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Alternatives to cable TV: Under usage-based billing, the internet isn't an economical solution

By: Patrick O’Rourke

Cable is expensive; a basic digital cable package from Rogers costs $31.49 and with Bell $30.00. Those are just the most basic low end bundles. This has caused many Canadians, especially younger Canadians to turn to the internet as a way of watching movies and TV shows.

This shift in the way Canadians consume media has caused large cable providers like Bell and Rogers to become extremely worried. The CRTC’s recent decision that effectively allowed large Telcos companies to charge smaller internet service providers by customer usage rather than for each individual customer, is a direct result of this concern. This forces these smaller companies to lower their bandwidth caps. The decision is being reviewed by the CRTC, in part because of the massive public backlash that occurred after it was announced. 460,000 unsatisfied Canadians have signed a petition against usage based billing on  Usage based billing limits the amount of content consumers can consume online and makes alternative services like Netflix almost useless.

Netflix recently launched in Canada with monthly subscriptions that only cost 7.99. Although currently it does not have the greatest new release movie selection, it does have a decent library of hundreds of older movies, TV shows and B list movies. As an alternative to cable, Netflix doesn’t really do the job – but for the price the service cannot be beat, especially when paired with another streaming service.

However, Netflix may soon be forced to raise their monthly fee. The Canadian Media Production Agency wants Netflix to be charged a local content production fee; both Bell and Rogers already pay this fee to supply their television services. This agency feels that Netflix is too cheap and that its pricing is unfair when compared to other similar Canadian services

The main issue with Netflix under usage based billing is the fact that streaming uses up a great deal of customers’ monthly allocated bandwidth. Internet service providers often enforce a limit on how much customers can download monthly. A typical high definition movie streamed through Netflix can be as large as 3 GB. Standard definition movies are slightly smaller and run between 1 and 2 GB. This means that if you are a heavy user, going over your ISP’s monthly limit is a strong possibility. This results in high priced overage charges. Companies like Teksavvy, one of the smaller independent internet service providers hit by the CRTC’s original usage based billing decision, offer larger 200 GB and unlimited internet packages under no contract that are better suited to streaming services like Netflix.

Using an HD antenna is another very cost effective alternative to paying for cable. In some cases, HD aerials can receive as many as 16 HD channels. They also get regular analog channels and depending on where you live, American channels that aren’t even available in basic digital cable packages. The best part is that using one is absolutely free, all you need to do is buy one first. Prices for aerials range from $50 to $150; outdoor antennas are usually priced considerably higher than indoor ones.

CTV, Global and Comedy Central often allow users to stream television shows for free from their websites. The only issue is that usually you have to wait until the next day for the programming to show up online. Also if you’re looking to watch older episodes of TV shows, this method doesn’t really work. The latest episodes or seasons are often only up for a few months before they disappear.

Apple TV is another viable option to cable based subscription services. Apple’s streaming service allows you to rent high definition movies for $3.99 and standard definition movies for $2.99. Apple’s service has a good selection of newer movies and television programs. If you are a heavy user, Apple TV can get very expensive. The problem is that this is a rental service; Apple only lets you watch the movie or TV show for 24 hours before you have to pay for it again. You also need to purchase an Apple TV for this service to work – they sell for around $119.

There are also other completely free yet very illicit ways to watch your favourite television programs and movies online. A quick Google search reveals a plethora of torrent sites that allow users to download the latest movies and television shows. There are also a bunch of websites that stream TV shows and movies; you don’t even have to wait for the file to download– they play right away (as long as your internet connection can handle it).

If you don’t want to watch media on your computer you can hook you PC up to your TV (most modern televisions allow this through HDMI or VGA inputs), use an Xbox 360 or PS3, or even purchase a dedicated device that streams video files over your home network to the comfort of your home theatre system. When coupled with one of these devices you get a whole lot of video content for free. There is only one issue, downloading copyrighted material over the internet is completely illegal.

This form of watching content online is the number one concern for companies like Bell and Rogers and many believe prompted the CRTC’s initial usage based billing decision. It may be illegal but that isn’t stopping a lot of Canadians and the price is certainly an attractive point when considering this method.