Get ready – it’s “VOIP tax” time

Continuing the theme of “network neutrality,” voice-over-Internet provider Vonage has raised the spectre of a “tiered” approach to the Internet in Canada in a filing with the Canadian broadcast regulator – the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission or CRTC, the agency whose name is almost as long as some of its meetings. According to a press release from Vonage, it is protesting the $10 a month “VOIP tax” that Shaw Communications of Calgary charges customers to “improve” their service (the filing was actually made in December, but not publicized until now). It’s an issue that has been around for awhile now.

Shaw, one of the country’s largest cable concerns – which is controlled by the Shaw family – doesn’t charge extra if you want to use Shaw’s own VOIP service. But if you use Vonage or Babytel or one of the other services out there, you will be offered the $10 extra charge to “improve” the quality of your phone calls. You don’t have to pay it, of course. You’re free to use VOIP without paying extra, but the clear implication is that the service might be of poor quality, and that Shaw isn’t likely to be interested in your complaints unless you paid your $10 fee.

Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a little like the bad old days in Chicago or some other corruption-riddled city, where you were free to run your business without paying “protection” money to certain parties, but if you didn’t then you were likely to find your store burning to the ground some evening with the police and fire department standing around watching. It’s no big stretch from what Shaw is doing – or other ISPs — to a multi-tiered Internet that charges extra for things like peer-to-peer music downloading, but doesn’t charge extra if you use the music service marketed by your Internet provider.

Is that what the Internet is supposed to be like? Not according to Vinton Cerf, who helped invent the darn thing in the first place. Whether the CRTC will take any action remains to be seen. For more thoughts on the topic, both of Shaw’s move and network neutrality in general, see Mitch Shapiro’s post at the always excellent IPDemocracy.com

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