the measure of a monopoly

When you buy a litre of gas, you have confidence you're getting a litre of gas. Why? Because the federal government has standards in place to ensure gas stations are not chiselling people, monkeying with the volume, siphoning a few millilitres off every fill.

When you buy a litre of gas, you have confidence you’re getting a litre of gas.

Why? Because the federal government has standards in place to ensure gas stations are not chiselling people, monkeying with the volume, siphoning a few millilitres off every fill.

When you buy a kilo of bananas or pineapple, you generally have confidence the local grocery store hasn’t secretly added a 10-gram weight to the scale.

Why? Because Ottawa monitors complaints and ensures weights and measures standards are followed. Honestly.

When you buy a gigabyte of bandwidth, do you have confidence you’re getting a gigabyte from the telco?

You shouldn’t.

There is no oversight of this commodity.

A telco could charge you for 10 gigabytes of data and provide one. You would have little recourse.

Now, this stuff is pretty technical – it’s not like you can pump a litre measure or put your purchase on a common scale and make sure you’ve got your money’s worth.

But even if you had the technical savvy to measure internet usage, there is nobody in Canada to complain to. The federal weights and standards people are not empowered to monitor bandwidth usage.

Nobody cares.

The national internet providers lie well beyond government reach.

They do as they please.

And in most places in Canada, this is more a matter of principle than cost.

Bandwidth is cheap – pennies a gigabyte – so if a company stiffs you for a gig or two, well, you’re not going to worry too much about it.

But here, in the territory, the stuff is gold. A single gig of bandwidth is $10. That’s seriously expensive – seven times more than a litre of nonrenewable gasoline.

And when a commodity is that valuable, there should be government oversight to ensure the telco is delivering what it says it is.

Now, this is a problem in the territory because there is mounting evidence Northwestel has no firm idea how much bandwidth people are using.

Some customers with the technical skill to monitor their usage claim Northwestel is delivering a fraction of a gigabyte, and charging for a full measure.

And even Northwestel’s in-house monitoring service is suspect.

Recently, another glitch in their internet meters has surfaced. Similar to an earlier episode, people are being charged hundreds of dollars for bandwidth they never received.

Northwestel has issued no release about their foul-up.

Instead, it’s up to customers to look up an impossibly long number in microscopic text on the bottom of their dusty modem and then burrow into the company’s website to check their usage. If it seems high, you have to phone to argue with a clerk.

If you’ve signed up for email alerts about this, that’s not going to help. People have received a first alert announcing they already owe the monopoly hundreds of dollars in bandwidth penalties.

“Thank you for choosing Northwestel,” the missive ends.

Northwestel will not say how much it costs to deliver the service. It won’t say how much it makes from the service.

And there have been enough problems in the metering of the service that customers have a case for arguing Northwestel has no clue what it is doing, and that its supposed charges amount to chiselling.

Is a gig of Northwestel bandwidth a gig of bandwidth? Or half a gig?

Is the gig you receive the same size as mine?

Nobody knows.

But the telco is charging you $10 per unit of indeterminate measure.

And, if you have a problem with that, too bad.

There is no standard, there is no oversight.

Is this right?

It’s time the federal government stepped in and started policing internet usage as it does for all other weights and measures in this country.

Until then, northern customers can be excused for their lack of faith in the bandwidth-delivery system.

And for believing Northwestel is cheating them.