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CRTC’s New Telecom-Media-Internet Vertical Integration Rules and Elephants in the Room

The world has been sitting on pins and needles since the CRTC’s hearings on vertical integration in the telecom-media-Internet industries held in June.  CRTC’s just come out with its new rules on the subject today. You can see the press release here or the full decision here.

A lot was at stake. The big four vertically integrated media companies in Canada — Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor Media (QMI) — said there was no problem, and proposed that, at most, the CRTC should accept some amalgamation of their propsed code. Everybody else disagreed: Telus, CBC, Access Communications, public interest groups, Channel Zero, the Weather Channel, and in a qualified way, Astral.

Rogers also carved out a somewhat distinct position given that with its CityTV network being the smallest of the big four’s holdings (QMI/TVA, Bell/CTV, Shaw/Global (Corus), suggesting a code with a bit of teeth so that it could feed its own mobile and Internet operations. A complete list of positions is available here.

Arguments were made about small markets needing big media players, and that argument front-ended the CRTC’s press release today.  In fact, however, as I’ve said in previous posts, Canada’s total media economy is not small, but the eighth largest in the world, and growing fast. We don’t need ‘big media’ to coddle small Canadians, but rather carriers the provide clear channels and the most open media set-up possible, full stop.

So, what did we get? The CRTC announced six key measures, but there’s at least two big elephants in the room that we need to consider, too. Here’s the six headline items:

  1. The big four — Bell, Shaw, Rogers, QMI — cannot offer tv programs exclusively to their own mobile or Internet subscribers. They must make them available to Telus, Wind, Access Communications, MTS Allstream, etc. Score on this one: Good (para 22).
  2. Programs created specifically for Internet or mobile distribution by the big 4 can be exclusive. Score on this one: umm, I suppose it’s a good one (para 23).
  3. No disrupting people’s experience in front of the telly. In other words, no black outs like the kinds that have bedevilled relationships between Bell and Quebecor in the past and which have periodically erupted in the US between, for example, Time Warner and Comcast on the distribution side of the business and Disney, Fox (NewsCorp) and Scripps Howard on the content side, when things get nasty over carriage (transmission) and programming rights. Score: sure, seems pretty good to me (para 104).
  4. Status quo maintained with respect to independent television producers access to schedules of the big four’s specialty channels (25 percent) and broadcast schedule (satisfactory).
  5. End of “block-booking”, the practice of tied selling where access to one channel is tied to taking a block of several channels. It was outlawed in the US for Hollywood in 1948 (S.Crt’s Paramount Decision), and it came to television in Canada today. Score: thumbs up (para 63).
  6. CRTC admonished the vertically integrated companies to come up with a broader range of ‘pick and pay’ models within six months allowing people to order television and programming services ala carte.  And what happens if they don’t? Another round of hearings, that’s what. Score: pass for at least trying and the cute raised eyebrow. If you don’t regulate, you can always browbeat these behemoths into doing something, suggesteth the latter. I don’t know, this one just seems to punt the issue down the line (less than satisfactory, but with words of encouragement so that KVF can do better next time).

So, on points 1, 2, 3 and 5, some clear ‘wins’ for competitors and consumers. Point four holds the line, while point six will require us to wait and see if the different players can sort things out amongst themselves. Otherwise, well, more consultations, hearings and decisions. Indeed, the CRTC points to many instances where additional consultations, hearings and decisions might be needed if the different interests can’t sort things out by themselves.

One particular issue worthy of mention here is the CRTC’s efforts to push Bell, Rogers, Shaw and QMI to share subscriber info collected and stored in their set-top boxes with independent programmers (para 141), albeit with due deference to privacy laws and concerns. The threat of yet another round of consultations on this issue also now hangs in the air if the two sides are unable to work things out themselves.

And how about those elephants-in-the-room, you ask? There’s two, I’d suggest, and they’re inter-related.

First, references to the common carrier sections (non-discrimination, equal treatment) provisions in the Telecommunications Act (1993)(secs. 27, 28 and 36), and specifically dealing with broadcast programming, are ignored, referenced only in passing. Vertical integration has rendered these a bit of a fiction, but the CRTC does have enormous powers under these sections.

That it has not leaned on them at all shows how far common carrier/network neutrality principles, and the rule of law, have been eclipsed by a ‘cobbling-things-together-as-we-go-along’ approach. Even from the perspective of “the market”, I don’t think this is a good thing.

The second big elephant in the room is that there’s nothing in the new rules establishing parity of treatment between rivals’ online video distributors (OVDs) such as Netflix, AppleTV, GoogleTV, etc., on the one hand, and the big four’s own online “tv everywhere” initiatives and IPTV offerings, on the other. With the ‘common carrier’ principles apparently in hibernation, perhaps this is not surprising.

What this means is that when Bell, Shaw, Rogers and QMI stuff tv programming/video down their pipes, it won’t count against the bandwidth caps that apply to almost all Internet access offerings in Canada. For Netflix and other OVDs, the caps apply and bandwidth is measured bit by bit. Call this the Netflix choke-hold, and the CRTC seems to have done nothing about it.

This element of the decision is a lost opportunity and one can’t help wonder if its a byproduct of all the fuss being made about how OVDs like Netflix are supposedly ravaging the foundations of the incumbents’ tv operations (although accounting for less than 1 percent of industry revenues) and the strong push by  Shaw, Astral, a report of the Senate Committee of Canadian Heritage, and the incumbent industry-driven Over the Top Services Working Group to have such entities regulated as broadcasters. For anyone thinking of setting up a similar OVD operation in Canada, this element of the decision seems like bad news.

In contrast, the FCC and Department of Justice approved the Comcast — NBC (Universal) amalgamation in January earlier this year on the condition that Comcast – NBC (Universal) not give preferential treatment to its own online tv services over those of rival OVDs or withhold NBC-Universal programming rights from OVD providers either. The CRTC’s decision address the latter point, but does nothing with respect to the first. A half victory?

We also need to remember that even the incomparably stricter measures adopted by the FCC -DOJ conditions in the Comcast – NBC case are modest in comparison to steps like structural separation and alternative network build outs that have been taken in, for example, the UK, NZ, Australia, Sweden, Chile, Romania, . . . . These measures were simply off-limits in the current proceedings.

Bell, Shaw, QMI and Rogers, of course, argued all along that the need to regulate them was always speculative and groundless.  But that is simply not born out be the evidence provided during the hearing by Telus, Access, MTS Allstream, SaskTel, Channel Zero, Wind, etc.. All of the latter parties argued that the problems are all too real and that gaining access to CTV content, for instance, became a whole lot harder once Bell acquired it earlier this year.

The historical record, as I’ve also argued, is also quite unequivocal on the folly of allowing those who own the medium to control the message. It is certainly a step in the right direction that the CRTC explicitly disagreed with the Big Four’s Panglossian view of the world, and has at least taken some steps to deal with the real issues at hand.

But the CRTC treads lightly in this domain and one thing that you won’t find in its decision is the actual evidence regarding the heavily concentrated state of the TMI industries in Canada. Yes, I state these numbers regularly, but it’s worth repeating them and also my consistent refrain that when you allow those who control the medium to control the messages flowing over it, predatory behaviour and choke points on the free flow of information will arise as sure as night follows day.

So, again, just as a reminder, here was the picture in 2010 of Bell, Shaw, Rogers and QMI’s share of the entire TMI industries in 2010:

  • 84 per cent of cable and satellite distribution
  • 78 percent of all television revenues
  • 66 per cent of wireless revenues
  • 54 per cent of Internet Service Provider revenues
  • 53 per cent of the wired telephone market
  • 39 per cent of radio

That is, ultimately, the source of the issues at hand, and unfortunately, the CRTC’s decision today seems mostly to be tiny pin pricks in the side of the real elephant-in-the-room.

Crony Capitalism?: Revolving Door between Telecom-Media-Internet Industries in Canada and Ex-Politicos

Where do ex-politicians go when they retire? It would appear that they take up sinecure amongst the boards of directors at Canada’s leading telecom-media-Internet (TMI) companies.

The appointment of recently retired Industry Minister Jim Prentice to Bell Canada’s board of directors and Stockwell Day’s appointment to Telus, respectively, in the last two weeks has tongues wagging. Many think it ain’t right, others see no problems; I see it as business as usual, systemic and a big problem that contradicts the ideals of a free press and any notion that TMI policy in this country is anything more than industrial policy and a major industry player protection racket.

Of course, not everyone sees things this way. As one lobbyist from the software industries in Canada badgered me over the weekend on Twitter, what’s an old political hack suppose to do when they leave office? What’s wrong with Prentice and Day taking up shop at Bell and Telus?

Well, lots. If it was just Prentice and Day stepping from the halls of Parliament to paneled boardrooms of Corporate Canada, perhaps it would be exceptional and not much to be worried about.  However, if we look at the boards of directors at the top ten TMI players in Canada, we see that they are not the exception but the rule. The boardrooms are brimming with their type, with a total of fourteen directors – an ex Prime Minister (Brian Mulroney at QMI), an ex-first lady (Mila Mulroney at Astral), two former Chairpersons of the CRTC (Francois Bertrand at QMI and Andre Bureau at Astral, and more, as the chart below shows – occupying these coveted spots.

Top 10 Telecom-Media-Internet Companies and the Ties that Bind

Ownership Politicos as Directors Family Members as Directors Links With Other MediaCos
Astral Greenberg Andre Bureau (CRTC chair)

3

Paul Godfrey (PostMedia)
Mila Mulroney Phyllis Yaffee (Dir. Torstar)
Bell Publicly Trade (Diversified) Jim Prentice (Cons. Ind. Minister) Not Relevant
E. C. Lumley (Lib. Cab. Min)
Carole Taylor (BC Fin Min)
Cogeco Audet (64%)

1

Rogers (36%)
PostMedia Godfrey (6.5%) David Emerson (Lib. Cab. Min)

1

Quebecor Péladeau Brian Mulroney (Cons. PM)Francoise Bertrand (Chair CRTC)Kory Tenycke (VP Sun News, ex Harper Dir. of Communication)

1

Rogers Rogers John H. Tory (ex. Ont. PC leader)David Peterson (ex Lib Premier Ont.)

4

Issabelle Marcoux (Transcontinental
Shaw Shaw Sheila Weatherhill (PM Advisory Cmmt on Public Service)

3

Torstar Atkinson, Thall Hindmarsh, Campbell, Honderich Roy Romanow (ex Premier of Saskatchewan)

2

Phyllis Yaffee (Dir. Astral)
Globe & Mail Thomson (65%)

2

OTPF (25%)
Bell (15%)
Telus Publicly Traded Diversified Stockwell Day (ex CPC Cab. Minister) Not Relevant

14

16

Sources: Corporate Annual Reports and Forbes Corporate Executives & Directors Search Directory <http://people.forbes.com/search&gt;

Things are particularly strange in Canada by the added fact that eight of the top ten TMI companies in this country are family-controlled. This degree of media mogul control and political ties to the inner sanctums of top media companies is reminiscent of an ‘ancien capitalism’, where families and the ‘political class’ are in charge rather than citizens and ‘expert’ managers at the helm of publicly-traded firms where ownership is dispersed and corporate operations transparent.

Things are different in the US, where Eli Noam points out in his authoritative Media Ownership and Concentration in America that the number of owner-controlled media firms fell from 35 percent to just 20 percent between 1984 and 2005 (p. 6). I think that Noam slightly exaggerates the decline given that five of the top global media conglomerates — Comcast (the Roberts family), News Corp (Murdoch family), Viacom-CBC (Redstone family), Bertlesmann (remnants of Bertlesmann and Mohn families) and Thomson Reuters (Thompson family) – are of this type. Moreover, the media baron still cuts a large figure at the top ICT and Internet companies to, think: Apple (Jobs), Facebook (Zuckerberg), Google (Page, Brin and Schmitt), Microsoft (Gates and Ballmer), Yahoo! (Yang), IAC (Diller and Malone) and CBS (Redstone).

The ongoing case of the telephone hacker scandal in the UK reminds us that with the Murdock family – Rupert and his son James – at the helm, we are far from the end of the era when media moguls ran supreme. Thus, while not totally unusual, the degree of ties between moguls and political appointments at Canada is of a different kind and more extensive. Such arrangements are backwards, if you will, and more like nations with a tradition of oligarchic capitalism, as in Russia and Latin America, then in the liberal capitalist democracies of the US and Europe.

It is not that we just have an outmoded system of family control with ex-politicos having positions of influence right across the ranks of TMI sectors, but also that the main players have ownership stakes in one another’s companies, as is the case with Rogers owning about a third of the equity in Cogeco and Bell a residual 15 percent stake in the Globe and Mail.

Also blunting the sharp edge of competition and independence between different players in the market is the fact that directors on the board of one company sit on the boards of supposed rivals. Phyllis Yaffee, an industrial stalwart with oodles of experience and one who actually does have the expertise and savvy to fill a directors’ shoes is on boards at Astral and Torstar. Paul Godfrey, also an old hand and savvy operator in the business, sits on the boards at Astral and PostMedia Co. —  the company a company that he has spearheaded the development of to assume ownership of the twenty odd newspapers (Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, National Post, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, etc.) left behind by the wreckage of Canwest. That wrecked vassal is yet another company that was family controlled (the Aspers) and not shy about stacking its board with ex politicos (e.g. Derek Burney, ex. Chief of Staff for Harper).

We also, as I have said repeatedly in this blog and elsewhere, a very highly concentrated set of industries. Altogether, the big 10 firms listed in the table above account for just under three quarters of all revenues in the TMI industries (excluding wired and wireless telephone services). I think the two are related.

It is not just that all our TMI industries, individually and as a whole, are very highly concentrated, but that policy and regulation in this country does not deal with this fact. Instead, policy-makers and regulators, to a large degree, cultivate concentration on the grounds that whatever problems this raises will be offset by industrial gains.

As David Ellis pointed out the other day, the CRTC does not regulate the TMI industries on the basis of any known standards of market concentration, but functions primarily to grease the supply-side of the industrial machinery that make up the TMI sectors.

The problem is not just that this leaves consumers and citizens on the sidelines while industry calls the shots. The problem is that the phenomenon of politicos on the boards of directors at the major TMI companies, and the revolving door between the regulator and government policy-shops on one side and industry on the other are pervasive, enduring and systemic.

What this means is that we cannot just look for one-off instances of influence peddling, as in, say, the allocation of spectrum in past and forthcoming wireless auctions, as Peter Nowak points out. Nor is that putting Harper’s former Director of Communication, Kory Tenyecke in the position of VP at QMI’s Sun News will leave a dirty trail of finger prints on every story covered, with lurid tales of stories spiked and stories spun to favour Harper and the Conservatives.

To be sure, a few cases of such things will happen, with one or two leaking out to become grist for the mill and confirming some people’s worst fears. The problem is deeper than that, however, and less easy to suss out in terms of what it all means. However, as I showed during the election this year, it is true that of the twenty-two papers that issued endorsements for Prime Minister in the last election, all but one stood foursquare behind Harper — a wall of Conservative editorial opinion behind the Conservative candidate for PM.

Yet, the meddling hand of direct owner or political influence is much more subtle, and rarer than this. Instead it takes place at two more general levels: corporate policy making and the allocation of resources, say, resources for faster Internet connections, more journalists and coverage of world affairs and the environment versus cut-backs, low levels of investment and fluffy content to titillate and instigate bickering rather than understanding and civil discourse. It is at this general level that directors hold sway. Indeed, that’s what they’re hired for, to set long term policy and make sure that those directly controlling the purse-strings do so wisely.

Beyond this, the real problems are three-fold: First, the revolving door between regulator (CRTC) and those who make the rules while in government, on the one hand, and the TMI companies, on the other, institutionalizes an approach to media policy as industrial policy and a strategic game. The extent of this also means that everybody in the game must adopt a similar strategy, which only aggravates the problem and makes things all the less apparent in terms of who and what is really calling the shots.

Consequently, regulation and policy-making is not so much about guiding the development of telecom, media and Internet in relation to democratic and free press values but industrial policy concerns. As I stated earlier, the CRTC serves principally to grease the supply-side machinery of these industries, rather than regulating in the public interest or in relation to a broad understanding of how people actually use media facilities and what we want. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the last known sighting of the CRTC’s old motto, “communication in the public interest”, was in December 2008 (see here). It has disappeared from the top of its webpage and prominent place on the front of publications ever since. No wonder some commissioners and the vice-chair have a hard time understanding the link between media and democracy.

Such arrangements are an affront to common sense and to principles of a free press in liberal capitalist democracies. They smell bad and smack of crony capitalism unfit by even the standards of liberal capitalist democracies.

Finally, they fly in the face of liberal theories of a free press. According to classical theories of the free press, and especially Whig tales of press history from the rise of advertising-funded mass media in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the media are suppose to be independent of government. They are also to serve as a watchdog nurturing the public sphere rather than as waiting lapdogs for retired politicos in the hope that they can tilt the industrial policy-making game in their new masters’ favour.

Telecom-Media-Internet Politics in Canada: Evidence, Theory & Ideology

We are at a fundamental turning point, a constitutive moment when decisions taken now will set the course of developments across the telecom-media-Internet ecology for years, maybe decades, to come. We’ve just finished one set of hearings, and two more are on the immediate horizon: the CRTC’s hearings on Usage-Based Billing that begin Monday, July 11 and its upcoming so-called ‘fact finding’ hearings on Over-the-Top/new media.

In an interesting and helpful post today, Peter Nowak argued for 7 fundamental guiding rules for telecom issues in Canada, by which he meant the full gamut of issues right across the TMI (telecom-media-internet) spectrum. They are very useful guides and starting points for discussion, and easy to remember to boot. They are:

  1. Ditch Usage-Based Billing
  2. Don’t regulate new media/over-the-top (OTT) services (e.g. Netflix)
  3. Strengthen Net Neutrality
  4. Turf Foreign Ownership Restrictions
  5. Spectrum Set Aside for New Players
  6. Don’t Regulate Cross-media market power (aka vertical integration)
  7. Plan ahead for ‘shared networks’.

I find these very useful starting points; perhaps because I agree with most of them wholeheartedly (1, 2, 3, 5). Others I’d endorse with some caveats (4). Some I would expand on greatly (7). Others I would reject completely because they lack any basis in evidence, history or theory (6).

In terms of foreign ownership, Nowak proposes to drop all of the current limits on ownership of telecoms industries in Canada. He suggests that doing this will increase ‘real competition’ in the market by adding new players. This is not an uncommon position and in my view, its goal of increasing competition is basically a good one. Michael Geist and Mark Goldberg, each in their own way, make much the same point.

There are at least three or four problems, some of which I’ve outlined in another recent post, however, with this notion of dropping foreign ownership, although I am, to repeat, not against the idea in principle. First, there’s a good chance that we could drop the rules and nobody would come. These times are not those of the high-tide of foreign investment, in case anybody has been sleeping under a rock for the past few years.

Second, even if new investment does occur, this doesn’t necessarily mean that new competitors will enter the market. It’s more likely that they’ll just take over one of the incumbents, thereby switching the ‘title’ to the underlying telecom property but not doing anything at all to increase the market, unless the new owners turn out to be better than the current ones.

This is exactly the point made by a recent report by the C.D. Howe Institute. Despite its exuberant support of the idea that all foreign ownership rules across the telecoms-media-Internet board should be dropped, the Howe report was forthright that this would probably not result in more competitors. Instead it would lead to something much woolier: “performance gains” (p. 3).

Good luck assessing that, I’d say. Like “beauty”, performance would mostly be subjective and in the eyes of the beholder. Besides, with all of the existing telecom and broadcast players clamouring for less information disclosure, less regulatory oversight and less transparency, as they did one after another during the vertical integration hearings, how could we possibly know whether this nebulous objective was achieved?

Third, Nowak’s piece is couched in the idea of being a “pragmatic” set of proposals, rather than one that dogmatically sticks to what he sees as the right or left of the political spectrum. Thus unlike the Howe Report’s suggestion to drop foreign ownership rules across the board, he argues that if an integrated telecom-media player wanted to sell to foreign investors, say a US telco like AT&T or Verizon or, just as likely, a private equity group, then Bell Media, for example, would have to sell off its television interests, e.g. CTV (and 28 specialty channels, 28 local television stations and 33 radio stations, although he doesn’t spell that out).

Quebecor would have to do the same with respect to TVA, for example, and its extensive holdings of newspapers and magazines. Rogers would do the same with CityTV, 17 specialty channels and stable of magazines, while Shaw would have to part with its assets in television (Global) and specialty channels (Corus). Fat chance that’ll happen, I’d say.

Moreover, because there is a much broader range of media involved than just telecoms and television due to the fact that the ‘big four’ vertically-integrated media companies (VIMCos) (Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor) also all have, in different combinations, extensive holdings in radio, newspapers and magazines, it’s not going to be so easy to simply hive of telecoms from television. Indeed, with newspapers and magazines swaddled in their own bundle of tax and investment incentives designed to shore up Canadian ownership, unravelling this stuff will be messy and complicated.

To my mind, this part of the proposal not might have been as fully thought through as it could have been. The C.D. Howe Institute report at least has the virtue of purity and clarity: drop the barriers on everything, telecom, broadcasting, media in general.

Fourth, a very significant problem and one that strikes deeply at whether we want to further allow our culture to be ‘securitized’ and ‘militarized’, US telecom-media-Internet companies and investment capital comes with a lot of national security baggage, particularly so in the telecoms-media-Internet space. Their operations are subject to the Patriot Act and US telecom providers and ISPs have shown a propensity to cooperate with national security agencies in a very murky zone outside the rule of law and without cover of authorized warrants in ways that subsequent courts have found illegal (here, here, here and here).

Microsoft’s acknowledgement in Britain this past week that all U.S. companies like it, whether they admit it or not, are subject to the Patriot Act, was the first real candid acknowledgement of the extra-territorial reach of U.S. national security policy when it comes to matters of the information infrastructure. As Gordon Frazer, managing director of Microsoft UK, admitted, data stored in the cloud was well within the reach of the PATRIOT Act.

The acknowledgement came in response to a question posed by ZdNet journalist, Zack Whittaker. Whittaker asked,

“Can Microsoft guarantee that EU-stored data, held in EU based datacenters, will not leave the European Economic Area under any circumstances — even under a request by the Patriot Act?”

No, Fraser explained, “Microsoft cannot provide those guarantees. Neither can any other company”.

Tying networks, servers, the Internet and everything else in Canada that runs through and on top of these facilities to US national security policy is to sell out fundamental principles regarding open media, transparency and a networked free press for the feint hope that we might achieve a modicum of more competition than we have now, and even then, not ‘real competition’, but rather the kind of newfangled Schumpeterian ‘innovation economics’ pushed by the C.D. Howe report.

But let’s move beyond the issue of foreign ownership to Nowak’s sanguine approach to vertical integration, an approach that I also find problematic. Why? Because he offers no evidence, lessons from history, or theory to support his case.

This is problematic because current evidence shows that concentration across the spectrum of telecom-media-Internet services in Canada is high, in absolute terms, and relative to comparable international standards. I offered a snapshot of this evidence in an easy-to-digest form in my Globe and Mail column last week.

I’ll repeat that here for convenience. In Canada, the ‘big 4 VIMcos’ — Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Quebecor (QMI) — account for:

  • 86 per cent of cable and satellite distribution market
  • 70 per cent of wireless revenues
  • 63 per cent of the wired telephone market
  • 54 per cent of Internet Service Provider revenues
  • 42 per cent of radio
  • 40 per cent of the television universe
  • 19 per cent of the newspaper and magazine markets
  • 61 per cent of total revenues from all of the above media sectors combined.

These numbers are not trumped up in the slightest, and in fact on the matter of the Internet and television services they are actually lower than those offered by the CRTC because of the different methodologies we use. Nowak doesn’t refute these numbers; he just doesn’t deal with them.

Theory tells us that media concentration, for which vertical integration is just one manifestation, embeds a bias for trouble in the ‘structure of the media’. Tim Wu, in the Master Switch, gets things right when he sets up the simple premise that it is important for regulators to curb the potential for companies to leverage power and resources across the three main layers of the telecom-media-Internet system: networks, content/applications and devices.

In theory, I think he is right and, based on the current and historical record, strong measures are needed to prevent companies from leveraging control over any one of these three layers — networks, content, devices — to curb competition and diversity in any other layer.

Nowak is clearly aware of the connection in this regard and he hopes that his first and second principles — ditching UBB and leaving ‘new media’/OTT untouched by regulators — will take care of vertical integration problems by removing the ability of Bell, QMI, Rogers and Shaw from using bandwidth caps and the pay-per Internet model to basically undermine the viability of rival online video distribution services (AppleTV, GoogleTV, Netflix, etc.) that they see as a threat to their own broadcast services. I think that these are important steps, but insufficient to deal with the full range of ways in which leverage across the three layers of the telecom-media-Internet system can be used to hogtie competitors and stifle the fullest range of voices and expression possible.

This is not just hypothetical potential, either, but rather documented by case after case of examples where either access to content or to networks is deployed in the strategic rivalry between less than a handful of players in oligopolistic markets. And when highly capitalized Netcos such as Bell own much smaller content companies like CTV, they have every incentive to use the latter to shore up the position of the former.

The recently completed vertical integration hearings at the CRTC were replete with example after example of this, from network companies such as Telus, SaskTel, MTS Allstream and Public Mobile as well as media content companies, whether the CBC or smaller production companies like Stornoway Productions.

These examples are not just limited to Canada either, but global in scope. They are behind the recent detailed regulatory framework put into place in the US by the FCC and Department of Justice that blessed the merger between Comcast and NBC-Universal, but not before taking comparatively stern steps, especially by Canadian standards, to ensure that NBC-Universal content could not be locked up or used by Comcast to the disadvantage of rivals in the broadcasting business. Furthermore, Comcast was also required to make its television and film content available to Internet competitors and ‘online video distributors’ (OVDs), a new category designed to cover services such as Netflix, Hulu, AppleTV, and so on, and to adhere to open Internet requirements generally.

Other countries such as Australia, Belgium, Britain and New Zealand have dealt with their own experience of networks being used to trample competition and diminish the range of voices and expression possible by going even further to set up rival ‘unbundled’ open networks (Australia) or by mandating ‘structural separation’ between incumbents’ networks (layer 1) and other layers (services, content, devices) in the system. In an important post yesterday, Bill St. Arnaud also talks about the development of networks that are essentially based on pick and choose access to capabilities and functionalities that respond flexibly and recursively to  user generated communication and information needs

The problem, thus, is one that is buttressed by evidence, by theory and by global experience. In light of this, robust measures rather than a sanguine approach to vertical integration is most definitely needed.

And to bring this to a close, the issues raised by vertical integration are not the consequence of innovative, new industrial arrangements or newfangled theory, but rather deeply entrenched historically and indeed endemic to situations where those who control the medium (networks) are also in a position to control the messages (content) flowing through those networks.

Thus, in the first decade of the 20th century in Canada, the Canadian Pacific Telegraph Co. and Great North Western Telegraph Co (the latter under ownership control of Western Union) had exclusive distribution rights for the Associated Press news services in Canada. As part and parcel of the telegraph companies’ bid to buttress their dominance in the highly lucrative telegraph business against a couple of smaller rival upstarts (the Dominion Telegraph Co in Canada and Postal Telegraph Co. in the US), the Canadian Pacific Tel. Co. and Western Union-backed Great North Western Tel. Co. offered one of their premier set of clients — newspapers across the country — access to the AP news service at a very cheap rate. In fact, they gave it away “free”. Sound familiar? (observant readers might also note the persistent recurrence of ‘network infrastructure duopolies’, too)

The AP news service was so cheap because instead of paying the cost for both the news service and the telegraph charges for delivering it from one place to another, Canadian Pacific Tel. Co. and Great North Western Tel Co only charged newspaper subscribers the ‘transmission costs’ for the AP service. The content, under such arrangements, was ‘free’. Of course, this was a real boon to established members of the press and to AP, while it also helped to stitch up the companies’ lock on the telegraph business.  It was a menace to rival news services and a competitive press or telegraph system, however.

The fly-in-the-ointment was that any competitor news service was at a huge disadvantage because its subscribers had to pay the ‘transmission costs’ plus the cost of the news service. Thus, when Winnipeg-based upstart, the Western Associated Press, tried to set up a rival Canadian news service to that of the Associated Press in 1907, it found it’s opportunities blocked at every step of the way because there was simply no way its subscribers could pay two costs — transmission and for the news service — while the AP service was essentially given away free after subscribing newspapers paid the telegraph companies their fees for distribution.

As one muckraking journalist W. F. Maclean wrote in the Toronto World,

“attempts on the part of public service companies [the telegraph companies] to muzzle free expression of opinion by whitholding privileges that are of general right cannot be too strongly condemned.”

The matter found its way before one of the long-lost predecessors to today’s CRTC, and one of the first regulatory bodies in the country, the Board of Railway Commissioners. Canadian Pacific Tel. Co. came out swinging, arguing that the BRC simply had no authority over the news services or to compel it to separate the costs of the news services from transmission costs.

Times were different then, it seems, and the BRC didn’t wilt one bit amidst the hot-heated rhetoric but blasted back that it was compelled by  law to insure that rates were “just and reasonable” and that unless transmission rates were separate, explicit and equitable “telegraph companies could put out of business every newsgathering agency that dared to enter the field of competition with them” (BRC, 1910, p. 275).

The upshot was separation of control over the wires from control over the news business. The regulator had all the authority in the world it needed to break up the ‘double headed news monopoly’.  It is a lesson that the CRTC and everybody else interested in ensuring that we oversee the creation of the most open media with the maximum range of voices and creative expression possible should pay close attention to.

Of course, the modalities of communication have changed tremendously and we now live in age of information abundance rather than scarcity, but as Tim Wu’s Master Switch and the mounting evidence before our very eyes attests, the basic logic of leveraging content and networks to confer advantages on one’s own operations whilst driving others into submission, if not out of business altogether, is alive and well.

This is a basic and easy-to-grasp point, and until we firmly implant it at the heart of the structure and regulation of the telecom-media-Internet system, we will continue to forgo the economic, political, cultural and personal benefits of the most open network media system possible and which further the goals and values that define a free and democratic society.

On that score, Nowak is right, these are not ‘left’ and ‘right’ issues. They are issues, principles and values of concern to all who take the precepts of liberal capitalist democracy seriously and who see in the status quo a condition that is badly lacking by even that non-ideological/utopian standard.

Source:

Board of Railway Commissioners (BRC). (1910). The Western Associated Press v. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company’s Telegraph and the Great Northwestern Telegraph Company of Canada. In Sessional papers of the Parliament of Canada. Ottawa: J. De Labroquerie Tache, Printers to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.

Down the Rabbit Hole at the CRTC: Regulator and Big 4 Make Molehill Out of Mountain on Telecom-Media-Internet Concentration Issues

As per my usual practice, this post is a slightly altered version of my column in the Globe and Mail today. It is a a wee bit longer and, as is my standard practice, comes more fully-equipped with citations and sources that you can turn to to follow up on, assess my take on things, and so forth.

In the first of two column’s last week I offered evidence and argument as to why the CRTC’s current vertical integration hearings are not likely to deal effectively with the question of telecom-media-Internet concentration in Canada. Sitting in on three full days of hearings last week has convinced me that the prospects may be even dimmer than I thought.

If you know how to say “voluntary code”, “case-by-case dispute resolution”, “skinny basic”, and status quo, you’re in luck because that’s probably what the outcome will be. Some consumers will benefit with slimmed down and more affordable basic cable and satellite packages and there’s a fifty-fifty chance that a hands-off-Netflix approach is in store, if I am right. The pay-per Internet model and less than a handful of telecom-media-Internet behemoths, however, will be still stand astride a set of highly concentrated industries, and we will be the poorer for this.

The hearings had an Alice-in-Wonderland feel, mainly because the evidence offered by all sides was remarkably poor. Consequently, discussion meandered between speculative worries and rose-tinted visions brought to us courtesy of the great media corporations of Canada.

The CRTC’s refusal to do much original research of its own compounds this problem, and compares badly with research conducted by, for example, the FCC and Ofcom, respectively. Like the mythical beaver that castrates itself in self-defense, the CRTC seems to worry that conducting original research might bias its decisions. Strange.

All of the top brass from Bell, Shaw, Quebecor Media Inc. (QMI) and Rogers attended, sometimes with as many as ten to a delegation. With few exceptions (see below), the Big Four stood as one against almost everyone else, but nonetheless they seem to have set the parameters of discussion around less than a handful of touchstone themes:

  • That we should rely on market forces to the maximum extent possible.
  • Canadian markets are competitive, small by global standards and need big media companies to compete.
  • problems that do arise should be settled one by one after they occur rather than establishing clear regulatory rules before hand.
  • concerns about the anti-competitive potential of vertical integration are mostly speculative rather than real.

Rogers allowed a crack of light to peak through when it broke ranks with Bell, QMI and Shaw to table a “code of conduct” that would require vertically-integrated media firms to sell programming rights to traditional broadcasters, such as the five CityTV stations that it owns. While the others tried to belittle or ignore Rogers’ stand on this point, the CRTC seemed to like the voluntary code of conduct idea very much. I suspect we’ll have some version of it.

Otherwise, Rogers, Bell, Shaw and QMI united behind the view that smaller rivals should not be entitled to a regulated guarantee of fair and reasonable access to their networks or the content rights associated with TSN, Rogers SportsNet, the History Channel or any of the other 100-plus television channels they own between them.

QMI’s CEO and majority owner, Pierre Karl Péladeau, scoffed at the idea that exclusive content agreements were a problem. Bell’s chief regulatory front man, Mirko Bibic called the idea that audiences should be able to access content on any device from any provider, anytime, “preposterous”.

Brad Shaw, the CEO and part of the family that controls Shaw Media, bristled when I intervened in a journalistic softball scrum to ask him to respond to the possibility that concerns with vertical integration and media concentration are not based on speculation and fear mongering but current evidence and recurring historical patterns. After shrinking back into my shoes, he returned to typical patter about how vital it is for Shaw to be “consumer centric”.

Over the course of the three days, Netflix was set up as a formidable threat to the Canadian broadcasting system. This may be a shock to some, but I got the sense that the CRTC is not all that eager to assume this role, despite enormous pressure from Bell, Shaw, QMI and (less so) Rogers, the Over-the-Top Working Group, media unions, arts and culture groups, the Senate Committee on Canadian Heritage as well as a pending Supreme Court case.

When I spoke with Michael Hennessy, Telus’s Senior Vice-President, Regulatory and Government Affairs, he came across as a thoughtful man and seemed to better understand the idea that just because a company owns the medium does mean that it should control the messages flowing through them. Telus’ primary focus is on connectivity, he told me, not content.

Telus’ periodic work with Google, amongst other things has taught the company, he also said, that it is better to grant as much access to outside content sources as possible and push control out to the edges of the network and into the hands of Internet users. One doesn’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Telus fan to accept everything that he claimed, but in my view Telus is on the side of angels on this question – even if this has not always been the case.

Telus’ launch of IPTV services over the past few years has been a success by Canadian standards, but obtaining content rights for its IPTV and mobile video services has been a real obstacle, with Bell standing out in this respect since its acquisition of CTV earlier this year. According to a recent OECD study, Canada ranks 19th out of 27 in terms of the percentage of subscribers to IPTV, while rates in Sweden, Belgium and France are four- to ten-times higher (p. 223). One wonders if this low ranking is related to the problems just described and regulatory rules not up to the task of curbing market power across a number of telecom, media and Internet industries?

Commercial broadcasters have been slow to develop online video services, doing so only around the end of 2007, early 2008. It was the CBC, instead, that blazed the way, only to find one of its early attempts to use BitTorrent to distribute an episode of Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister thwarted by Bell’s ‘network throttling’ practices. The big four have accelerated their efforts in the past year, mainly as Bell, Shaw, Rogers, and QMI import the “tv everywhere” from the US so that existing subscribers can access the companies’ own content anywhere, anytime.

Reflecting the fact that commercial broadcasters have been slow on the uptake, Konrad von Finckenstein asked Péladeau why QMI hadn’t launched an online video downloading service to compete with Netflix? The activities of the “state broadcaster” (the CBC), he responded, excessive regulation, and nervous investors were holding it back. The head of the CRTC also asked for evidence that Netflix was a threat to the television system, but was told by Péladeau that he had none.

Smaller players, in sharp contrast, piled anecdote upon anecdote to show that vertical integration is, in fact, a significant problem. Telus, MTS, SaskTel and Cogeco submitted a “joint proposal” as well that sets out a handful of principles that they want enshrined in a sturdy regulatory framework:

  • Access to content by television program distributors and carriers should be on fair and reasonable terms.
  • Subscribers should be able to access the content they want from the device they want anywhere, anytime.
  • Block booking — tying the rights to purchase one television channel to buying several others, among other things – should not be allowed (a stance consistent with CRTC’s favourable view of “skinny basic”, i.e. a minimalist basic cable tv service).
  • A tough regulatory regime is needed before-hand and not after the fact, as the big four would like.
  • The regulator must assume a tough stance toward vertically-integrated telecom-media-Internet conglomerates that possess substantial market power.

Most independent broadcasters more or less agree with these ideas, with some minor tweaks. Despite their merit, however, the evidence to support these principles, was not convincingly demonstrated by anyone.

The fact that evidence was probably never going to carry the day anyway, however, struck me hard on Day Three when von Finckenstein called Telus’s proposal “over the top”. Newly-appointed Vice Chair of the CRTC, Tom Pentefountas, added to this sense when he asked Michael Hennessy if Telus’ “proposals essentially take the ‘free’ out of the ‘free market’?”

Across the aisle from me, Bibic, the regulatory pitbull from Bell who had made more than one CRTC commissioner wince and waiver during his presentation a day earlier, smiled broadly like The Cheshire Cat. Day 3, and the endgame was coming clearly into view.

Day 3 and the endgame was coming clearly into view.

Breaking News: Competition Bureau Slams Bell for Ripping People Off

Bell was slammed with the highest fine possible today for ripping people off for bundled telecom-media-internet, $10 million. The Competition Bureau meted out the stiffest punishment it has and arrived at a settlement out of court that will also see Bell pay the $100k costs the bureau sunk into the investigation.

Here’s what the Competition Bureau’s press release had to say:

The Bureau determined that, since December 2007, Bell has charged higher prices than advertised for many of its services, including home phone, Internet, satellite TV and wireless. The advertised prices were not in fact available, as additional mandatory fees . . . were hidden from consumers in fine-print disclaimers.

Astounding. Incredible. WTF?

I just heard Melanie Aitken, the Director of the Competition Bureau, talking on the CBC. She’s nobody’s fool, and we could only wish her tools were stronger and that instead of just looking at pricing and advertising, as important as they are, the Bureau could delve deeper into the very structure of the telecom-media-Internet industries of which Bell and its deceptive practices are a part.

That Bell is not exceptional in this regard is illuminated a bit further when we recall that it was less than a year ago that Rogers was also slammed by the Competition Bureau. In that case, Rogers was using the false advertising claim that its new, down market wireless phone service offered “fewer dropped calls than new wireless carriers”, an obvious — but completely false — attempt to cast aspersions on the first new competitors to enter the highly concentrated Canadian wireless market in years. So, chalk one up for consumers and competitors courtesy of the Competition Bureau.

All of this is, as I said, all to the good. It could, however, be even better when it comes to integrated telecom-media-Internet industries in four ways.

First, and again as I just said above, it needs to look closely at the structure of these industries (see here for related post and evidence).

Second, it needs to effectively deal with the fact that these industries are highly concentrated by the conventional standards of Concentration Ratios (T1, 2, 3 and 4 players control X% of market) and the Herfindahl-Hirschmann Index (HHI) (Market share of each player squared  and summed). The trends in Canada are also high by global standards – at least twice as high as in the U.S.

For those who like to watch how sausage is made, you can see some of the data backing up these claims in my presentation on the state of telecom-media-Internet concentration in Canada as part of my work with the International Media Concentration Project out of Columbia University. I am in the process of finishing the data collection for 2010 and will update soon.

The levels of concentration are not getting worse; nor are they getting any better. They’ve stayed pretty steady for most of the last decade at a high level.

Third, we need learn how to talk about communication, media and values. The fact that media concentration levels have stayed steady, even if at a high level, might be good enough for some people, but I don’t think it is.  Why?  Because it does not serve to maximize the diversity of voices available and the range of free and creative expression to as many people as possible.

Taking high levels of concentration as a given adopts the technocratic standards of the bureaucrat, like the CRTC which states that its goal is to promote “as much diversity as is practicable“. The last term is entirely procedural, rather than normative. Compare ‘as much diversity as practicable’ with the standard I introduced above regarding the need to strive fro the maximum range of voices and freedom of expression possible.

The CRTC eschews Facts because it refuses to do much of its own original research. It’s feelings about norms and values are even more suspect. Indeed, even the old sign hanging over it’s front door, at least it’s web page, “regulation in the public interest” disappeared from all public documents sometime in late 2009.  The regulator, in sum, has intentionally fenestrated itself in terms of both Facts and Norms, suggesting that not only is it poorly equipped but not all that interested in doing the job at hand.

Conservatives like to desparage this kind of talk as “aspirational language”, or words that convey some sense of how things might be or what’s worth striving form. Liberal fantasies, they smirk.

Umm, I think we should talk about what we want. That, in some ways, is what democracy is all about, organizing, talking, and translating into action some notion of what we want, not in all domains, but in those that constitute the ‘networked digital agora’, yep, we wanna talk.

Until we learn how to talk about and reconcile both the Facts on the ground with the ‘Norms’ conveyed through the language we use, as one of my fav social theorists/philosphers, Jurgen Habermas (and after The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, for you insiders) might put it, we will be forever unable to properly deal with the questions before us.

But back to the more immediate question at hand, and my fourth suggestion in terms of dealing with problems that, if not endemic, certainly seem to crop up with regularity in Canada’s telecom-media-Internet industries.

Bell got caught screwing people over and that’s a great deal. Slimy behaviour, however, can occur equally in markets that are topsy turvy with ruinous competition or heavily concentrated. In the case at hand, I’d say we have slimy behaviour by Bell and Rogers for two years running in highly concentrated markets. We need to think about that fact with eyes wide open, then decide what we wanna do about it.

And to this end, I would say that the Competition Bureau and CRTC should, after the latter in particular radically rethinks its raison d etre and way of doing things, work together on studying telecom-media-Internet markets in Canada and pick a course of action. The ‘maximum reliance on market forces’ mantra foisted upon the CRTC by Cabinet Directive from the Conservative Government in 2006 has gotta go.

Things cannot proceed on the terms now taken for granted but at the very least must take as a minimal model the congenial hand-in-hand approach taken by the Dept. of Justice and the FCC in the US in the recent approval of cable giant Comcast’s take-over of NBC-Universal. Some, indeed many, still refuse to accept this as a good deal, including FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who wrote a scathing rebuke of the approval.

By Canadian standards, however, the Comcast NBC-Universal decision, truly is a ‘beacon of hope’ compared to the standards that we have now. To see the Competition Bureau and CRTC walk hand-in-hand with a real sense of the ‘facts’ on the ground and the values of the most open and democratic communication and media system possible clearly in sight would be a really decent place to start.

Big, Brash & Bold: Drop all Telecom-Media Foreign Ownership Limits

A new report by the CD Howe Institute came out today. It’s not big, just 3 pages and seemingly informed by a bunch of guys sitting around a table at the Howe’s ‘inaugural meeting’ last week (June 17).

It is brash, and some might dress it up as bold: drop all limits on ownership of telecoms and media industries in Canada, it says. Full stop.

No phase out. No ‘newcomer advantages’, full stop again. No attempt to separate the ‘medium’ (wires, spectrum, sewer access) and the message (broadcasting, integrated suite of ‘content’ from mags to blogs) from one another. A digital free for all, you might say.

Perhaps the gentlemen, and they were with the exception of only a single woman, thought this might be a good idea while they sat around and chatted last Friday afternoon. Apparently, there were not so many women ‘law & economics’ types available to join them, given that all but out of the 16 places apparently went to the guys and boys from Bell (see below). I guess ‘law and economics’ types like Sheridan Scott, a hard liner in these matters, and Monica Auer, who generally takes the opposite tack by speaking eloquently and passionately on the telecom and media workers’ behalf, weren’t available, or any of the other smart dames roaming these circles as I saw, in the minority, at the CRTC’s hearings this week.

I looked at the composition of ‘the deciders’ not just because their gender was so obviously skewed, but because I recognized the names of most of the guys. One in particular leapt out, Jeffrey Church, a University of Calgary economics professor. By all accounts, he’s an excellent teacher. Professor Church caught my eye because, in addition to advising the ‘big 3Ps’ in Canada as I’ll call them — Petroleum, Alberta Beef Producers, Pharma — Professor Church just wrote an economic analysis for Bell as part of the very, very important vertically-integrated telecom-media-Internet hearings now being held by the CRTC.

According to Church in his voluminous 93 page submission on Bell’s behalf, vertical integration is good for consumers and for Canada (p.5). I disagree, strongly, for reasons set out regularly in this blog (e.g. here) and my column for the Globe and Mail on Monday.

It’s not just Church that is so closely tied to Bell, but also Marcel Boyer, Bell Canada Professor Emeritus of Industrial Economics, Université de Montréal, as the CD Howe report indicates on the back of this slim 3 page ‘report’. 2 out of 16 does not a majority make, obviously, but their presence does stand out.

The rest of the lot in this ‘law and economics’ crowd does not seem very adventuresome, either. I know one professor occupying a BCE endowed chair that won’t be called upon, Professor Robert E. Babe at the University of Western Ontario, for he has traced the propensity of telecoms historically to go from limited competition to ‘total consolidation’ on a regular basis.  Let us say that the fact that Howe ‘report’ has zero to say about such notions is not all that surprising.

The 3 page ‘report’ is candid that dropping the foreign ownership limits on everything — telecom, media, internet — will not increase the number of competitors in the market. As it states, “given the small size of the Canadian market, the consensus view saw no major change in the number of national competitors”.

Translation, the big three companies in wireless telecoms — Bell, Rogers, Telus — for instance will still account for about 94% of the market (according to CWTA 2010), but they might be owned by yet a larger foreign based telco (Vertizon, the ‘new’ AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, etc.) or may private equity funds. Me, I have doubts many foreign investors — telcos, priv equity funds, banks — will even come if permitted to do so (or if we want ’em to on such ‘carte blanche’ terms). I’m not alone on this, and hardly radical, given that even the World Bank states that the keys to effective foreign ownership is a ‘strong state’ able to regulate and competition.

Instead, the Council of 15 wise men and 1 smart woman says, drawing on newfangled theory about ‘competitive innovation’ drawn from the right-wing side of Schumpeterian ‘innovation economics’, that “the gains from liberalization would likely result . . . from better performance by telecommunications market participants”. Umm, I hope so, especially because its this same crowd breying for the withdrawal of any meaningful conception of regulation or state intervention. The CRTC’s horizons have been blinkered and public ventures like CANARIE have had their wings clipped. How foreign capital will ‘improve’ performance standards in Canada is not clear to me/self-evident.

The report advocates this ‘regulatory shock and awe’ to be developed in one swell swoop, with no distinctions kept between telecoms and broadcasting, between networks and content, between incumbents and newcomers. The telecom-media-Internet sectors are now so entangled on account of digitization and how people use media that they must be treated together as a whole. Partial agreement there about treating things ‘holistically’.

More targetted measures are suggested as alternative to foreign ownership for whatever “cultural policies” might be left over. Some of these ‘targetted measures’ I believe in — securing financing for content production, shelf space, strong CBC — and they have been promoted by at least two of the same writers involved in today’s 3 page missive (e.g. see Hunter and Iacobucci, with a third author Michael J. Trebilcock).

There are several problems with this “report”, however, that make it’s contribution to public discussion dubious, despite the fact that it will gain much attention.

1. Three pages is not a report and should not be pitched as one.

2. The Council of the Wise is skewed along lines suggested above, ie. by Bell and by Gender. Bell has always had a visible hand in the telecom, broadcasting and media industries, indeed, since it began broadcasting speeches, songs and sermons in the 1880s and took-over the Chairmanship of the 1905 Mulock Commission which had originally been convened to look into the underdevelopment of the telephone system in Canada in the early days of the 20th century.

So, that Bell continues to be front and centre 100 years later, at the dawn of the 21st century, is both a marker of continuity and somewhat unsurprising, but equally suspect/problematic in each of these occasions. The presence of Bell’s hired gun (Church), a Bell sponsored ‘academic chair’ (emeritus, Boyer), and BCE CEO George Cope’s speech at the C.D. Howe two months ago all so bunched up in time and common stance has a whiff of something not quite right about it.

3. While I don’t actually have many problems with increasing competition and dissolving lines between the medium and the message, or the network infrastructure and content, we also need to be upfront about the fact that the former (media infrastructure) are generally scarce and the latter (messages) abundant. In today’s OECD Communication Outlook 2011, it is clear that, generally speaking, the top 2 ‘netcos’ in each of the OECD countries account for between two-thirds and three quarters of fixed and mobile telecom network markets in each of the OECD countries (pp. 56-59). This means:

  • that Netcos generally should be regulated for market power, ‘messagcos’ generally not.
  • ties between Netcos and Messagcos are congenitally fraught with problems and propensity for anti-competitive behaviour.
  • Free speech standards and the values of a ‘networked free press‘ are also at play (and here). As the United Nation’s Human Rights Council recently stated, those standards apply to the Internet and people should have, as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of the Rights stated before it in 1948, the freedom to receive and impart any information, through any media regardless of frontiers. At the CRTC Hearings on vertical integration the other day, Bell’s Mirko Bibic and Shaw’s brass called the idea that people should have access to any content on any device “preposterous”. The C.D. Howe ‘report’ is oblivious to these considerations.

4. The C.D. Howe report misses reality and the ‘big picture’. Perhaps this is because there is not a whiff of heterodox thinking among the ‘law & economics’ experts who wrote it. Not one ‘ecclectic’ economists, not one wild eyed, crazy lawyer, not a communication and media scholars or a historian in sight.

This is too bad because as long as it continues to be the case, people will continue to talk past one another. And it also means that ‘reports’ like this one, and the policies and approaches that actually do follow close in tow in the ‘real world’, will lack legitimacy.

5. Without being able to expand their horizon, the authors of the C.D. Howe ‘report’ blithely countenance “North American integration”. Economically, as I said above, I don’t have a particular problem with that, although I doubt that things will pan out as they expect, and even that what the Howe folks do expect ain’t much (“better performance” from same number of players).

Politically and culturally, however, there is a problem, not with Cancon and ‘traditionalist/romanticist’ conceptions of culture, but ‘network culture’. Netcos and search engines are now closely allied with state security, military strategy and defense contractors.  It’s probably best to keep some clear blue water between these domains. The authors give no hint that they have even thought of this.

Netcos, ISPs, search engines, etc. are also constantly being badgered by lobbyists as well as politicians in Canada and the U.S. to play a greater role on behalf of  media and entertainment industries (for most recent and strong opposition to this from within just the mainstream’, see here). The approaches have differed, with the last government in Canada wisely turning down lobbyists push to have ISPs play the role of ‘copyright cop’, disconnecting people who repeatedly are identified as ‘copyright bandits’.

The International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) launched it’s efforts to lean hard on ISPs and search engines, and less on Digital Rights Management (DRM), in 2008. It has been picking off ‘wins’ for this agenda around the world, but not so much yet in Canada.

Yesterday, CNet journalist Greg Sandoval reported that AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon “are closer than ever to striking a deal with media and entertainment companies that would call for them to establish new and tougher punishments for customers who refuse to stop using their networks to pirate films, music and other intellectual property”.  That turn-of-heart, in turn, he reports, was eased by coaxing from the Obama Administration and the National Cable TV Association.

The pressure is already strong in Canada, but so far government and regulators have refused to make ISPs the deputies of the media and entertainment industries or to regulate the Internet as a broadcast distribution medium. On law and order, however, the push is for a stronger state and more compliant Netcos and Searchcos.

While there’s lots of dots to connect between all of these latter points, the key idea is that integration at the network and market levels is going to increase pressure to harmonize tougher matters that impinge greatly on network media, and thus network culture. That the blokes and one women from C.D. Howe have nary a word about this and don’t dare let the phrases ‘network neutrality’ and ‘open media’ cross their lips is a problem of the first order because those concerns, as sure as night follows day, are at the heart of the emergent network media culture. How can foreign ownership be reconciled with these concerns should be the question, rather than if it if good or bad altogether.

In sum, until we can start speaking one another’s language and stop passing off economic and policy platitudes backed by those with big stakes in the game, the nominal ideas presented in this “report” should be shelved and other big questions — vertical integration, for example — put on hold.

Ultimately, Pork, Petroleum and Pharma are not the same as telecoms and media. We need some new thinking for ‘new media’.

Until we recognize this, we’re not going to get very far, at least in a a way that takes into account the full range of issues at hand, rather than the economists narrow measuring rod of value.

Rubber Stamp or Real Questions?: CRTC Addresses Vertically Integrated Media for Next 2 Weeks

As I normally do, this post largely replicates my column for the Globe & Mail today with the addition of a few more links so that you can follow up on things that I refer to. I was at the opening of the hearings today and plan to be there a few more times this week and next. I’ll have more to report in a few days.

Altogether, seventy-eight different parties filed interventions with the CRTC. There are 50 scheduled to give presentations over the next two weeks. You can find all of the links to the briefs and studies filed with the CRTC by the companies and other intervenors here.

The CRTC’s hearings on vertical integration began Monday. For the next two weeks this means that the four major vertically-integrated media companies in Canada – Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor – could face tough questions about whether they have the clout to dominate telecom, media and Internet services across the country and, if so, what should be done to curb that potential?

The hearings were scheduled last November after the CRTC approved cable giant Shaw’s $2 billion take-over of bankrupt Canwest Media’s television assets (27 television stations, the Global network, 30 specialty cable and satellite channels). It was given added impetus after Bell’s $3.2 billion deal to acquire CTV and the A-channels was given the green light in March.

There is every reason to be skeptical about these hearings given that they are a classic case of “bolting the barn door after the horse has already left the stable”. It is also CRTC approvals all down the line that have allowed integrated media conglomerates to become the norm to begin with.

In the U.S., media conglomerates have become the exception (Comcast/NBC-Universal) after the disastrous AOL Time Warner merger, the collapse of the ‘old’ AT&T, break-up of Viacom-CBC, and so on. Indeed, vertical integration is in retreat in almost every other developed capitalist democracy.

We should also remember that Bell attempted – and failed— to extend its reach from the medium to the message from 2000 to 2006 by taking-over CTV, CHUM, and the Globe & Mail. The fate of Canwest was worse. Yet, we seem to be stuck in a time warp, with CEOs, Cabinet Ministers and the CRTC singing in unison that media conglomerates are all the rage, for much the same reason that they did back in the 1990s.

Be that as it may, Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor Media Inc. (QMI) do exemplify the trend in Canada. They are the ‘big four’ and the hearings are all about them. They stand at the apex of a set of telecom, media and Internet markets that have grown greatly from $42 billion in revenue in 1998 to $73 billion today (in constant 2010$).

The real issues, however, are not about the sheer size of the ‘big four’, but their market power. Between them, Bell, Shaw, Rogers and QMI control:

  • 86 percent of cable and satellite distribution
  • 70 percent of wireless revenues
  • 63 percent of the wired telephone market
  • 54 percent of Internet Service Provider revenues
  • 42 percent of radio
  • 40 percent of the television universe
  • 19 percent of the newspaper and magazine markets
  • 61 percent of total revenues from all of the above media sectors combined.

That, by any standard measure of concentration, constitutes a highly concentrated market.

The fact that Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor stand as gateways to so much raises concerns that they will give undue preference to their own services rather than serve as open gateways to the maximum range of entertainment, communication, knowledge and news possible. In this regard, more is a stake than anti-competitive behaviour, because the range of expression available in a society is a barometer of the quality of freedom of expression and democracy in it. None of the ‘big four’ waxes much about this, however, insisting as they do that the laws of normal economics should be the only measuring rod of value.

To be sure, the ‘big four’ are hardly the only players in town. There is also an important second tier of a dozen or so smaller players that have stuck to their knitting in just one or two media: Telus, MTS, SaskTel, Cogeco, Bragg/Eastlink, the CBC, Astral, Postmedia, Transcontinental, Power Corp, Thomson/Globe & Mail, Torstar and Brunswick News. Then there is a third tier made up of the thousands who fill in the nooks and crannies of the media universe: Wikipedia, the Mark, media workers, star journalists, opinion leaders, blogs, your best friend, personal websites and so on.

The position of all these parties turns on where they sit. To the ‘big four’, to the extent that there’s ever been a ‘golden age’ of media, the picture just presented is it. Thousands upon thousands of actors, big and small, making it nearly impossible for any single entity to exert excess influence over it all.

According to Bell’s hired-gun, University of Alberta economics professor, Jeffrey Church, “vertical integration is beneficial for consumers”. According to him and other briefs filed by the big four, consolidation is good for consumers and Canada because:

  • it reflects efficiencies, spurs competitive innovation and is a global trend.
  • telecom, media and Internet markets in Canada are “highly competitive”.
  • our ‘small media economy’ needs a few deep-pocketed ‘national champions’ to compete globally and invest heavily in innovation at home.
  • instances of harm are mostly imaginary and few and far between.
  • it helps keep “consumers . . . within the regulated system” (Shaw, p. 4)

The collapse of media conglomerates elsewhere, the evidence of market power above, and the fact that Canada has the eight largest media economy in the world, after France and Italy, and just before South Korea and Spain, should raise an eyebrow or two about claims one through three. Claim four is false (see below), and the last one repugnant.

Many in the second tier and ‘nooks and crannies’ of the media also challenge these claims. Telus, for instance, argues that the harms are real, not prospective. Buying program rights, for example, from CTV, the Comedy Network, TSN and two-dozen other channels, it argues, became a whole lot harder, and more expensive, after Bell Media took them over.

Access, a cooperatively run cable-system-cum-Internet provider in Saskatchewan raises similar concerns. Those that have content, but not distribution networks – Astral, CBC, media workers – make a similar case, but point to how control over networks rather than programming rights can cause real world harm.

Periodic squabbles between Quebecor and Bell highlight much the same point, with Quebecor’s SunTV hobbled in equal measure by self-inflicted wounds and its inability to sign an acceptable ‘contract for carriage’ with Bell. Just last week, the CRTC declared that Bell’s decision to move Shaw’s ‘Cave TV’ service into the upper stratosphere of its offerings conferred an undue preference on channels Bell owned, and ordered the change to be reversed. If these pitched Goliath versus Goliath battles are regular occurrences, we can only imagine the problems that David – the little guy – is having.

While Bell, Shaw, Rogers and QMI operate their own online video services, they assert that congestion problems require them to manage traffic through usage-based billing and bandwidth caps, although such measures cripple rival online video distributors such as Netflix, Apple TV, GoogleTV, and so on. Netflix, for instance, downgrades its services relative to standards elsewhere, and bitterly complains about having to do so, all the time. Smart and savvy telecom guys like Jean-Francois Mezei and rabble-rousing groups like Open Media are convinced that such practices are a deadweight on creativity, innovation, freedom of expression and an open internet.

For the public, the practices just listed and networks that are under-developed and over-priced by global standards constitute subtle yet pervasive constraints on how we use and experience the emerging networked digital media. Stubbornly, Canadians lean against the wind and remain heavy Internet users, downloading and uploading to and from Youtube, virtuously contributing to Wikipedia, and watching porn at rates that rank at the very top by global standards.

All this, too, despite the fact that, as Shaw’s brief repeatedly states, the industry and regulators are one when it comes to the goal of keeping “consumers in the existing broadcasting system”. We can only imagine what things might be like if they strove for the maximum freedom of expression possible, rather than only “as much diversity as practicable”, as the CRTC put it in its 2008 Diversity of Voices decision.

Ultimately, the problems of fully-integrated media conglomerates are congenital, not imaginary. They run hand-in-hand with media history the world over and until we accept that, we’ll have to continue settling for scraps off the table as regulators let the ‘big four’, I mean, the market rip.

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