Big telecommunications companies have started offering unlimited internet packages for the first time in years, ahead of a decision by Canada's telecommunications regulator that could determine whether independent internet service providers are able to offer similar packages.
Rogers began advertising an unlimited internet offer this week that matches one announced by Bell in January. Both companies are offering the option for:
- $10 on top of the usual monthly internet fee to customers who bundle together three of their services – such as home phone, TV and internet.
- $30 on top of the usual monthly fee for customers who don’t have a bundle.
Rogers says its offer is only available until the end of March.
For the past few years, big internet service providers (ISPs) such as Bell and Rogers have had monthly usage caps on all their internet packages, charging $0.50 to $4 per gigabyte over the cap.
Albert Lee, a spokesman for Bell, told CBC News following the January announcement that Bell has not offered unlimited internet for at least five years. Rogers would not say when it last offered unlimited internet, but said this is the first time it is making such an offer as a promotion.
In recent years, Bell and Rogers had argued before Canada’s telecommunications regulator that their caps and overage fees were necessary to manage congestion on their networks and to ensure that heavy users pay their fair share.
'Massive broadband network investments'
Lee said Bell can now begin offering unlimited internet again thanks to the company’s "massive broadband network investments" of more than $3 billion annually in recent years.
"This new unlimited approach recognizes that Canadians use the internet more than anyone else in the world and that usage is accelerating by the day," he wrote in an email.
When asked why Rogers was making its unlimited internet offer, spokeswoman Patricia Law said in an email that the company is "continuously offering new plans and packages to better serve our customers."
However, others suspect that the offers and their timing may have something do with a decision expected this week from Canada's telecommunication regulator that will determine whether small, independent ISPs can continue to offer unlimited internet packages. Those smaller ISPs rent network access from Bell and Rogers in order to connect their services directly to people's homes making them "wholesale customers" of the larger companies.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is set to issue rules on how big telecommunications companies can set their wholesale pricing.
Ruling favourable to independent ISPs expected
Independent Canadian technology journalist Pete Nowak noted on his blog this week that Bell and Rogers "probably wouldn’t have introduced such plans if they didn’t have a sense that the CRTC ruling is going to go against them – that indie ISPs may be getting the lower rates they asked for, which could translate into cheaper services for customers."
Independent ISPs continued to offer unlimited internet packages even when Bell and Rogers did not. However, a 2009 CRTC decision threatened their ability to do so by allowing Bell to impose on its wholesale customers bandwidth caps and extra charges for each gigabyte over the cap.
Meanwhile, Canadians’ demand for internet bandwidth continued to grow with the popularity of new services such as Netflix, which allows people to stream TV episodes and movies on demand over the internet for a fixed monthly fee. That led to a public outcry over the bandwidth caps and proposed "usage-based billing."
About half a million people signed a petition opposed to the caps during a campaign by Vancouver-based Open Media, which advocates on behalf of consumers for an open internet.
In 2011, before the new caps went into effect, the federal government ordered the CRTC to review its decision. The review resulted in a new way of charging wholesale customers that would theoretically make it possible for unlimited internet packages to exist, provided the rates were not too high.
Lindsey Pinto, spokeswoman for Open Media, said she sees the new offers by Bell and Rogers as "a good thing" as they mean more consumers will have the option to choose unlimited internet packages. She is hopeful the offers are proactive responses to the likelihood that the CRTC decision will allow independent ISPs to continue offering their own unlimited internet packages.
"Canadians want to use more internet, not less," she said.