A group of more than 20 NorthwesTel customers across the North are considering a class-action lawsuit against the Internet provider over what they say are outrageous and suspicious usage fees.
Whitehorse’s Kyle Jennex was the first person to speak up recently after he noticed odd upload rates on his home Internet connection last fall.
“The first time I noticed was in November. I religiously check my usage. I understand that it’s more expensive up here, and even that is fine. What I’m not OK with is paying for data that I’m not using,” he said.
The data was moving in the middle of the night, Jennex said, and it was almost all uploads, not downloads. His online NorthwesTel usage gauge showed between five and seven gigabytes of uploads per day. In total, there were nearly 200 gigabytes he says he can’t account for. At $5 a gigabyte, that’s $1,000 he didn’t expect to pay.
“I depend on the Internet for our lifestyle. We like our music and our movies and our TV, so I download a lot of stuff. I also believe that if I’m paying for 150 gigabytes, I’m going to use that up.
“So because of that I monitor our usage carefully so I can spread it out throughout the month and to make sure we don’t go over,” he said.
When Jennex complained to NorthwesTel, he was told the extra use was likely caused by file transfer programs running in the background, or that maybe his home Wi-Fi network had been hacked. But that doesn’t make sense to him.
“The way they’re talking, it’s like every second neighbour is hacking into your wireless. I have passwords that are completely random that would take some pretty sophisticated equipment to hack into,” he said.
“We even tried disconnecting all our devices from the router and it still kept happening. The only way I could get them to stop was to physically unplug my modem,” he said.
One of the explanations suggested by NorthwesTel is that heavy users who download with peer-to-peer file sharing programs, like a BitTorrent client, forget that after they’ve downloaded a movie or TV show, their system becomes a mini-server and starts uploading that data to other torrent users. If a homeowner doesn’t remember to turn off that uploading capability, it can cause their usage to creep up as BitTorrent runs in the background.
Another common explanation is that users are watching too much online TV or playing too many online games.
Jennex admits he is one of those heavy users, but he doesn’t buy the company’s torrent explanation because, through is own monitoring, he can account for every legitimate gigabyte he uses, but his bills still keep going over.
“I know how torrent programs work, and I have my uploads set to one kilobyte. The fact that they couldn’t tell me where it was going or why it was happening is very suspect,” he said.
Jennex said since he went public with his concerns, he’s heard from more than 20 other northerners who have had serious trouble as well.
One man in Whitehorse said he was charged 198 gigabytes on top of his 150-gigabyte limit. At $5 a gigabyte, that’s $990 in unexpected charges.
Jannex said the worst story he heard was from a woman in the Northwest Territories who was charged $3,000 in overage fees in a single month.
With so many people all saying they’re being charged for data they didn’t use, Jannex said he thinks NorthwesTel’s measurement system is flawed.
It wouldn’t be the first time the company had mistakenly charged people for data they didn’t use. In 2010 the company admitted it had overcharged hundreds of its customers because of a “glitch” in its system when the data usage monitors were not reset properly. One customer was charged $2,500 above his usual monthly bill of $88.
NorthwesTel’s vice-president of marketing, Curtis Shaw, insists that the company’s monitors and bills are now accurate.
“There’s no goal here to have people see hidden charges or overage charges. The goal is to make sure people are on the right package for what they’re consuming,” Shaw said.
If customers are approaching their monthly limit, Shaw said email notifications can alert them. Whenever customers complain about unexpected usage, the company investigates and Shaw said the culprit is usually one of three things: programs running in the background, neighbours poaching Wi-Fi access by hacking passwords, or viruses that spew junk data at odd hours.
“Number one, make sure you have a virus checker on your PC. If you’ve got a wireless router, make sure it’s locked. If you do see exceptional usage, give us a call and we’ll be able to assist you.”
NorthwesTel used to charge $10 per gigabyte when users went over their caps. The company has reduced that to $5 per gigabyte and in Whitehorse some plans have a $2.50 per gigabyte charge for overage use.
Orange Technology, a Whitehorse-based computer network and data security firm, says some of its clients have recently complained about unusual Internet charges from NorthwesTel.
“In some instances, there is usage that is theoretically impossible based on the limitations of network access speed to NorthwesTel’s network,” said spokesman Martin Lehner in an email.
Orange Technology has begun monitoring its clients’ data usage with its own hardware, and those measurements have found a “discrepancy between the amounts we are seeing from our hardware, and the amounts that NorthwesTel is displaying on their online usage counter,” said Lehner.
On that point, NorthwesTel spokesman Eric Clement said the issue Lehner cited was related on only one client.
The situation was resolved and the client was compensated for the extra charges, Clement said.
At this point, with more upset customers contacting him daily, Jennex said he has contacted a law firm about pursuing a possible class-action suit.
Contact Jesse Winter at