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Shaw forum to debate Internet fees

Shaw Internet customers will get to have their say on use-based billing next month as the cable giant holds a forum in St. Albert.

Shaw Internet customers will get to have their say on use-based billing next month as the cable giant holds a forum in St. Albert.

Shaw Communications announced this week it would hold 35 forums throughout Canada over the next two months to determine how it should set its fees for Internet access. One of the forums is in St. Albert.

Shaw is one of the two main Internet providers in St. Albert, with the other being Telus.

The forums were spurred by a national backlash against the company after it sent notices to customers last December saying that it would start enforcing its caps on Internet use. Shaw had done this previously, but not consistently. Customers who exceeded their caps would either have to buy a more expensive subscription or buy more access at about $1 per gigabyte (GB).

"We received some very clear messages from our customers that they weren't in love with the approach," says Jay Mehr, a senior vice-president with Shaw. The company has scheduled forums to discuss how customers should be charged for web access and has put any plans to enforce caps on hold until the forums are done. "We haven't actually charged customers for any overages [yet]," he notes.

The company is looking for 40 customers to take part in a discussion group on March 7, Mehr says, and is now taking applications. The group will feature a mix of high- and low-bandwidth users. Anyone who can't make it to the meeting will be able to talk over the phone with the forum's facilitator. "Everybody's going to get heard."

Download debate

The backlash against Shaw is part of a larger debate on use-based billing, says Adam Finn, a professor of business at the University of Alberta who has studied the issue.

Most people used the Internet for text and images a few years ago and needed little bandwidth (space) on networks. Now, streaming video services like Netflix and video games are causing congestion and companies want to cap people's access to prevent it.

The problem is the lack of competition amongst Internet providers, Finn continues. Shaw, Bell, Rogers and Telus have an effective monopoly over distribution, which leads to arguably high prices. Small companies used to compete by leasing space from these providers and offering unlimited access at a flat rate, but the federal communications regulator quashed that practice with a ruling last month, triggering a storm of protest. The federal government has ordered the regulator to review that ruling.

Shaw currently offers about 15 to 350 GB of downloads a month for $30 to $150, according to its website.

It doesn't take much to hit those caps nowadays, says Trevor Tye, a website developer in St. Albert who tracks web issues. Rent five films through Netflix, for example, and you've used about 15 GB. "The caps they have in place are great for 10 years ago," he says, but not for today's age of online films and games.

Flat or cap?

Only about 10 per cent of Shaw customers currently exceed their caps, Mehr says. "For the vast majority of customers, there's a tremendous amount of room."

But the rise of online backup and operating systems means that many families could use up to 10 GB of bandwidth a day within a decade, Tye predicts. "You can very easily eat up your entire bandwidth."

Capping access will stifle innovation on the web by restricting the amount of data companies can transmit, Tye says. You could have a great high-definition website, for example, but no one would have the bandwidth to view it. "It'll be like being back in dial-up land in the 1990s."

Flat rates for access subsidize heavy users at the expense of light ones, Finn notes, but could also encourage more competition. "I think the cable companies have made a lot of money over the years," he says, and that caps are a strategy to preserve their dominance — more shows online means fewer people watching cable TV.

Anyone interested in the Shaw session should visit

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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