The Homesteader and Mr. Troll: A Parable About UBB

User-Based Billing, or UBB, is the single-most important issue facing Canadian internet users right now. But most of us don’t have a clue what it’s all about.

UBB is actually quite a simple concept that’s been rendered complex by the never-ending marketing rhetoric of our internet providers. “Gigabyte,” “data cap,” “overage fee,” “bandwidth,” “broadband.” Yikes! It’s the sort of obfuscated lingo only a lawyer could love.

So here’s UBB in simpler terms, as a parable about the struggle of the common person to just stay connected against all odds — and expenses.

I humbly present to you, The Homesteader and Mr. Troll.

The Homesteader had selected her land for its rich soil, fresh water, and temperate climate. The only problem was the picturesque river gorge that separated it from the rest of the world.

So she called the bridge company, Troll Inc. Mr. Troll himself showed up one morning, sporting a friendly smile (marred only by the gold caps on his teeth).

He built her a one-lane bridge across the gorge. It was agreed that the Homesteader would pay Mr. Troll 40 bails of hay every month to keep the bridge in place and allow her free passage across it.

To establish her property, the Homesteader began to haul cartloads of goods from the nearby village across her bridge. Some days she hauled several cartloads, other days none at all.

She noticed that Mr. Troll kept a close eye on her activity, making notes on a ledger. (Was his hair thinning?)

One day she heard from a neighbour that another homesteader in the next valley over had used his bridge to haul so many cartloads of goods that his bridge had been damaged.

Mr. Troll showed up at her bridge the next morning. (The Homesteader hadn’t noticed that huge, hairy wart on his nose before.)

Mr. Troll told her that she was not permitted to use her bridge freely any more. One or two homesteaders had been abusing their bridges, he explained, so all homesteaders were being punished. She was now only allowed to bring 5 cartloads of goods across her bridge every month.

“But I pay for the free use of this bridge,” she protested.

“You pay for what I say you pay for,” Mr. Troll snipped.

“What if I bring more?” the Homesteader asked.

Mr. Troll motioned at her eldest son. “I’ll take his arm,” he said.

Mr. Troll left one of his cousins behind to keep an eye on the Homesteader’s activities.

But the cousin wasn’t very good at basic math and the next month Mr. Troll was back. (She hadn’t noticed how much he drooled before.) He was carrying an axe.

“My cousin tells me that you brought 20 cartloads across your bridge last month. I’m here for all four of the boy’s limbs.”

Fortunately, and in spite of the fact she knew she’d only brought three cartloads across, the Homesteader managed to talk Mr. Troll into accepting 200 bails of hay. It was almost her entire season’s reaping.

She learned then that she could not trust Mr. Troll.

Mr. Troll was clearly unhappy with the Homesteader. He kept trying to sell her things for her homestead, but she preferred the quality of the goods she bought from the shopkeepers in the village.

Now, if you’ve been following the parable thus far you’ll get that the bridge is an internet connection. Mr. Troll is an internet service provider.

The limit that Mr. Troll arbitrarily placed on the number of cartloads that the Homesteader could haul across her bridge is a “data cap.”

And the threat to take the boy’s limbs, well, those are “overage fees.”

It’s a pretty ugly service relationship. And such is the state of the internet in Canada today. The terms of internet access in other nations are not so onerous, the costs not so extreme.

But, wait, it gets better as we get to the heart of the matter. Here comes Mr. Troll’s UBB plan.

One cold winter morning Mr. Troll showed up at the Homesteader’s bridge. (She hadn’t noticed the hunch in his back before, or the green tinge to his skin.)

Clearly put out with the independent spirit of the Homesteader, Mr. Troll announced that from now on he was going to tax every cartload that crossed her bridge.

In fact, he was going to examine the goods themselves and tax every item. Plus, if he disapproved of anything she was carrying, he might not allow it to pass.

“Will the bridge itself be free, then?” The Homesteader reasonably asked.

“No,” snarled Mr. Troll. “You’ll pay for the bridge and for the goods you bring across it.”

“But, I’m already paying in the village for the goods,” the Homesteader protested.

“Then you’ll pay twice for them,” Mr. Troll retorted with a smirk.

The Homesteader sighed in desperation as Mr. Troll drove away with another cartload of her hay. There was no other bridge builder in her land. She had no choice but to surrender to Mr. Troll’s demands.

And that, in a nutshell, is UBB.

The cost for data to pass through an internet provider’s network is nearly insignificant. It’s about 3¢ per GB. Yet they want to charge us as much as $10 per GB for that “service”.

The fact of the matter is, we already pay for that service in our monthly subscription fee.  Why should we pay again?

But pay again we will if UBB becomes a regulated reality in Canada. And it’ll be yet another cost burden that prevents Canadians from taking advantage of the internet to the extent that other developed nations like Australia, the UK, Japan, and the US do.

I urge you to visit openmedia.ca to learn more and voice your concerns.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 10, 2011.