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Imagine if you would that somewhere in the bowels of CBC headquarters there is a great device of some kind, an upright metal sarcophagus adorned with a large bakelite dial and single green button. It is a worn gunmetal grey, the last and likely only one of its kind; a stern block of Cold-War-vintage engineering built to outlast the Soviet menace, its looming door secured with fist-sized bolts, arm-sized hinges and wide handwheels worn smooth from decades of wear. The dial twists from 1 to 10; next to the number 10 is a small plastic label, obviously affixed years later, and in small block capitals it reads “Jesse Jackson reading Green Eggs And Ham.

Next to 1 a similar label reads “Truman Capote trapped in a tumble dryer.” The metal below it is streaked red where it has been underlined repeatedly. It is lit by a single bare bulb, and the floor is strewn with pipes of various widths, threading away into the darkness.

Retrotech

Every few years in a ritual quietly observed by only a few of the CBC’s senior staff an elderly, bearded technician twists the dial left and right a few times before setting it back to 5, where a small maple leaf has been engraved in the steel. Somber, he presses the green button and the room fills with a low, mechanical hum. It subsides after a time; the handwheels begin to turn of their own accord. An acrid white smoke settles to the floor as the door opens, and Stuart Maclean emerges, reanimated by the most advanced technology that Avro Canada‘s secretive biological skunk-works could, once upon a time, provide.

He emerges from this Military Gothic process hungry and, for reasons no-one living can fully articulate, his first meal is invariably a damp mash made of Pierre Berton’s Toronto Star columns and Dave Barry’s earlier collections, their spines carefully removed. It is otherwise unseasoned.

As he stumbles forward, eyes unfocussed, he is promptly wrapped in the HBC blanket he will wear until he has fully recovered from the device’s more pernicious side effects, and is deemed ready to return to air.

I’m sure all that doesn’t happen, but whenever I hear Vinyl Café, I’m just a little more convinced that it must be something like that. Assembling the ambulatory thing that hosts it must be this horribly baroque, retromedically Lovecraftian vivigrafting process; it has to be. I may be the only person I know who can’t stand Stuart Maclean, but the fabrication of the eldrich mitocultural pastiche necessary to invoke him must be fascinating.

YO OTHER PARENTS I’M REAL HAPPY FOR YOU AN IMMA LET YOU FINISH BUT I HAVE THE CUTEST LITTLE GIRL OF ALL TIME.

Wafflings

Plastic Chairs: Futuristic

Delicious Snow

Prepared

Blue

ALL TIME.

I brought some mathy snark last time for which I make no apologies, but this is the longer post promised on the subject of the Usage Based Billing controversy that has rightly been getting a lot of airplay recently.

Set Stimulator To 138

Let me open this up by marveling at the magnificent job the terminology has done in framing this debate. “Usage Based Billing”, does that not sound entirely reasonable? Should we not pay for what we use? Of course we should, and you know who doesn’t? Freeloaders, that’s who; leeches and layabouts, the lot of them. Even my esteemed colleague David Eaves has fallen into that trap, which frankly surprised me. It was a compelling hook that he bit, I suspect, because that interpretation advances some causes he champions; transparency and net neutrality among others. Laudable goals all! But I think we’re talking about something very different here.

There’s two things, in fact.

The first one I haven’t seen mentioned much, aside from Konrad Von Finkelstein’s somewhat agonizing claim that IPTV is “not an internet service” are all of those places where huge amounts of bandwidth get consumed, for which Bell charges very nearly nothing at all. Bell’s “Fibe” service, for example, offers customers:

  • Record up to 4 shows at once and get 100 hours of HD recording capacity included
  • Over 100 HD channels
  • Flexible programming – choose more of the channels you really want.
  • Stop paying for the same channel twice – for every standard definition channel you get, receive the HD version at no extra charge
  • Advanced Search – stop scrolling, start watching – our keyword search feature makes it faster and easier to find more of what you want to watch

Bell says you get 25GB/month in “data”, and pay $2/GB when you go over that. But the 4 simultaneous HD recordings, the 100 hours of HD recording, the pay-per-view stuff being sent well below the ostensible per-gigabyte cost, all of that stuff is coming over the same wire and all of it is approximately free. That $2/gig charge that would add up to between $30 and $50 per hour if it ever showed up on the bill isn’t really about congestion, abusive downloaders or any of the various disingenuous reasons on offer; it’s about punishing users to the tune of an extra $30/show for using AppleTV or Netflix instead.

It is nothing more or less than a surcharge that Bell has the luxury of imposing on you for the privilege of going to Bell’s competitors, in short.

In the same vein, why should TekSavvy be required to charge their users in accordance with Bell’s pricing policies? Don’t they buy bandwidth in bulk, and then resell it? This is of no benefit to TekSavvy or their customers, but again, it’s fantastic for Bell, forcing TekSavvy and any other reseller to pass punitive bandwidth surcharges on to their customers.

Retrovillainy

I’m not going to argue that bandwidth isn’t a relatively scarce resource – there’s a finite amount of it in the world, sure – but the fact that Bell is offering the Fibe service at all is a clear indicator that it’s not all that scarce, certainly not the grade of scarce that demands a 10,000% markup.

That’s why this “Usage Based Billing” discussion really isn’t about usage-based billing at all. This is about an incumbent monopolist engaged in price fixing, distorting secondary markets in which they have a substantial stake, dramatically impeding the ability of Canadian consumers to make choices in a free marketplace, and thwarting competition thereby.

There’s more to say about this, of course; while I think the CRTC has erred, and that the cultural protectionism they mandate is also broadly bad for Canadians, I also think that a body with the legislated power to rein in what is obviously corporate malfeasance in the communications space is an extraordinarily valuable thing, and not to be discarded lightly. I also think that error has handed the Conservative government the rare chance to carve up a cultural institution and business regulator under the guise of populism, and they’re going to ride that opportunity as hard as they can. That would be a terrible mistake, I think, but that’s a post for another day.

Bits are bits, and the worst-case scenario for a telco is to be reduced to being a purveyor of bits. There’s no money in it – no long distance calls, no ridiculous $20/month landline rental, nothing. It means going from the 40%-50% year over year profits telcos usually make to the 8%-10% year over year numbers that most other companies do. Just pushing bits is really bad for telecommunications companies; they’ll do just about anything they can to prevent that from coming about, and billions of dollars in spare profits gives you a lot of options on that front.

Back in the 90’s there used to be lots of ISPs; competition on performance was fierce and prices were relatively low. But VOIP was threatening to be the next big thing, so Bell used the profits from their monopoly on telephony to buy almost all the small-shop ISPs; now there’s very little competition and relative to most of the world our network connections are underperforming and really, really expensive.

Bell’s worst-case scenario is being nothing more than a purveyor of bits. That would be really bad for them.

But anything else is really bad for the rest of us. Those huge profit margins don’t come from nowhere; they come out of Canadian pockets in ways that put a terrible barrier in front of Canadian content creators and Canadian entrepreneurship, and pretending that between the absence of serious competition and legislated price-fixing affecting those few independent ISPs left that the invisible hand of the free market will somehow just sort this mess out to the betterment of the average Canadian is a dogmatic mercantilist’s daydream.

Do Not Enter

This isn’t the Usage Based Billing post I promised a friend recently; that’s on its way. This one is just some math.

An uncompressed 720p HDTV signal is about 740 megabits per second of information. That’s a 720px by 1280px image, 12 bits per pixel, sixty times per second. Around 80 megabytes per second, uncompressed. That’s a lot, but for the most part video compression works pretty well, so over your modern TV cables you’re getting a bit more than a tenth that, between 9 and 12 MB/sec. Let’s call it 10 Megabytes Per Second, just for argument’s sake.

Pretty fast! And it comes out to be about 25 to 30 GB/hr.

Did you know that the average Canadian watches about 16 hours of TV per week? It depends on your demographic, of course. And increasingly people get their TV, and indeed most of their media, from the internet instead of straight from the tube or via PVR.

So If we count television then the average Canadian will hit that 25GB/month bandwidth limit before dinner on the first day of the month, every month. Every hour of TV after that will cost about 50 bucks, and the average Canadian television bill will go up around $3000 every month.

They didn’t mention the three thousand dollar cable bill, did they? Huh. That’s because that won’t actually happen, of course; that data somehow doesn’t count. And, of course, I know the infrastructure is a little different, but when Bell and Rogers will both rent you a PVR so they can sell you pay-per-view services, you have to know they’re not that different. We’re all just going to pretend that the movie-bits over here are Data, and the movie-bits over there aren’t – they’re TV.

Make no mistake, that’s what this is about: preventing you from replacing that cable, or getting your media in any of the myriad ways people can in this networked modern age of ours, from anyone but Bell, and thwarting competition thereby. And it’s great for Bell, but it’s really, really bad for Canadians.

(Updated: corrected some math. Which made the situation worse, not better.)