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Canadian Minister Open to Transforming Internet Access Into a Universally Available Public Utility

Only 40% of rural Canadians today have suitable internet access and a Canadian minister is now “open to the idea” of transforming broadband in the country into a universally available public utility.

Minister for Rural Economic Development Maryam Monsef admits that Canada’s current reliance on private cable and phone companies like Bell, Telus, and Rogers has kept large parts of Canada from getting affordable, 21st century internet access. Creating a public broadband utility that would provide universal access may be the best solution to reaching areas considered too unprofitable to serve by private companies.

The impetus to consider creating one of the world’s largest publicly owned broadband providers comes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced millions of Canadians to work from home. But with well under half of rural Canada lacking high speed internet service, educators, medical personnel, and business workers find themselves unable to connect.

Nancy and Jeff Boss of Flamborough, Ont., live 10 minutes outside of Hamilton. They are “off the grid” for high speed internet by just 100 meters. To bring cable broadband to their home, the local cable company quoted an installation price of $27,000. As a result, the Boss family relies on a cell phone data plan that costs $150 a month and offers 100 GB of usage on a 4G LTE network. The family often exceeds its usage allowance, and told CBC’s “The Current” their monthly bill has crept up to $500 in usage charges at times.

Nancy Boss is a school teacher, and life without internet in the COVID-19 era of online classes is difficult.

“I am struggling daily with my lessons, I can’t do live lessons as the minister of education is requiring us,” Boss told CBC Radio, adding that her own children’s education is being affected too. “It’s really hard for our kids to participate in their lessons [and] it’s sad, they can’t chat with their friends who they miss very much.”

Monsef

The Liberals promised $5-6 billion for rural internet expansion in the 2019 budget as part of a party pledge to get 100% of Canadians connected to high-speed internet by 2030. But that was before the pandemic struck, making internet connectivity more essential than ever before.

Broadband advocacy group OpenMedia’s Laura Tribe says the government’s promises are nice, but the target date remains 2030 — a decade away. She argues people need internet access today. Tribe says the weak link is relying on corporate cable and phone companies to do the work to reach rural Canada. Despite repeated funding efforts and ongoing lobbying, Tribe believes many of the country’s largest providers have dragged their feet on rural expansion for years, noting they operate in the interest of shareholders, not rural Canadians. Recently, Tribe believes many of Canada’s largest telecom companies have made rural Canadians “pawns” in a greater debate about deregulation and wireless spectrum for 5G. When providers see their business interests threatened, they warn lawmakers and regulators the result may be further delays in rural internet expansion.

That is why Tribe advocates declaring broadband service to be an essential public utility, putting the onus on the government to complete “last mile” buildouts to individual rural homes and businesses like the Boss family as quickly as possible. On that point, Monsef seemed to agree.

“One of the things that the federal government can do is to invest in that last mile, where the business case for the private providers is not the same,” Monsef, who also serves as the MP for Peterborough-Kawartha said. “Once you do connect Canadians, though, those investments will pay off because that connectivity leads to economic development and a higher quality of life.”

When pressed about her support for declaring broadband service a national public utility, Monsef said she was open to the idea and having a debate on what solution will work best for rural Canada.

“What COVID has done is create an opportunity for a resurgence of good ideas, and that’s a good idea that I’m open to,” Monsef said. “This is among the many good ideas that we are considering: What are the pros? What are the cons? How do we get it done? Who’s on board?”


Minister for Rural Economic Development Maryam Monsef appeared on CBC Radio Ottawa’s morning show to discuss the state of rural broadband in Canada. (9:58)

CBC Radio One’s “The Current with Matt Galloway” spent a half hour exploring the plight of rural Canadians expected to work at home who lack suitable internet access. Is it time for Canada to make broadband service a public utility? (24:07)

Canadian Mobile Operators Raking in Fat Coronavirus Profits With Bill Shock

Canadians are opening cell phone bills that have skyrocketed as a result of usage from work-at-home initiatives to stop the spread of COVID-19, a health crisis that is also fattening profits at some of the country’s biggest mobile operators.

Rosette Okala of Pickering, a suburb of Toronto, was stunned to receive her Rogers Mobile bill this month for $540, up from the usual $160 she is used to paying.

“I almost dropped,” Okala told CBC News. She is a pharmaceutical employee whose job requires being online. Her 12-year-old son has been online more too, doing schoolwork.

The part of Pickering where Okala lives does not have wired internet service available, so she relies on internet service from her mobile provider, like hundreds of thousands of other Canadians do. Pickering is hardly a tiny town either. With a population of 92,000, the city is immediately east of Toronto in the Durham Region. Despite that, there are sections of the city still waiting to get wired internet service.

Using the internet in areas considered to be “rural Canada” by providers is not cheap. Rogers offers customers a $145/mo wireless internet plan that includes 100 GB of usage. Customers that exceed that do so at their peril, facing overlimit fees of $5/GB.

“This is just a slap in our face,” said Okala. “We [rural customers] pay huge bills just to be able to do something basic that most people take for granted.”

Okala hoped her employer would help cover her phone bill. Rogers has been reluctant to help, despite a showy ad campaign from the cable and wireless giant promising customers “we are in this together and are here to help.” When it comes to billing matters, talk is cheap and help is hard to find.

Pickering, Ont.

Okala said she spent hours on the phone with a Rogers representative trying to negotiate a lower bill. Rogers eventually offered a paltry $30 credit and a payment plan to pay off her balance. A second attempt resulted in an improved offer of $100 credit, an upgrade to a different service plan, and 50% off monthly service fees for 24 months. But Rogers still wanted to be paid at least $440, at least until the CBC pointed out it would share Okala’s story with the rest of Canada for free. Rogers suddenly offered to take another $230 off Okala’s March bill and give her the mobile hotspot hub she was leasing for free.

John Burbidge, a University of Waterloo economics professor in North Dumfries living in a town of 10,000 near Cambridge, Ont., got schooled in the mobile broadband business by Bell Mobility, which sent him a bill for $650, including nearly $400 in usage charges. Burbidge was confused by an email from Bell, Canada’s largest phone company, which claimed it was waiving overlimit usage fees for customers during the pandemic. He missed the fine print advising that fee waiver only applied to Bell’s DSL and fiber wired customers, not wireless data plans. Burbidge argued it was unfair to exempt some customers from usage fees, while continuing to charge them to others.

“If rural Canadians are expected to work and do school work from home, decent and reasonably priced access to the internet is a basic right. Bell should not be allowed to gouge rural customers,” Burbidge told Canada’s public broadcaster.

Bell told the CBC the company was offering customers an extra 10 GB on customer data allowances and a $10 credit off the cost of using a mobile hotspot connected to Bell’s mobile network. As a courtesy, Bell agreed to credit Burbidge’s account $350 for March and take 60% off overlimit fees in April, but he is on his own after that. Burbidge’s current plan charges $180 a month for up to 100 GB a month, with a $5/GB overlimit fee.

“It’s really sad to hear,” Laura Tribe, executive director of consumer group OpenMedia told the CBC. “Data caps are definitely unnecessary. We see them as a punitive mechanism to make sure that people suppress the amount of data that they use and overpay when they go over what they want.”

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), an industry lobbying group representing the country’s wireless companies, claims data caps are necessary to prevent overwhelming Canada’s wireless networks, which could make calling 911 impossible. But voice calls can travel over different spectrum than data traffic, and no wireless company or the CWTA would admit if their networks were close to being overhwhelmed by traffic as a result of millions of Canadians working from home.

Tribe says the traffic spikes that have come from the coronavirus crisis prove her point. Even with data usage at all-time highs, no provider is claiming their network is close to capacity. That should call into question whether there is any need at all for mobile data caps.

“They’re a way to increase profits and suppress the usage of the networks,” said Tribe.

Life With 3 “Competing” Canadian Carriers: Bell Raising Its Device Connection Fee to $40

Bell (Canada) will charge its wireless customers $40 to connect a new phone-enabled device to its network, effective July 4.

Canadian wireless companies have been competing recently to see how high they can raise connection fees on their customers. In 2018, most carriers charged less than $30 to connect new devices. But in April 2018 Bell raised its fee to $30 — just the latest in a series of rate hikes. Last October, it raised the price to $35 and will now charge $40 as of next month.

To “compete,” Canada’s other large cell phone companies followed suit — both Rogers and Telus raised their prices to $35 and analysts expect them to match Bell’s new $40 fee soon. Two years ago, Bell charged $15.

Canada has three large national carriers and is home to some of the most expensive cellular plans in the industrialized world. If the Department of Justice grants the pending merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, the United States will also soon have three large national carriers, with a strong likelihood that substantial price increases and reduced value mobile plans littered with fees and surcharges will soon follow.

Rogers Announces “Infinite” Data Plans That Are Finite and Throttle You

Canadians, living under a regime of three national wireless carriers (Bell, Rogers, and Telus) pay some of the highest wireless prices in the world. A new plan announced today from Rogers Communications is unlikely to change that.

“Introducing Rogers Infinite – Unlimited Data plans for Infinite Possibilities,” or so claims Rogers’ website.

Canadians’ initial enthusiasm and excitement for Rogers’ new “unlimited data plans” was quickly tempered by the accompanying fine print that makes it clear the plans may be free of overlimit fees, but very much limit their usability once the data allowance runs out. Customers can pool data with family and friends, but Rogers did not mention exactly how.

Rogers Infinite oddly offers three different price tiers, based on… usage, which is strange for an “unlimited” plan:

  • Infinite +10 offers 10 GB of data at traditional 4G LTE speed, bundled with unlimited calling and texting for $75 a month.
  • Infinite +20 offers 20 GB of data at traditional 4G LTE speed, bundled with unlimited calling and texting for $95 a month.
  • Infinite +50 offers 50 GB of data at traditional 4G LTE speed, bundled with unlimited calling and texting for $125 a month.

Those prices are steep by American standards, but Rogers also incorporates fine print that few carriers south of the border would attempt. First, Mobile Syrup reports included calls and texts must be from a Canadian number to a Canadian number. Extra fees may apply if you contact your friends in America and beyond. The “infinite” runs out when your allowance does. After that, it may take an infinitely long time to use your device because Rogers will throttle upload and download speeds to a maximum of 256 kbps for the rest of the billing cycle. American carriers, in contrast, typically only throttle customers on busy cell towers after exceeding an average of 20-50 GB of usage, although some mandate a throttle based entirely on usage. If customers want more high-speed data, they can purchase a Rogers Speed Pass for $15 and receive an extra 3 GB of high-speed data. In contrast, T-Mobile offers U.S. customers an unlimited line for $60 with no speed throttle until usage exceeds 50 GB a month. That is less than half the cost of Rogers’ Infinite +50 plan for an equal amount of high-speed data.

More fine print:

Rogers Infinite data plans include 10 GB, 20 GB or 50 GB of data at max speed on the Rogers network, extended coverage areas within Canada, and Roam Like Home destinations (see rogers.com/roamlikehome). You will continue to have access to data services with no overage beyond the max speed allotment at a reduced speed of up to 256 kilobits per second (for both upload and download) until the end of your current billing cycle. Applications such as email, web browsing, apps, and audio/video streaming will continue to function at a reduced speed which will likely impact your experience. We will send you a text message notifying you when you have used 90% and 100% of the max speed allotment included in your plan with the option to purchase a Speed Pass to add more max speed data to your plan. In all cases, usage is subject to the Rogers Terms of Service and Acceptable Use Policy.

Canadian Netflix Rate Increase: Up $3 to $13.99/Month for Standard Plan

Phillip Dampier November 29, 2018 Canada, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Canadian Netflix subscribers will pay up to $3 more a month in the coming weeks for streaming video as the company raises prices to produce more original Canadian content.

The latest rate increase is the largest ever for the service in Canada.

New Rates for Netflix Canada

  • Netflix Basic increases $1 to $9.99 a month. No 4K video and one-stream only
  • Netflix Standard increases $3 to $13.99 a month. No 4K video and up to two streams at a time viewing
  • Netflix Premium increases $3 to $16.99 a month. Includes 4K ultra HD video and up to four streams at a time viewing

The new rates take effect today for new customers. Existing customers will be notified by e-mail about the rate increase and when exactly it will be applied to their account.

Netflix Canada has taken over distribution of the long running mockumentary filmed in Nova Scotia.

The last rate increase in 2016 raised the price of Netflix by $1.

Netflix Canada spent $3.3 billion on original content in 2017. That is more than any of Canada’s English language commercial networks or broadcasters spent on scripted productions. Netflix also films many of its original productions in Canada, which is less expensive than many American filming locations.

Netflix Canada appears to have found a formula that works for the streaming service: participating in co-productions with entities like the CBC (at least for English productions) and asking subscribers to pay more to cover the company’s costs. This has spared Netflix from having its service subject to the federal GST, which would come out of subscribers’ pockets.

The company has had a much more difficult time dealing with the provincial government in Quebec, which protested loudly that Netflix Canada failed to make specific French language content commitments. As a result, Quebec has slapped its 9.975% sales tax on Netflix and all other streaming services.

Canada is gradually catching up to the United States in cord-cutting options. Netflix Canada’s offering is just a few hundred titles behind Netflix’s catalogs in the United States and Japan.

Other services have entered Canada in the last year or so, including CBS’ All Access, Acorn TV, and BritBox.

In response, Canadian broadcasters and telecom companies are beefing up their own services, which include CTV Movies/CTV Vault and Citytv Now/FX Now (which are only for authenticated cable/satellite subscribers) and Bell’s Crave TV (which just launched CraveTV+, offering more movies and original HBO shows).

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