Internet drama in Canada. (Really.)

Let’s talk internet policy! In Canada! Wow!

I believe there are useful lessons from a saga about the Internet back home in Canada. What was a promising, if imperfect, system that gave more choices and improved Internet service for Canadians is about to fall apart.

Many smaller ISPs in Canada are likely to raise their prices significantly and lose or close customers. The dream of more competition leading to better internet service for Canadians is on life support.

What’s happening in Canada reveals why we need smart internet policies combined with strong government oversight to have a better and more affordable internet for everyone — and it shows what happens if we lose that.

The USA messed up for years, which is one of the reasons America’s Internet service stinks. Canada may be a realistic experiment in what happens when confused government regulation undermines internet policies that have been largely effective.

Please bear with me for a lesson in Canadian home internet service. The bottom line is that Canadians have something relatively new to Americans: Many people have options for choosing a home Internet service provider they don’t hate.

That’s because in Canada — similar to many countries, including Britain, Australia and Japan — the companies that own Internet pipelines have to rent access to companies that then sell Internet services to homes. Regulators are watching closely to make sure those rental charges and terms are fair.

Internet infrastructure owners in Canada and elsewhere do not like this approach. They usually say that if they have to share their infrastructure and its potential profits, they are less likely to improve and expand internet pipelines.

The US has mostly not worked this way for the past 20 years. Big companies like Comcast and Verizon own most of the internet pipelines and for the most part there is no obligation to rent access to smaller companies that may want to sell us services.

In general, the mandatory and regulated leasing of Internet pipelines is one of the reasons Europeans tend to pay much less for better Internet services than we do in America, according to a 2020 analysis by New America, a left-wing American think tank.

Canada’s Internet service is still not great. But a 2019 analysis by a government agency found it that while there were drawbacks to the country’s approach to rental access, it had been largely effective in making Internet services more competitive and forcing companies to reduce costs and improve their networks and customer service.

The bottleneck in Canada is the price Internet pipeline owners charge. In recent years, legal and regulatory bickering has arisen over the appropriate costs and terms for large companies to lease their pipelines. Smaller Canadian Internet companies say infrastructure owners have misled regulators about how much it costs to build and maintain networks.

The result, after some flip-flops by government officials, is that the country’s telecom regulator the side of the internet pipeline owners† The government is going to impose significantly higher rates on smaller Internet service providers for leasing pipelines from larger companies. Already at least one such provider in Canada sold himself and said it would not have been able to stay in business with the new rates.

Small ISPs say Canada is on the brink of breaking a system that served customers well.

“It will mean in no uncertain terms that home Internet prices will continue to rise and consumers will suffer,” said Geoff White, executive director of the Competitive Network Operators of Canada, a trade group for smaller telecom service providers. White told me it took years for the country’s internet system to become more competitive and that “it has been undone bit by bit”.

He and other critics of Canada’s Internet policies said service providers and customers were weighed down for years by regulations over the cost of leasing Internet lines. Certainly, determining the right price is a complicated analysis in any country. Set prices too low or too high and the system will fail.

It is worth paying attention to what is happening in Canada. Like other essential services, including electricity and healthcare, good internet service doesn’t happen by accident. It is a choice that requires a sensible mix of effective public policy and the best that capitalism has to offer.


Tip of the week

Brian X. Chen, a consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, has advice he learned from his column this week about trying, and horribly failing, to fix his own iPhone.

I told my story of failure using Apple’s new self-repair program, where I had to rent £75 worth of repair equipment to install a battery in my iPhone 12. I made a stupid mistake that destroyed my screen. My fault, but it shows how ruthless the Apple machines are. There is virtually no room for error.

However, I managed to install a battery in my wife’s iPhone XS using a much more modest tool kit from iFixit, a company that publishes instructions and sells DIY repair tools. The battery replacement kits include tweezers, a screwdriver and plastic picks to cut through the glue that seals the phone together.

I have some well-deserved advice if you want to try your own electronics repairs:

  • Excercise: Each do-it-yourselfer know it’s rare to do a job perfectly the first time. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Before trying to take apart your phone or laptop, look for lower-stakes gadgets to practice on. Good candidates are an outdated Kindle or unused iPad.

  • Stay organized. It is very important to keep track of what you are doing so that you can put a gadget back together correctly. With my wife’s iPhone, I took a photo before starting the repair and labeled each screw I removed with numbers. I have placed the screws in paper trays with the corresponding numbers.

  • Be slow and careful. Unlike repairs we make to cars, bicycles and plumbing, electronics are extremely fragile. Be delicate. Place your device on something soft, such as a lint-free cloth, to prevent damage. Move slowly and carefully to avoid tearing cables and loosening screws. This can even feel meditative.

If you can do it, hopefully it will all be worth it.

This poor dog Lottie, does NOT seem to enjoy daily group walks

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