#1
By Rachel Ross
Technology Columnist

There are two simple rules high-tech companies should note when dealing with customers - don't ask them what they think unless you really want to know and, above all, never ask them anything publicly.

You have to wonder just what Sympatico was thinking when they put a poll on their own Web site, asking customers their opinion of the Internet service provider's new pricing plans.

Sympatico and Rogers are both planning on instituting a maximum amount of content that customers can download before they're charged an additional fee; thus annihilating the whole idea of the great, unlimited Internet.

Huge surprise: the poll revealed the vast majority of participants were "shocked and dismayed" at the idea of bandwidth caps. A whopping 85 per cent, in fact.

Sympatico has since removed the pool from the Web site, but you have to question their initial motivation. Was Sympatico really expecting a different outcome?

I guess the company made the mistake of believing its own bumpf. They kept telling reporters that this would only affect a small minority of users and that the rest wouldn't really mind. A Roger's spokesperson went as far as to say that those who were complaining were just a "small fringe group" not really representative of their customer base.

Members of the Residential Broadband Users Association (RBUA) are calling it a bait-and-switch ploy.

"There are hundreds of thousands of subscribers to these services presently, and all of them signed up under the guise of 'Unlimited Internet,'" wrote RBUA member Phil Umrysh in an email outlining their cause earlier this week.

"How are parents supposed to monitor the amount of data their children use," he asks. "How is my 67-year-old next-door neighbour going to 'estimate' what's worth downloading and what isn't without being penalized financially?"

Previoulsy, my suggestions on the issue have been somewhat non-confrontational. I figured there was little customers could do beyond downloading everything in site before the cap kicks in just to stick it to "the Man."

Of course, you could simple someone other than Bell or Rogers for speedy surfing. Bob Carrick, the man behind the petition to stop the bandwidth caps, has a detailed description of three other options for Torontonians: Information Gateway Services, Trytel Internet and the Internet Stop.

The RBUA's campaign is a little less aggressive than switching providers altogether but could be a sound strategy. Umrysh's email to me was part of a letter-writing campaign, targeted primarily to multimedia content providers.

And let us not forget that, despite lagging ad revenues, content is king. The music and movie industry has been able to mobilize considerable force around a number of U.S. copyright protection bills. So far, the big bankrolls of Hollywood have won out over public opinion to defeat the bills. But what if the content providers and the general public were suddenly on the same team, all demanding unlimited access. For consumers it's a simple matter of getting the service they were promised. For online radio stations it's a way to ensure they still have an audience.

Desperate for eyeballs, the last thing an online music or movie supplier wants is a customer base frightened by bit caps.

This puts Sympatico itself in a very, very awkward position. If you've been listening to the radio lately you'll know no doubt have heard the online ads for the Web portal's multimedia content. Audio-video material for high-speed users is their latest push.

They've got Flash movies about the Stanley Cup and Scooby Doo movie trailers all in an effort to build a community of loyal users.

When I worked at Sympatico about 5 years ago, it was thought that such content would add "stickiness" to the Web site. ("Stickiness" was one of those choice words back then, which managers would toss around in an effort to look hip and knowledgeable.) The feeling was people would keep coming back to the site if you had the movies and music they wanted. At the time, Sympatico didn't have any audio-video content. The High Speed Internet portal was little more than a couple dozen reviews of Web sites that did have that content. It was a feeble attempt at being sticky by association, I suppose.

Several years later, the Internet portal has a deal with Lycos and at least enough cash flow to support some real multi-media content.

Which means this is just the beginning of a rather schizophrenic battle between Sympatico-Lycos (the content provider) and Sympatico High Speed (the Internet service provider).

What's the point of paying for servers to host and promote all that high-speed content, if you're going to openly discourage customers from taking a look?

It will be interesting to see just how many customers abandon Rogers and Bell for their competitors. Yes, that's right. There are competitors for high-speed Internet access in Toronto.

Bob Carrick, the man behind the petition to stop the bandwidth caps, has a detailed description of three other options for Torontonians: Information Gateway Services, Trytel Internet and the Internet Stop.

Choosing a smaller player doesn't guarantee a hassle-free experience, but it could go a long way to show the big boys the benefits of keeping the "fringe" groups happy.