The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission - also known as the CRTC (also known as the federal Crown corporation that should probably change its name already to reflect the times) - waded into the net neutrality debate last week and handed down a remarkably even-handed ruling that will dictate how the Internet is delivered and consumed in this country.
On one side of the debate are the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications companies that own the network, and that are spending huge amounts of money to expand it and upgrade its capabilities to keep up with demand.
On the other side are all the organizations, businesses and users that worry what ISPs will do with the power to throttle traffic, whether that means shutting down grass roots websites through a pay-to-play system, or charging websites based on traffic - ensuring that only the companies with the deepest pockets will be able to afford to have a presence on the web, thereby limiting free speech.
Previously, the CRTC ruled, grudgingly, that ISPs should be allowed to throttle or shape traffic during peak periods to maintain the integrity of severely stressed networks (e.g. by slowing access to torrent, movie and television download sites in favour of other types of traffic) although the CRTC also said they would be watching the ISPs closely for abuses. Since media companies themselves are hardly neutral and either offer some of these services themselves or through partners, the worry is that they will use shaping to enhance their own services while crippling others, or throttle third party ISPs that rent space on their networks to look faster by comparison.
The latest ruling upholds an ISP's right to throttle traffic, but forces them to be transparent about their activities and post all the relevant information online. Throttling can only be used as a last resort according to the CRTC, and the ISPs will now have to disclose when and how they shape traffic.
ISPs also have to post information about what they are doing to expand their networks in order to justify their claims about the expenses associated with unlimited downloading.
Additionally, the ruling encourages the ISPs try to recoup costs from heavy downloaders, something that has proved difficult in the past, as an alternative to throttling.
There are no details how this might work, but it could be similar to data plans purchased by cell phone users where you pay a flat rate to download a preset amount of information and have to pay extra for additional bandwidth use. If you're downloading a movie a day you might end up paying more than the average person who uses the web for e-mail and checking Facebook.
As someone who probably falls on the low end of the user spectrum I don't mind that, providing rates reflect more than speed.
For example, ISPs could offer a flat rate for a subscription, plus an additional charge for 5 GB per month accounts, 10 GB accounts, 25 GB accounts and so on up to unlimited, each for a set price. Instead of ranking services by speed this solution would rank packages based on bandwidth use. Naturally, bulk users should get a bulk deal but at least this way I could probably reduce my own costs by opting for one of the smaller packages.
The tricky thing is that people generally don't monitor their accounts so ISPs would have to figure out a system that lets you track your data use in real time, both uploads and downloads - and that will inform you by e-mail when you reach the halfway point, three-quarter point and the end of your plan, at which point you have two options - pay for additional service or wait out the end of the month until your data plan is renewed.
There are still a lot of outstanding issues to resolve on Canada's digital frontiers, like issues of copyright, fair use, what constitutes piracy and how pirates should be dealt with. This latest CRTC ruling gives me hope that the solution will be fair to all, reflect reality and hold both sides accountable.
iPhone loses exclusivity
The days of Rogers and Fido cornering the market on the Apple iPhone in Canada are numbered, which can really only mean good things for consumers. Dates are yet to be announced, but both Telus and Bell have updated their networks to the 3G standard to work with the iPhone, and both will be carrying the phones in the near future.
What that means for consumers is a greater range of packages and choice, and possibly lower-priced phones and packages as well. It also gives the iPhone coast-to-coast coverage, something that no other device can match right now - if all carriers carried all phones then it would be easier for consumers to navigate the smart/cell phone market, because all you would need to look at are the competing plans available. Instead, the current system is confusing because every carrier offers different phones with different features, and different plans that are hard to compare.
Other phone manufacturers are already falling over themselves to create smart phones that offer the same capabilities as the iPhone, and for the most part they're failing. Still, there is no good reason why they can't ditch their own exclusivity deals with carriers and ensure their products are available everywhere.
After all, some people get their phones through work, through bundling with other services, or are just loyal to their carriers. Not many people can change that just because they like a phone that's available on another carrier.