On Northwestel’s Shoddy Internet Data Use Tool

CBC North was gracious enough to invite me onto the air yesterday morning to chat about my concerns with Northwestel’s data use tool. I felt the interview went great – Sandy Coleman is one of those people who has the natural ability to make you feel at ease even during a live broadcast – but I thought it worthwhile to also lay out my concerns here on my own blog.

Of course, while I appreciate the rather exceptional quality of internet service we receive in Whitehorse, I feel Northwestel is stumbling very badly around the issue of data use and, more importantly, overuse. First of all, the $10-per-GB penalty is far too high. Secondly, the data use tracking and reporting system that Northwestel offers its customers is far too difficult to use and, more importantly, it’s unreliable to the point of being untrustable. And finally, the company does an extremely poor job of communicating issues related to overuse and the system that customers rely on the track their internet use.

It’s commonly accepted that the $10-per-GB penalty that is levied against customers who exceed their internet account’s data cap is, to put it mildly, offensive and insulting. Northwestel is unable to justify it in either fiscal or logical terms. When I spoke with Curtis Shaw at Northwestel last year he explained that it was put in place years ago to punish people who were abusing a cap-less ADSL service. When I spoke to him yesterday, he portrayed it either as a fee that subsidizes internet service overall in the Yukon, or as a tool meant to modify the behaviour of internet users during peak hours, or very roughly as a fee to pay for data costs (the gross cost of which he refused to share). In short, Northwestel doesn’t have a firm handle on what a GB actually costs them, and Shaw therefore lacked a firm explanation for the $10-per-GB overuse penalty.

Bottom line: the $10-per-GB overuse penalty is inexplicably excessive. There is no economic foundation for it. It’s literally just a number that the company pulled out of the air long ago to punish a small subset of users for abusing an uncapped internet connection. As it was designed to be then for a few people, it remains for all customers, a big stick that the company holds over our heads to terrify us against taking full advantage of the internet. Unfortunately, the company considers it established and permanent, so it appears I will continue to whine and complain about it for a very long time to come.

Considering that the overuse penalty is so exceptionally high, one would expect that the company might have put together a crackerjack tool that customers can use to track our internet data use in order to enable us to effectively avoid suffering overuse penalties. Unfortunately, nothing is further from the truth.

Last year Northwestel did establish a data use tracking tool, but its design and implementation is so poor as to be laughable. If the quality of its use isn’t bad enough, though, that of its function is far worse: the tool has failed at least twice in catastrophic ways that have cost customers hundreds of dollars.

The first failure occurred over a period of a few months late last year. The tool was making gross errors in data use measurement, and many customers, myself included, were over-billed by hundreds of dollars. The problem has presumably been rectified, but we can’t really know for sure since Northwestel failed to communicate or explain the issue to any affected customers.

The second failure has been occurring over the last few months. The tool offers an alert system that’s advertised was being able to alert customers when they reach 80% and 100% of their internet account’s data use. To quote Northwestel’s website, you will receive a notice, “when your usage has reached 80% and 100%”.

The 80% alerts have been getting sent without any problem, but the 100% alerts haven’t been. And that’s a major issue. The 100% alerts are the more important of the two, of course, because they indicate when the $10-per-GB overuse penalties start being levied against a customer’s internet account. Again, the failure of those alerts to be delivered has probably resulted in customers being over-billed.

I can say with absolute certainty that I did not receive a 100% notification in either December or January, as I’ve previously posted, despite having exceeded my data cap in those months by 20 GB and 1.3 GB. As a result, in February, I monitored my activity very closely on the Northwestel website. On February 23, as I’ve previously posted, my account exceeded the 100% threshold but, again, I did not receive the promised 100% notification. That said, I did receive the notification the following morning, as I again blogged, when my account had reached the 104% threshold.

My takeaway is that Northwestel finally rectified the issue on February 23 following my second post about the issue on this website. So, in theory, 100% alerts are now being properly generated by the tool, but they weren’t for several months.

Assuming the 100% notices are finally working, there is still one very important problem with them. Curtis Shaw told me, and he repeated on CBC radio this morning, that the 100% notices are only issued every 24 hours. That’s not often enough. Assuming full use of an internet connection, a customer could potentially suffer an overuse penalty of more than $2,600 in the period of a day. In fact, were a customer to unknowingly cross the 100% threshold one day and then decide to enjoy a couple of HD movies from iTunes that evening, they would be slapped with at least an $80 penalty before they even knew the clock was ticking.

One closing point on this matter is regarding the use of email as a notification methodology. In a nutshell, it’s not enough. Not everyone regularly monitors their email inbox anymore, but most of us have a mobile phone in our pocket. To ensure optimum effectiveness of these alerts, they should be sent both as email and SMS.

The tool itself is a colossal #fail. Using it requires that you input the MAC address of your cable internet modem. Yeah, exactly: your what? It’s an alpha-numeric code printed on a sticker on the bottom of your cable modem. The string of characters is too long for you to remember even for a short period of time, so unless you want to tear apart the location you use to store your cable modem every time you want to check your internet use (and I’ve seen people who have stashed away those things in very unusual places), you need to write it down and store it on a piece of paper somewhere (a piece of paper that will inevitably get lost, of course).

The matter of using the MAC address to log in to the site to check your usage deserves extensive analysis and evaluation, but I’ll spare you the details and sum it up thusly: it’s a bad idea. The MAC address is too difficult to acquire, retain, and input, which places a tremendous hurdle in front of a customer before he or she even starts to use the tool. Most people I’ve talked to admit they can’t even be bothered, that it sounds too difficult.

Assuming you work your way past the MAC address and want to subscribe to the alert system, however, there lies another inexplicable layer of complexity. Somehow Northwestel has turned a simple process into an extremely difficult one. I won’t go into detail, I’ll simply quote a tweet from a local web developer, who also happens to be one of the smartest people I know. Responding to a prior tweet from Northwestel that suggests people sign up for the alerts, Patrick Goruick remarks:

@northwestel that’s pretty brutal – has anyone actually signed up for notification? ’cause i can’t figure out how!

That sums it up for me: if a trained and experienced professional can’t figure it out, how can anyone else?

Okay, so that’s established: Northwestel’s internet data use tool is poorly designed, difficult to use, and unreliable. An exacerbating factor that’s sort of like salt on the wound is the fact that the company fails to effectively communicate matters related to the tool, particularly when its failings negatively affect customers.

Last year, for example, when the tool miscalculated customers’ data use and the company over-billed us, there was neither an identification nor an explanation of the matter delivered to affected customers. More to the point, though, the company didn’t even apologize for accidentally taking hundreds of dollars from us. Instead, they just quietly credited it back onto our bills, presumably hoping the matter would go unnoticed.

And so it goes with the failure of the internet data use tool to issue the 100% threshold warning emails. There will be no acknowledgement of the issue, or communication about it from Northwestel. There certainly won’t even be an apology. This time, though, there won’t even be credits issued – and it’s certainly arguable that there should be. Instead, the issue will be willfully ignored so as to be quietly swept under the carpet and forgotten.

Really, though, the poor quality of the tool and the fact of its unreliability wouldn’t be quite so bad save for one key issue: the $10-per-GB overuse penalty.

The fact that Northwestel’s overuse penalty alone is so grossly inflated, it further grossly inflates all of the errors of the data use tool itself. For example, if the overuse penalty was more in line with what other Canadian internet providers charge, last year’s over-billing would have been mere pennies rather than hundreds of dollars.

So what should Northwestel do? Here are my recommendations:

  1. Drop the overuse penalty cost to less than $2-per-GB (unless $10 can be definitively qualified)
  2. Overhaul the data use tool to make it easy to use
  3. Increase overuse threshold alert frequencies to every 1 hour
  4. Offer SMS as an option for overuse alerts
  5. Own up to mistakes and communicate them

In the end, it comes down to trust. And as it stands, I’ve personally lost all trust in Northwestel’s internet data use tool and its alert system. It’s proven to be error-prone to the extent that it poses a serious risk to the financial well-being of Northwestel’s customers. It’s certainly cost me hundreds of dollars.

Northwestel needs to take immediate action to improve the tool and prove to customers that we can trust and rely on the system. The $10-per-GB overuse penalty is simply too big a threat to ignore and if customers don’t have the tools to protect themselves from it effectively, the consequences we’ll suffer are expensive and insulting, as has already been demonstrated.

As it stands, one can only wonder what will go wrong next, and how much will it cost me?

4 thoughts on “On Northwestel’s Shoddy Internet Data Use Tool

  1. Thanks for writing this Andrew.

    I was curious when I was told my usage limits were being doubled as was the speed of my connection a couple of years or so ago.

    With no apparent change in how we use the internet, the current useage tool shows we are now doubling the amount of bandwidth we were using prior to the change. I suppose it could be that if we actually have a faster connection, we are using more bandwidth than we realized.

    The concern for me is similar to the concern I have with mobile phone usage in that the only party who can track it is the one selling the service. I don’t know of any check and balance that assures the tracking is accurate.

    Perhaps there is something I don’t know about?


    • Thanks for commenting, Norm.

      You’ve pointed out a key problem with the way that internet data is measured right now: there aren’t any standards that apply to its measurement, nor is there a third party that can verify the authenticity or accuracy of measurements. We are 100% dependent on Northwestel for this and, as you point out, that represents a clear lack of checks and balances.

      I find this more than a bit unsettling when you consider the egregious error that Northwestel made last year in measuring data.

      This is very different from the oil and electricity industries which are governed by federal standards and legislation.

  2. Pingback: Yet Another Failure with Northwestel’s Internet Usage Tool « Geek Life

  3. Thank you, I have been trying to use the tool for over a week. I found the site once by accident and have not been able to find it again. I tried to register on another site and they would not accept my account #?? Funny, my bills get through on that account #?? I truly believed I was not smart enough to use the ‘tool’ and should perhaps stop using this ‘simple internet’ Thanks for taking the time to share, I’m sure there are others in this spot.

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