Bit parts

Published: February 12th, 2002
Bit parts

Stop waiting; start surfing!

Then start paying.

It might be the new slogan for Rogers Cable, once the company imposes a bit cap that will limit the amount of material its customers can download over the Internet. It might work just as well for Sympatico, which is reportedly considering

a similar move. For serious gamers, P2P music fans and basically anyone who spends a lot of time at home on the Web, the New Economy is about to get a little more expensive.

It has been a matter of weeks since Rogers ended its most recent user brouhaha, the transition from its former @Home partnership to its own high-speed network. The move turned into a customer relations nightmare, with user groups reporting the hours they spent on hold at the Rogers call centre, their questions often unanswered. Almost two hundred people took part in an ITBusiness.ca cyberpoll to say they had been negatively affected by the changeover.

It might seem like a good time to keep a low profile and concentrate on quality of service. Not to Rogers, apparently. Executives have reported plans to introduce the bit cap — a limit on the amount of packets of information, or bits, that are used by an individual user — in less than 90 days. Bell has been more hesitant about its plans for Sympatico, but there can be little doubt that once Rogers puts the bit cap in place other ISPs will follow suit. In fact, Rogers is following the lead of Videotron, Shaw and others who have already been charging extra to some of their users.

The reaction has been predictably sour. Members of the Toronto-based Residential Broadband Users Association have been stewing over the bit cap these last few days, and the discussion thread has not been kind to Rogers. “”They will use any excuse to up their price, or lowering/limiting service levels,”” one writes. “”Rogers, Enron — what is the difference?”” asks another. “”They all have CEOs that listen to their analysts rather than their own customers. Keep up the good work, Rogers.””

The bitterness in these postings reflects the resignation that will spread among ISP customers everywhere. Complaining about a bit cap is like getting miffed over new service charges at the bank: we know it’s a desperate cash-grab, we know they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it, but we still need a bank. Once Rogers and Sympatico put bit caps in place the practice will be more or less permanently set. If you are on the Internet a lot, you must prepare to pay for the privilege.

Bell would do well to clear the air soon on its strategy, before its own bit cap appears like a knee-jerk reaction to the price war Rogers is obviously hoping to start. Although Rogers has marketing prowess to spare, Bell has a technology advantage. It is already offering attractive new features like voice over Internet Protocol and a number of e-business packages to its subscribers. These will be key diffentiators as bit caps become common.

Rogers, on the other hand, needs to make sure it doesn’t make its subscribers feel like they are doing something wrong by logging on. Though the bit cap is not supposed to affect more than 10 per cent of Rogers Cable customers, a newspaper quoted a Rogers executive who called that 10 per cent “”abusers.”” But there is nothing in Rogers’ acceptable use agreement that spells out “”abuse.”” Like the times its service has gone down for hours at a time, Rogers continues to be surprised by its own popularity.

This is not the approach you want to take when you are trying to attract and retain the people using your service. The limits to Internet use through tiered account structures are coming, and customers will adjust, but without proper communication and added benefits, their loyalty is by no means guaranteed. It will erode — bit by bit.

sschick@plesman.com

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