Internet penalties challenged

Rick Copes is so angry about Northwestel's internet charges he started an online group to protest the company's crippling fees. He set up the Facebook group Northwestel Abuses Yukoners and Exploits its Monopoly, after being billed hundreds of dollars for exceeding the telco's bandwidth cap.

Rick Copes is so angry about Northwestel’s internet charges he started an online group to protest the company’s crippling fees.

He set up the Facebook group Northwestel Abuses Yukoners and Exploits its Monopoly, after being billed hundreds of dollars for exceeding the telco’s bandwidth cap.

“It was more than three times what my bill normally is,” said Copes. “It would have been cheaper for me to add three internet accounts.”

Copes is not alone.

Since he started the Facebook group in December he’s seen more than a hundred people “like” it.

At $10 a gigabyte, Northwestel’s charges up to 10 times more than any other service provider in Canada for exceeding its data cap.

Northwestel insists its pricing is relative to the cost of doing business in the Yukon, and that comparable fees in the South are unfair.

With its remote location and small population, the cost of connecting the Yukon is probably higher than other parts of the country. But it’s hard to know.

Northwestel won’t provide numbers to back up its claims.

That lack of transparency leaves some customers skeptical about the company’s assertions.

“I fail to understand how a measly 10 gigs costs that much more to Northwestel,” said Linda Hillier, a Whitehorse-based IT professional.

Hillier lives in Marsh Lake and, like all Northwestel customers outside Whitehorse, is restricted to 30 gigabytes of bandwidth per month.

With such a meagre data cap, Hillier says it’s cheaper to drive roughly 60 kilometres to town to rent a movie than watch it online.

“If you have to be careful with how many YouTube videos you watch,” said Hillier. “I think that’s a little ridiculous.”

By setting data caps low and imposing ridiculously high charges on overages, Northwestel wants people to go over their limit, said Copes.

Northwestel insists this isn’t true.

Seven to 10 per cent of customers hit their data caps, say company officials.

But Northwestel won’t say how much these customers exceed the cap. And it won’t say how much revenue the penalties bring in.

Northwestel’s internet business is an unregulated monopoly, and the company is fiercely protective of that status.

“That’s competitive information,” said Northwestel spokesperson Anne Kennedy when asked for the financial information. “We don’t release that type of detail. Anybody else could offer service up here.”

The Yukon government is aware Northwestel may be gouging customers, but cautions against direct comparisons.

“There is not the economy of scale that you see in Vancouver or Toronto, and the cost of infrastructure is expensive,” said Terry Hayden, assistant deputy minister of Economic Development. “It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.”

However, it’s the CRTC, not the Yukon government, that oversees the telecommunications industry.

The territory began lobbying the CRTC last fall to include broadband service as a basic service, said Hayden.

That might pave the way for a federal subsidy program to reduce internet costs, similar to the fund for long-distance providers.

“Telecommunications, internet in particular, is too important to be left to market forces alone,” said Hayden

In the meantime, Copes is left frustrated by Northwestel’s limits and high charges.

“I don’t understand why they punish us for using their service,” said Copes.

Contact Josh Kerr at

joshk@yukon-news.com

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