Limited access for Internet users

Subscribers to Bell Sympatico and Videotron high speed Internet got an unpleasant surprise in October when both major service providers put caps on the amount individuals can download, charging extra for surplus. The new cap means that Videotron high speed subscribers are entitled to download six gigabytes of music, video, or software every month under the standard service plan, and pay $7.

Subscribers to Bell Sympatico and Videotron high speed Internet got an unpleasant surprise in October when both major service providers put caps on the amount individuals can download, charging extra for surplus.

The new cap means that Videotron high speed subscribers are entitled to download six gigabytes of music, video, or software every month under the standard service plan, and pay $7.95 per additional gigabyte.

Bell Sympatico has a similar standard plan, allowing subscribers to download five gigabytes a month and charging $7.95 per additional gigabyte to a maximum of $30 extra per month.

“I could tell you I’m upset about it, but I’m not,” says Ross Perigoe, a media professor in Concordia’s journalism department. Perigoe explains that the increase in rates is a predictable by-product of our market economy and it is standard fare for companies to charge as much as possible for the services they offer.

“Everybody has a kind of critical threshold,” Perigoe says matter-of-factly. “When they’ve broken the threshold of what people will pay, then people will react.”

Videotron’s website claims 90 per cent of subscribers don’t exceed the transfer limit, and the cap is only for those whose “overuse” the service, tying up the servers and diminishing the quality of service for other users.

Concordia philosophy student Aaron Oppenheim, one of these “overusers,” was taken aback by a $90 Videotron bill for October; he had gone six gigabytes over the limit. “The download cap is probably not most people’s ‘critical threshold,'” says Oppenheim, “It’s just mine and everyone else’s I know.”

In what has been hailed as the digital age, Videotron says to avoid using increasingly popular file-sharing programs like Kazaa and Limewire, webcams, multiplayer computer games like Quake and live streaming off the web, but Oppenheim says video files are the biggest problem.

“Video files are huge, and you can run through them really fast,” says Oppenheim, who has had to self-regulate his downloading habits this past month. He asserts that six gigabytes isn’t enough for anyone taking advantage of all the web has to offer: “It seems like all they want you to do is look at websites. If so, then why bother getting high speed?”

At least 25 per cent of Canadian households have high speed Internet access, and studies show the number is on the rise. Bell Sympatico alone has more than 300,000 high speed customers.

While Videotron downplays the number of subscribers affected by the download cap, both companies will profit from it significantly. But if Bell and Videotron are already increasing their profits by getting new subscribers, why do they feel the need to make more money from their Internet services?

When companies first became interested in the Internet, they hoped to make ad revenues by hosting popular web sites. But that scheme has been all but abandoned, with Internet ad revenues down 18 per cent in the third quarter of this year.

“Bottom line: The Internet doesn’t pay,” explains Perigoe, “Everybody’s looking for a way to make a buck off it.” Perigoe says to make a profit in the media business, companies first get lots of subscribers, and once they get subscribers, they charge more for the service charges.

Thanks to a recent technological development known as convergence, whereby companies provide multiple services through one medium, both Videotron and Bell have been selling package deals which may include telephone, TV and Internet services. However, this is becoming increasingly irrelevant to Internet-savvy users who download TV shows and movies and either watch them on their computer or have an output to their television sets.

In addition to the convenience offered by convergence, Bell and Videotron have lured subscribers by offering packages which cost less than the combined cost of the individual services, knowing that the rates would eventually have to be increased. At Bell, the price hike began in February when the company quietly introduced new charges for its satellite TV service, Bell Expressvu, and is being followed up by additional fees for Bell Sympatico.

The Videotron website boasts: “Synergies between the Internet, cable television broadcasting, telephone and publishing media are now a reality,” but Oppenheim warns convergence is not a friend of the people.

“Convergence allows companies to bring in customers from single service providers, then hike up prices across the board, because it’s so convenient to receive several services on one bill,” says Oppenheim. “Bell and Videotron know the vast majority of users will not switch because they already subscribe to essential services,” he adds.

By Videotron’s calculations, the new plan should continue to satisfy 90 per cent of subscribers. “They think that what people want is one bill,” Oppenheim muses, “But frankly, I don’t think people [care] about that if they can’t afford to pay their bill or download what they need to. If they keep on tampering with the service like this, I think they’re going to lose a lot of customers.”

Oppenheim himself is looking into independent service providers, which he says tend to have better technical support anyway. Having dealt with technical support at the larger companies many times over the years, Oppenheim surmises that phone operators at bigger companies don’t know a thing.

Servicing the Montreal area, SpeedE high speed Internet at http://www.golden.net is just one of many alternatives to Bell and Videotron. SpeedE offers a DSL plan comparable to Bell Sympatico at $29.95 a month, with no download cap of any sort. Oppenheim says the smaller companies can probably provide lower rates because they have no advertising costs and little to no overhead, but that isn’t to say that all big companies are price-gouging.

Another major competitor, Look, offers “UltraFast DSL” which operates at the speed of cable, for only $24.95 a month, and at least for now, that company hasn’t declared any intentions of putting a cap on downloads.

Consult http://www.canadianisp.com for a complete list of Internet service providers in your area.

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