Internet usage limits — and overage charges for those who exceed them — are a feature of most internet and wireless packages in Canada, leading to confusion and potentially expensive bills for consumers, says a new report from OpenMedia.
The Vancouver-based group, which advocates on behalf of an open internet, compared home internet and wireless data plans across Canada as part of a campaign calling for a ban on data caps.
It found widespread inequality among offerings across the country.
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For home internet, unlimited usage was offered to all Bell Aliant customers in the Atlantic provinces. But data caps are your only option if you go with Cogeco in Quebec or Shaw in Alberta and B.C. Most other internet providers had packages with a range of data caps, with unlimited usage available for a higher fee or if you bundle internet with TV.
For mobile internet, unlimited data is a dream for customers of the Big Three — Bell, Rogers and Telus — as all their wireless packages have data caps. Unlimited data is only available in Saskatchewan from SaskTel and in Manitoba from MTS.
And the price for a given amount of data varies widely from province to province, even with the same carrier. For example, a 1 GB plan from Rogers costs $75 per month in Alberta, Ontario, B.C. and the Maritimes, but just $40 in Saskatchewan and $45 in Manitoba.
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OpenMedia says Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec have "distinct offerings" due to a fourth regional competitor — MTS, SaskTel and Vidéotron respectively.
The analysis found that most home internet providers had an average of eight data brackets with different data caps, far more than major U.S. providers, which typically had just two.
"Canadian wireline internet plans are confusing," OpenMedia said in a news release.
Exceeding caps can be costly, report says
The data caps start as low as 20 GB, just enough to stream 45 minutes of standard definition TV or movies per day, OpenMedia notes.
Customers who exceed their limit pay $1 (Cogeco) to $4 (Bell) per gigabyte over the limit, which can add up quickly, the report said.
"Upon exceeding your limit, just four HD episodes of The Walking Dead (at approximately 3 GB per hour) would blow past 10 GB of data in overage," it said. "Depending on provider, that could add upwards of $40 to your monthly bill."
Really about cord-cutting
However, the report notes that some carriers such as Bell provide unlimited internet to customers who bundle their internet with TV services. It alleges that "ISPs use the threat of overage fees and data caps to herd customers away from third-party streaming" and says that suppresses innovation.
"For too long, the telecom giants have used every excuse in the book to justify these unfair caps," said Katy Anderson, OpenMedia's digital rights specialist, in a news release. "But the reality is they're using these caps to discourage cord-cutting and keep Canadians trapped in expensive cable TV packages that represent terrible value for money."
David Christopher, a media spokesman for OpenMedia, said people who exceed their data caps when they watch television online are more likely to be persuaded to buy a cable package that they can bundle with their internet plan.
Christopher said this is an example of telecoms "trying to shore up their cable TV service, which has been a money spinner for these companies for decades."
"It's an artificial way that they're using to prop up their cable TV services and we simply think that's really unfair on consumers."
The group aims to make its case during a CRTC consultation on differential internet pricing and 'zero-rating' — the practice of offering different internet pricing for certain kinds of internet use, such as streaming. The deadline to comment was recently pushed back by a couple of weeks to June 28.
Bell says its packages are 'generous'
Rogers did not specifically respond to the report, but company spokeswoman Jennifer Kett emailed a statement to CBC News.
"Over the last few years we've included even more data in our packages, and introduced Rogers Ignite Unlimited packages to keep Canadians connected worry-free."
Bell spokesperson Jacqueline Michelis told CBC News that it offers internet plans with "generous amounts of bandwidth usage as well as unlimited usage options."
She said usage-based plans are common in both Canada and the U.S. and that they are the most economical for customers.
"Usage-based options are common to major ISPs in both Canada and the U.S., and they recognize both the tremendous capital investment required to manage explosive growth in internet data usage, and the idea that those who use more pay more, those who use less pay less," she said.
She added that Bell's satellite and internet tv services are the most popular in the country.
CBC News has also reached out to Telus for comment on the report. They have not yet replied.