabes). We are likely to have an election this spring or this fall depending on if the second largest party can get its act together.

Here is what we pay for our internet connection. $40.00/month for the actual internet bundled with digital cable (it would be $5.00/month more without the digital cable and $10.00/month more without any cable). The speed is in the second lowest block and is 6 megabits/second (maximum). The ISP says it was recently increased permanently but I never noticed any difference. We own our cable modem. If we chose to rent it the cost would be $5.00/month. The Canadian and US dollars are very close in value now so the difference is insignificant.

By Contrast, Bill gets 100mb Fiber for a bit over $50 USD a month or 4800 JPY.   This makes the connections we get seem like ancient and archaic, but in retrospect, the size of Japan in comparison to the US or Canada makes this a mute point.  They can do things on a much tighter scale as the country is only the size of California.

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