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CRTC Zero-Rating Rulings are a Significant Win for the Open Internet: Bolster Common Carriage, Competition and Cultural Policy

Two rulings by the CRTC the other day constitute a significant win for common carriage (aka ‘net neutrality’), competition, Canadians and cultural policy.

The second of the two rulings found that Videotron’s Unlimited Music program runs afoul of Canada’s telecoms law. It does so by giving an undue preference to subscribers of the company’s highest tier data plans over the rest of its customers and to the music services included in its offering such as Apple Music, Google Play, Spotify versus those left out but available over the internet, e.g. the CBC and commercial radio stations.

Combining the lessons of that decision with its 2015 Mobile TV decision (upheld by the Federal Court of Appeal last year), the CRTC took the additional step of developing a general framework that in most cases prohibits carriers from acting like publishers or broadcasters that pick and choose content-based services that don’t count towards your data caps while everything else you use the internet or your mobile phone for does. The framework also banishes pay-to-play schemes like the one in the US wherein content providers or in-house affiliates like DirecTV ‘sponsor data’ so that internet traffic from the use of their content does not count, in this case, against AT&T subscribers’ monthly data allotments.

That particular example (and a few others) had caught the eye of the FCC’s previous chairman Tom Wheeler as a potential violation of common carrier rules but has since been waived away by Trump appointment, Ajit Pai – by fiat rather than any formal proceeding. The CRTC’s new Differential Pricing Framework strikes a hard stance against pay-to-play schemes because they essentially treat the internet like a glorified cable TV system rather than the public internet where access is governed by common carrier principles.

Lastly, the CRTC’s new Differential Pricing Framework leaves some wiggle room for making decisions on the margins with respect to services that escape the Commission’s general ban on zero-rated plans. It will base its judgements on whether or not to grant an exemption to such services when they offer exceptional public interest benefits, are open to any content, app or service provider, are ‘content agnostic’, have minimal to no impact on the interoperability of all of the internet’s interlocking parts, and are not based on payola schemes (paras 126-129).

Broadband Internet Access and Mobile Wireless Providers are Common Carriers not Publishers (or Broadcasters)

The practices at issue are known as “zero-rating” and are the most recent frontier in the battle over “network neutrality”, but which I prefer to refer to as common carriage in line with the more formal terms of telecoms law and history. The decisions by the CRTC last week firm up ISPs and wireless services’ status as carriers rather than broadcasters or publishers, meaning that control and choice should be in subscribers’ hands to the greatest extent possible versus those of the companies. In this sense, the rulings are all about power and control, and the fact that the CRTC decided that more power and control should rest with subscribers, content providers and would-be rivals has the incumbents and their cheerleaders up in a ruckus.

The decisions mean that ISPs and mobile wireless providers like Bell, Telus, Videotron, Shaw, Teksavvy and Rogers generally cannot pick and choose which services, content and apps won’t count toward your monthly data caps and which will. While the rulings do not add much that is new to the landscape, they do clarify the rules-of-the-road and aim to head off a regulatory game of whack-a-mole as ISPs and wireless companies try to skirt the principle of common carriage that those who control the medium should not control the messages that flow through them. Put this all together with the Telecommunications Act’s rules outlawing unreasonable discrimination between both users and services, the CRTC’s network neutrality rules, and last year’s Federal Court of Appeal ruling that upheld the Commission’s 2015 Bell’s Mobile TV ruling, yesterday’s decisions strengthen as well as clarify the net neutrality regime in Canada.

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

All the big incumbent telcos and ISPs, except Rogers, and their hangers-on from the consultancy world, argued that banning zero-rating denies consumers access to ‘free stuff’ that they like a lot while undercutting a useful tool that can encourage affordability and adoption of the internet. It also, they say, removes a key source of innovation and competitive rivalry (see, for example, Trump’s FCC Chair appointment, Ajit Pai, Mark Goldberg, Roslyn Layton).

Such advocacy, however, is better seen as an attempt to wrap commercial aims in noble public interest garb. The commission gave short shrift to their claims, and for good reason: programs like Videotron’s Unlimited Music and Bell’s Mobile TV target subscribers for their most expensive data plans rather than promote affordable internet access and wireless services for those most likely to need the help. Moreover, there are better ways to deal with the issues including fostering more competition and defining broadband internet access as a basic service so that more forceful regulatory and policy steps can be taken to meet such goals if “the market” fails to do so. The CRTC did just that late last year when it defined broadband access at speeds of 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up a basic service, and thus this decision needs to be seen in that context (paras 68-70).

The Peculiar Structure of the Communications and Media Industries in Canada Require Strong Common Carrier Rules

The claim that zero-rated services give people ‘free internet’ also collides with the fact that ISPs and mobile wireless operators that do not use zero-rating have subscription prices that tend to be significantly more affordable and with data allowances that are twice as high on average as those which do use zero-rating (Rewheel, 2016).

Prices also tend to be even higher and data caps even lower where vertical integration and diagonal integration are extensive (i.e. vertical integration is when a firm owns the network as well as content services that rely on it, while diagonal integration is when a firm that owns a wireline network also owns a wireless network). This is of special importance to Canada given the very peculiar structure of its communication markets.

Concentration levels in broadband internet access and mobile wireless markets around the world tend to be “astonishingly high”. This is true in Canada too.

The extraordinarily high levels of vertical and diagonal integration in Canada, however, is what puts us in a league of our own and, crucially, begets the need for especially tough common carrier rules. Take, for example, the fact that Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor’s Videotron own all the main commercial TV services in Canada (185 in total). Add in Telus, which is not vertically-integrated, and the top five players in Canada account for nearly three-quarters of the broadly drawn network media economy (see here and here).

In addition, the last stand-alone mobile wireless operator in Canada, Wind, was acquired by Shaw last year, and made a branch of this vertically- and diagonally-integrated giant. This is of great importance because where there are stand-alone or wireless-centric operators like T-Mobile and Sprint in the US, or 3, Free, Tele2 and Play in Europe, data plans tend to be more affordable and have data allowances that can be six- to ten-times as high as their vertically- and/or diagonally-integrated counterparts!

In short, the market in Canada is structurally biased toward carrier control, high subscription prices and low data caps. We need especially tough rules to deal with these exceptional conditions. The CRTC’s general ban on content-based zero-rating services addresses these realities head on – and pushes back against them but stops short of addressing the issue of data caps directly, as some groups like Open Media advocated (paras 40, 56-58).

The CRTC Just Says No to ‘Balkanizing the Net’

As the CRTC’s rulings also observe, zero-rated services can impose significant costs on other content, app and service providers who must meet the technical design specs and other administrative criteria of zero-rating platforms (paras 41-43). Even Facebook has experienced long delays in designing its service for T-Mobile’s Binge On service in the US. News media have had similar experiences with respect to Google’s AMP and Facebook’s Instant Article platforms. The lesson of those experiences is clear: while theoretically open to all, only the biggest players tend to be able to incur the substantial expense needed to design their services for these platforms — and walk away if things don’t work out as they hoped.

Facebook’s Instant Articles platform illustrates the point. It is chock-a-block full of the biggest news organizations in Canada and the world, such as the CBC, Postmedia, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Guardian, etc. New ventures like Canadaland, iPolitics, the Tyee, etc. are conspicuously absent (see here and here). Yet, even after expending much time, money and expertise, the New York Times, Vice, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, the Chicago Tribune, and several Hearst publications have walked away from Facebook’s Instant Articles platform due to lackluster results and the perceived loss of control over their content, audience data and revenue (see here). In short, while advocates tout zero-rated plans as being pro-innovation, competition and consumer – and basically “free” – they are nothing but. The fact that they feature the biggest brands suggests that they reinforce the power and control of both blockbuster brands and the platforms that host them.

As the CRTC’s ruling observes, having to negotiate deals with and design services to meet the technical requirements of multiple ISPs’ zero-rated platforms across Canada would impose heavy burdens on content creators. It would also insert a new gatekeeper between them and audiences, using the seduction of “free stuff” to influence people’s selection of content, apps and services in ways that steer them away from the general internet towards the companies’ own offerings.

The lure of free, in other words, would tilt the field in favour of walled gardens built around proprietary standards and against the public internet based on common protocols (e.g. TCP/IP, HTML, etc.). Indeed, this is why some of the cultural groups took a stance against zero-rated plans, including, and unusually, l’Association Québécoise de l’Industrie du Disque, Du spectacle et de la Vidéo (ADISQ), and the Independent Broadcast Group (paras 37, 43, 53-58).

Common Carriage is Good for Culture (Policy)

The ruling is not just good for common carriage and competition but for Canadians and culture policy. While the Canadian Media Producers Association and CBC called upon the CRTC to use zero-rating to promote Canadian content, its swift rejection of that idea is based on the principle that communication networks should not be tied to the pursuit of such goals. The ruling’s hat-tip to people’s privacy and the concerns it raises with respect to how zero-rated plans could discourage the use of virtual privacy networks further points to values and uses of the internet that are rooted in the culture of people’s everyday lives versus the ‘systems-control’ and cable TV-centric model of cultural policy that has prevailed for much of the past century (paras 106-113).

Competition Should Be Based on Substantive Factors vs Marketing Gimmicks

While the strict limits on content-based zero-rated plans applies to all ISPs and wireless carriers, the decision’s biggest loser in all this is likely Videotron. It was the complaints filed by Jean-Francois Mezei and PIAC against its Unlimited Music program that kicked off the review to begin with, and to them we can be thankful. Some, however, worry that this outcome could undermine the more competitive wireless market its presence has fostered in Quebec.

That Videotron has spurred on greater competition in the province, there is no doubt. However, as the CRTC’s decision makes clear, rather than using marketing gimmicks like zero-rating, Videotron and its competitors should compete based on price, speed, data cap size, quality of service, network security and privacy. Marketing gimmicks like zero-rating, in contrast, obscure the fact that, operating in highly consolidated markets, the big telcos and ISPs don’t like to compete on price so that they can maintain fat profit margins in the 20-40% range (with Videotron and Wind, now renamed “Freedom”, at the low end and Rogers, Bell and TELUS at the other end). Either way, their profits are two- to four-times more than the average for Canadian industry – which in itself is a proxy for their dominant market power (paras 47-59).

Moreover, the CRTC and government policy has already developed a regulatory framework in the companies’ favour by refusing to mandate wholesale access to their mobile networks for MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) and, some fear, in the details of the wholesale access regimes that are currently being cobbled together for fibre-to-the-doorstep internet access and mobile wireless. Why should policy makers put their thumbs on the scales even further by sacrificing essential principles like common carriage, freedom of expression, privacy and a new approach to cultural policy to the incumbents’ desire to skirmish with one another on the margins using marketing gimmicks like zero-rating rather than in a full-out battle for minds and market share?

Some also worry that the CRTC’s decision throws Videotron’s customers under the bus. Yet, as the decision makes clear, it is only its high-end subscribers with access to the Unlimited Music program who will feel the pain. Moreover, the bottom line is that unduly discriminating between customers is against the law. The CRTC not only found Videotron to be offside with respect to the long-standing undue preference rules of the Telecommunications Act and the other underpinnings that have come to define network neutrality in Canada, it also held up Videotron Unlimited Music service as precisely the kind of content-specific zero-rating service that will be a non-starter from here on out. The company has until July 19th of this year to remove the service.

Ultimately, it is Videotron that played chicken with the Commission, and thus with the interests of its subscribers. Well acquainted with the law and having been at the heart of the Mobile TV rulings that have clarified the rules-of-the-road over the past few years, Videotron chose to roll the dice anyway in the hope that its gamble would pay-off. It didn’t, and it lost. In short, it has nobody to blame but itself for the consequences that befell its customers.

Yet, while this valuable subset of Videotron’s subscribers might indeed suffer, the alternative course of action – blessing zero-rating — would cause more collateral damage for Canadians in general, to competition across the internet- and wireless-centric communications and media economy (over-and-above its effects within the communications industry), and to content and cultural creators. The latter would have to shoulder additional costs and other burdens while ceding yet more power to ISPs and ‘platforms’ at precisely the moment in time when they need as much good fortune as they can manage to muster to chart a course through the turbulent waters that the content media industries now face.

While Videotron and others suggest that the company might yet find a way out of its predicament – perhaps by creatively rejigging its offering yet again (although there does not seem much hope for that), or perhaps by appealing to Cabinet or the Courts – a victory by either of the first two of these options would constitute a serious blow to a good decision that has been a long time in the making. It would also look bad in the context of the whole of the situation as well, a situation in which current chairman J. P. Blais has distinguished himself from his predecessors since the Commission’s first big decision under his leadership in 2012 when BCE’s bid to acquire Astral was spiked. Last week’s zero-rating ruling could be the last of the Commission’s big rulings under Blais direction. In this sense, the two decisions could ultimately constitute book-ends to his tenure at the Commission. For Cabinet to force the Commission to revisit, revise or repeal the ruling would send a signal that when the stakes are down no matter what the independent regulator does, the Government – whether Conservative or Liberal – will swoop in to protect the interests of Canada’s incumbent telco and ISP giants while throwing the interests of independent regulators and the Canadian public under the bus.

On this score, the current Liberal Government’s track-record so far is mixed. It’s decision to reject Bell’s appeals to reverse the wholesale fibre-to-the-doorstep regime and the CRTC’s decision to suspend the rules that reserve the Canadian advertising market during the Super Bowl to Canadian broadcasters (i.e. Bell’s CTV has the rights at present), have been steps in the right direction. It’s lackluster response to the CRTC and others’ entreaties to take an active role in making sure that affordable broadband access is available to all Canadians and its decision to bless BCE’s take-over of one of the last significant telco-ISP, Manitoba’s MTS, have been deeply disappointing.

These are political calculations that the government will have to make, but a sober review of the facts on the ground in the zero-rating case suggests there’s no reason for rash judgements, the screams of bloody murder by the incumbents’ defense league notwithstanding. Dial back the hyperbole, and the reality is that the Commission’s zero-rating decision does not establish a lot of new facts on the ground but clarifies the rules of the road while firmly rebuffing the incumbents’ strident efforts that aim to remake the internet more like Cable TV. The sign posts that zero-rated plans are a non-starter have been there all along but the incumbents have tried to run roughshod over them only to be turned back each time – by the CRTC and by the Courts who have reaffirmed its authority to take the steps it has. This decision warns them of the consequences once again.

Exceptions to the Rule and Bolting the Barn Door After the Horse is Gone?

While tough, the new framework is also flexible and balanced insofar that the general ban on content specific zero-rating services like Videotron’s Music Unlimited or Bell’s Mobile TV services will not apply to managed services like IPTV services and Internet-of-Things uses such as telemedicine applications or Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s Play Station (para 9). That adds much upside for the telcos and is line with the kinds of things that the Commission heard both from them as well as internet and mobile wireless equipment makers like Sandvine and Cisco during the hearings. However, it is also the case that managed services will now likely emerge as the next frontier of battles over common carriage (net neutrality).

This is because managed services are not hardwired into networks with clearly drawn lines between them on the one side and ‘the public internet’ on the other. Instead, they are a function of software drawn lines in the sand whose precise location only the telco-ISPs really know. There is room for must mischief here, and the track-record of telecom history for over 150 years almost certainly guarantees that we will have it.

That this is so was on full display in the Federal Court of Appeal’s ruling that rejected Bell’s appeal of the CRTC’s decision in the Mobile TV case. The case was precisely about drawing lines between telecommunications on one side and broadcasting on the other. Bell sought to exploit such ambiguities to offer its Mobile TV service to subscribers in a way that was clearly off-side according to telecoms rules but just fine if its activities could be shoe-horned into the broadcasting mold. As the court stated,

. . . Technology has evolved to the point where television programs are transmitted using the same network as voice and other data communications (para 22) . . . . [I]t was reasonable for the CRTC to determine that Bell Mobility, when it was transmitting programs as part of a network that simultaneously transmits voice and other data content, was merely providing the mode of transmission thereof – regardless of the type of content – and, in carrying on this function, was not engaging the policy objectives of the Broadcasting Act. The activity in question in this case related to the delivery of the programs – not the content of the programs – and therefore, the policy objectives of the Telecommunications Act (para 53).

That the CRTC has exempted ‘managed services’ form its zero-rating framework and decided to take an ‘ex post’, case-by-case review of cases as they arise is a potential weakness of the decision precisely because it greatly increases the chances that battles on these new frontiers will continue apace (paras 122-125). Ex post rules favour those with the deepest pockets, as well, and this too skews the field in the favour of Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Videotron, Telus, et. al. In other words, any claims that the Commission has not given due consideration to their concerns is blind to these realities.

The fact that the ruling also permits a small number of content-agnostic zero-rated applications, such as when an ISP does not count internet usage against your data caps when used during off-peak hours or to manage your bill and subscriber account, is another example of common sense and flexibility being built into the decision (paras 98-100).

Lastly, the Commission held the door open ever so slightly to the possibility that a new service or application might arise that offers exceptional public interest benefits that deserves to be zero-rated. To this end, it opened a path for anyone considering such an option to consult with Commission staff before launching (paras 126-129). It also adopted a case-by-case approach to ruling on complaints. Anyone who thinks a zero-rated offer crosses the bright line rules restricting such offerings could bring a case to the CRTC.

Some see this as a slippery slope at odds with the general ban on zero-rating, but the Commission’s recent track-record on the Mobile TV, illicoTV and now Videotron’s Unlimited Music services stand as firm markers that it is willing to stand firm. Yet, whether that will continue after the present Chair, however, is another matter to which the government should be attentive, yet even then, the Differential Pricing Framework does seem to limit the scope for exceptions to the general rule. Once again, however, there is also no denying that the ‘after-the-fact’ (ex post) approach favours incumbents while putting the burden on individuals – whether deep-pocketed industry rivals or the proverbial David battling the Telecom Goliaths for justice and a communications system fit for Canadian citizens in the ‘internet age’.

Where Things Stand: Canada and the Rest of the World

The debate over zero-rating has constituted the frontlines in the battle over common carriage and the internet for the past three- or four-years. That terrain has shifted in this time and is shifting fast now. More than forty countries have addressed the issues, in a wide variety of ways, including the US, the EU28, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Chile and India. So, this begs the question, are the new Canadian zero-rating rules – and common carriage principles more generally – at the strong or weak end of the spectrum?

Relative to conditions in the US under the Obama-era FCC, it is hard to say definitively one way or another: both the Obama-era FCC’s and CRTC’s rules lay towards the strong end of the scale. However, just as President Trump has been ruling by Executive Order, the newly appointed FCC chair, Ajit Pai, has been ruling by fiat to dismantle the strong common carrier rules put into place by his predecessor. Prior to this recent turn, however, zero-rating practices had been banned in a few specific cases as a condition of ownership change approvals but were mostly still under review, but with a proposed regulatory framework put on the table just before the change in administrations.

At first blush, the new CRTC Differential Pricing Framework appears to be tougher than what had held sway in the US even before the Trump Administration arrived in town. Yet, a few things temper that view.

First, constraints on zero-rating in the US that were put into place after broadband internet access was reclassified as a common carrier service in 2015 were just one part of a still-developing picture that also included a ban or limits on the use of data caps as a condition of merger and acquisition approvals (e.g. Charter Communications acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Brighthouse Cable last year). Without data caps, zero-rated plans are redundant.

Second, they were also the focus of ongoing study by a working group dedicated to the task within the FCC but led by well-known internet economist Shane Greenstein and a variety of others from within the telecoms industry and across the media and economy more broadly (claims that the FCC has been an economic free zone are complete bunk in light of these and many other basic facts). The totality of these efforts and the longer evolution of attention to the issues at hand are strengths not present in the Canadian context.

The most decisive point, however, is that conditions in the US are different than those in Canada, and those differences arguably justify the tougher rules that at least now exist on paper in this country. Unlike Canada where vertical and diagonal integration is the norm at Bell, Rogers, Quebecor and Shaw in the US it is the exception and there is only one US company that stands close to them in terms of size and structure: Comcast, but then again, even it doesn’t really have a mobile wireless operation, although it has just recently announced the launch of a MVNO – which is very different than the large-scale, facilities based operations of its Canadian counterparts. It’s share of the total telecoms-internet and media market is 11%; Bell’s share of the Canadian market is two-and-a-half times that amount (28%).

Vertical and diagonal integration are not the pivot upon which these questions about carriers’ undue control over content and consumers turn but the more prominent those phenomena are the more pronounced the problems are (e.g. high rates, low data caps, punishing overage charges, excessive control, privacy, etc.) and the greater the need for strong rules. In this respect, the CRTC is on the mark, while its soft stance toward managed services, potential exceptions and ex post review may turn out to be weak points, the exploitation of which will need to be aggressively defended against in the time ahead.

Relative to the EU28, developments are too new and evolving to say with any certainty. But there, too, the adoption of new guidelines on net neutrality last year also put those who would use zero-rating on notice that such efforts would be closely monitored, much like the FCC was doing in the US. However, unlike the US, the EU rules are weaker than those of the late-Obama era FCC because they stand all on their own without the FCC’s working groups and merger & acquisition reviews. They also lack the general applicability of the CRTC’s framework.

Lastly, the CRTC’s rules are also similar in style and strength to those adopted by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India, which banned zero-rating across the board but on an ex ante basis. TRAI did so in the face of the staunchest of opposition from some of the world’s biggest digital giants, notably Facebook, which led the charge, flanked by the same ideological warriors that have also led the defense of Bell, Telus and Videotron in Canada, e.g. Jeff Eisenach, who wrote a brief commissioned and submitted to TRAI in India by Facebook and which Telus wheeled into action largely unchanged within the Canadian context (see comparisons of both documents here and here). And so too did Roslyn Layton make the case for why advertising supported mobile phone and internet access was a “good thing” in both cases (see here).

Avoiding Getting Sucked into Trump’s Vortex

Their contributions are especially important in this context because Eisenach and Layton are two of three members of President Trump’s Telecom Policy Team (the other is Mark Jamison). They have been leading the charge in the US and worldwide to roll back the successes that have been chalked up in recent years for common carriage, competition and people’s rights as citizens and consumers to use the phone and internet connections they subscribe to as they damn well please, and without the distraction of ‘free baubles’ getting in the way and threatening that freedom at every turn. Their efforts are backed by a dubious President and conservative, business-beholden think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, Technology Liberation Front, Free State Foundation, Information Technology and Innovation Fund, Mercatus Centre, and other such groups. On the scholar/corporate lobbyist connection in which Eisenach looms large, see the New York Times piece here.

As indicated above, their ideas have been imported into Canada and put onto the public record of CRTC proceeding by Telus and Bell, and made part of the broader discussion by the same and other industry cheer-leading consultants. Their ideas are worthwhile reading but ought to be given short shrift and generally have been – unless following a Trump-like agenda appeals to you. Yet, as they take their cues from Ayn Rand it is time that we take ours from those like Hannah Arendt, who raised questions about how want to live and tailor the institutional arrangements of society so that people’s freedom, dignity and capacity to live in a democratic and just society can flourish.

The Battles Ahead

As per my usual, this is once again way too long for a blog post. I’m sorry. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I wanted to write you a short letter but I didn’t have enough time so I wrote you a long one instead.

That said, where do things stand? They stand in a good spot, generally speaking. The CRTC has adopted rules that are well in line with the Telecommunications Act’s long-standing provisions with respect to no undue discrimination between subscribers and services — a cornerstone of common carriage. It is also of a piece with developments in the last three years in which efforts by the carriers to act like publishers choosing which content, apps and service their customers will get for free and which will be discouraged by dint of counting against people’s data caps have been thwarted by the Commission and the Courts each step of the way.

That was the lesson of the Mobile TV case, and it is the lesson from last week’s decision that put the kibosh on Videotron’s Unlimited Music service. There are no surprises here. Things follow a logic and a well-lit path.

There is also reasonable recognition of the incumbent providers’ interests and flexibility with respect to managed services and the exceptions for administrative type services, etc., while the door has been kept ajar to new services that might come along and where zero-rating them makes sense. Whether the managed services exception and the ex post approach that the Commission has adopted, however, emerge as major battle zones in which the incumbent telcos and ISPs continue their efforts to remake the internet in the image of Cable TV, only time will tell. The openings afforded by this aspect of the decision are its weakest links, so we must be very alert to such prospects.

Crucially, the CRTC’s bright line rules on zero-rating also conform to the peculiar realities of the Canadian communications market, characterized as it is by extremely high levels of vertical and diagonal integration in which all of the biggest wireline and wireless networks are owned by Telus, Rogers, Bell, Videotron and Shaw, all of which – except Telus – own all of the main TV services (except the CBC and Netflix) and several of the most important sports teams (e.g. the Montreal Canadians, Maple Leafs, Raptors, etc.) in the country. This is without parallel and thus it is entirely appropriate that the CRTC’s rules have taken the particularly tough form they have.

Underneath all of this is just common sense: common carriage is essential to ensure that those who own and control the medium and who have all the incentives and ability in the world to control and influence the content, activities, services and interactions that take place through their networks don’t make good on those potentials. In short, that potential needs to be constrained by tough rules, enforced by a regulator with a spine. The CRTC has shown that spine, but will no doubt experience incredible blow back for doing so. It already is.

The question is, will the current Liberal Government have the spine to back the independent regulator, or will it cave in the face of the immense pressure that it will no doubt face? That pressure will come from the biggest industrial interests in the land, who have been adding ideological winds to their sails from the gusts now blowing North from the Trump Administration, an administration that appears to relish ruling by Executive Order and administrative fiat, with nary a care for the conventions, culture and values of democracy. This is not a model to emulate.

Communications are the lifeblood of a democratic society and culture, and so these things matter. Now is the time for steps to be taken to ensure that competitive realities as well as the needs of citizens, consumers and cultural creators are embedded within the institutions and rules-of-the road that will define the increasingly internet- and mobile wireless-centric communications and media universe of the 21st Century.

The CRTC has taken steps to do just that, for which Canadians can and should be thankful. Now it’s time for the Liberal Government to step up to the plate. Will it? Time will tell.

Shattered Mirror, Stunted Vision and Squandered Opportunities

Two weeks ago, the Public Policy Forum published its report on the state of the news media in Canada: The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age. It’s an important report, and needs to be taken seriously.

The report’s portrait of the state of journalism in Canada is grim: advertising revenue has plunged in the past decade – due, it claims, to the internet, and to Facebook and Google especially; daily newspapers have been closed, merged or pared back during the same period; many local TV stations face a similar fate; well over 12,000 journalism jobs have vanished; fake news is pouring in to fill the void; and the social ties that bind us together are fraying. All of this adds up not just to a crisis of journalism but a potential catastrophe for democracy writ large, the report intones.

In the report’s view, throughout the 20th Century advertisers, audiences and news organizations shared a mutually beneficial three-way relationship: advertisers got cheap access to large audiences, journalists got paid, and we got our news for next to free because advertisers footed the bill. This literally was the “free press”, and by lucky happenstance, democracy was the better for it.

That’s all coming undone now, though, say the wise counsel of mostly senior journalists and journalism professors huddled around the Public Policy Forum’s new CEO, Edward Greenspon (and former Globe and Mail and Bloomberg News senior editor) who led the development of this report. They conclude with a dozen recommendations designed to turn back the tide. The cornerstones of their policy proposals aim to redirect advertising revenue that is currently flowing into the coffers of Silicon Valley-based internet giants like Google and Facebook back to Canada. Another group of policy recommendations aims to use a proposed new Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund to boost the capacity of professional journalism taking root in emerging digital news ventures and First Nations journalism organizations.

I think that the exercise is potentially useful, and that there’s no need to shy away from the idea that the federal government can adopt supportive policies to bolster journalism and help a democratic culture to thrive. However, this report is badly flawed. All along the way it cherry-picks evidence and gooses the numbers that it does use to make its case. There is also an acute sense of threat inflation that hangs about it. The extent to which Google, Facebook, Silicon Valley and “the Internet” are made the villains of the piece is both symptomatic of how the report tries to harness such threats to preordained policy ends and a framing that undermines the report’s credibility.

The Shattered Mirror also dodges four fundamental issues that hobble both its analysis and policy recommendations:

  1. Media concentration and the unique structure of the communication and media industries in Canada;
  2. The impact of the financial crisis of 2008 which, even though its epicentre lay elsewhere, has resulted in a lacklustre Canadian economy ever since. This resulted in a sharp drop in advertising that slammed ad-funded news media and from which they have never recovered, and likely won’t;
  3. Advertising is no longer the centre of the media economy, and receding ever further from that role by the day, so hinging a policy rescue on recovering so-called lost advertising is out of step with reality and likely to fail;
  4. The general public has never paid full freight for a general news service and likely never will. Thus, it has always been subsidized, and as the bottom on advertising revenue falls out that source of subsidy will have to be replaced by another if we really are concerned about getting the news we deserve – trying to wrestle money out of Google and Facebook (the report’s central policy proposal) won’t cut it. The proposal to apply the GST/HST to them, with some tweaks, so as to make it apply to all forms of advertising and to earmark these newfound tax revenues to original Canadian content, could help and is, thus, one I support.

Finally, I am skeptical about the “real news versus fake news” frame that girds the report. The language about “vampire economics” is overwrought. Such things give a tinge of moral panic to the report, and taints the analysis and policy proposals. Unless otherwise cited or linked to, the data sets underlying the discussion can be downloaded under Creative Commons principles from the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project’s Media Industries Database. A PDF version of this post is available here.

Chronicling the Crisis: the Public Policy Forum Makes its Case

As the Public Policy Forum documents, advertising revenue has plunged for daily newspapers, and is beginning to fall for television. Addressing “classified advertising” specifically the report states that “three-quarters of a billion dollars a year in reliable revenue vaporized in a decade” (i.e. 2005-2015). Daily newspaper display advertising revenue totaled $1.8 billion in 2006; a decade later it had been cut in half. Altogether, total daily newspaper advertising revenue has plunged by 40% — from $3.3 billion in 2006 to an estimated $2 billion this year. Community newspaper revenue has fallen by $407 million since 2012 (pp. 17-19). Will the last journalist please turn out the lights?

According to The Shattered Mirror, a similar fate is beginning to beset TV. Profits have plunged from 11% for “private stations” in 2011 to -8% last year, for instance (p. 24). Another study by Peter Miller and the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting that hangs about The Shattered Mirror report but which is not cited, worries that, economic trends, and what it sees as a series of wrong-headed decisions by the CRTC, could lead to another 30 local TV stations going dark by 2020.

Newspaper circulation has also been cut four-fold from just over 100 newspapers per 100 households to half that amount in the mid-1990s, to just eighteen last year. The paid daily newspaper as we have known it for the past century could be extinct in five years, the Public Policy Forum report warns (p. 15). And as those implications come to pass, fake news is pouring in to fill the void, desiccating the social bonds that tie us together as a nation, as a people, and as a democracy.

Figure 1 below illustrates the point with respect to declining circulation.

Figure 1: The Vanishing Newspaper: Newspapers sold per 100 households in Canada, 1950-2015, projected to 2025

figure-1-vanishing-newspaper

Source: Public Policy Forum (2017), The Shattered Mirror, p. 15.

In addition, twelve thousand journalists and editorial positions have been lost in recent decades, according to figures cited from the Canadian Media Guild. Unifor and the Communications Workers of America also report another 2000 or so positions lost as the massive shift in advertising revenue to the internet guts Canada’s news rooms.

The lost revenue at the root of this carnage, however, the report argues, has not vanished but migrated to the internet. In fact, internet advertising has sky-rocketed from half-a-billion dollars a decade ago to $5.6 billion last year, states the report. This ‘shift’ has benefitted a small number of internet giants based in Silicon Valley, while depriving Canadian news media of the money they need to survive.

The report is emphatic that the free-wheeling early days of the internet have been eclipsed by the rise of a few foreign digital media giants and a process of “vampire economics” whereby those giants, and Facebook and Google in particular, are sucking the lifeblood out of “real news”. As the report states, the internet giants are getting an incredibly “sweet deal”: “leverage the news others finance and grab the advertising that used to finance that news” (p. 31). But as Facebook and Google get rich, journalists, news organizations and, yes, us and democracy are being robbed blind. The report is explicit that only once this lost advertising revenue is brought home, will all be well: the so-called crisis of journalism will be solved and democracy saved.

Some of that money flowing south needs to be clawed back and the two behemoths need to learn to show more respect for the news content that they have used to build their empires, the report stresses. Not only do we need to do this, we can do it if policy-makers gather up the political will needed to change the Income Tax Act to make advertising on Canadian internet news sites tax deductible but not foreign websites (as has been done for newspapers and broadcasting since 1965 and 1971, respectively). GST/HST should also be applied to foreign internet companies that sell advertising and subscriptions in Canada, e.g. Google, Facebook and Netflix. These measures would cost little and raise $300-400 million that could be used to fund public policy initiatives to strengthen professional journalism (p. 84). In addition, Facebook and Google must be made to play an active role in stemming the tide of “fake news” flooding into our country while giving priority to Canadian news sources. In other words, they must be made to act more like responsible publishers (p. 97).

Tunnel Vision, Goosing the Numbers, and “Off Limits”

Advertising-supported journalism is not the ‘natural order of things’.

The case that the authors of The Shattered Mirror make about the severity of the crisis of journalism is impressive at first blush. Ultimately, however, it is neither convincing nor credible.

Its fixation on advertising revenue, for instance, assumes that it has always been an integral part of the natural journalistic order of things. It has not. Advertising revenue soared from being less than half of all revenue to account for between two-thirds and 90% of revenue at big city newspapers in the US and parts of Europe between 1880 and 1910, and in Canada two decades after that (Sotiron, 1997, pp. 4-7). While the advertising-supported model of journalism carried the day during the ‘industrial media age’ for much of the 20th Century thereafter, there is little reason to believe that it will or even should have an eternal lock on being the economic base of the media forever into the future – the Public Policy Forum report’s wishful thinking notwithstanding.

Moreover, while advertisers tied their fortunes to the commercial media model for close to a century, they had no special love for the media or the journalistic functions they perform, per se. Instead, they did so because it was the most cost-effective way to meet their needs. New and better means to deliver up audiences to advertisers at a much lower price have been developed since and, unsurprisingly, businesses have reached for the newest tool in their toolbox: the internet. This is an uncomfortable truth that the report refuses to acknowledge, and thus to engage with. Not even King Canute could turn back that tide, and nor should we want him to even if it was possible. We have to find a better way to pay for the news for just this reason and also because, for the most part, Nasreen Q Public never has been willing to pay for a general news service.

Advertising is being eclipsed by “Pay-per” media.

Advertising is also becoming a smaller and smaller part of a bigger and bigger media economy. It has long been eclipsed by the “pay-per model”, or subscriber fees, where people pay directly for the communications and media they use. Subscriber revenue outstripped advertising by a 5:1 margin for the ‘network media economy’ in 2015 (see here for a definition of the ‘network media economy”, p. 1). “Pay-per media” are now the economic engine of the media economy. The Shattered Mirror, however, does not seem to recognize this and thus examines the problems facing journalism through the wrong end of the telescope, e.g. advertising.

Take TV specifically. The report states that “TV revenue is start[ing] to drop”. The statement is true for advertising-supported broadcast TV, but not for TV as a whole. Subscription revenue for specialty and pay channels, OTT services like Crave TV and Netflix as well as and cable TV now account for three-quarters of all revenue, and for the most part continue to grow. Annual funding for the CBC makes up the rest, i.e. just over 5%. The Shattered Mirror draws general conclusions about the supposedly sorry state-of-affairs for TV writ large based on a small as well as diminishing part of a larger vista. The advertising-supported part of TV accounted for less than half of all revenue in 2015 (e.g. 42.6%). It is in trouble, but again this is a fraction of the whole picture.

In addition, blaming “the internet” ignores other potential explanations for the problems that do exist. Why, for example, is broadcast TV not in dire straits, and in some cases making a bit of a comeback in the US and some other countries (see FCC and Ofcom, for example)? The report does not bother to ask, let alone explore such realities, for reasons that will become clear in a moment (hint, it has to do with media concentration and the unique structure of the media and communication industries in Canada, issues that the report explicitly eschews).

Having left out the fastest growing and biggest segments of the media economy – the ‘pay-per’ segments – and painted a picture of rapacious foreign internet giants stealing away advertising revenue from Canadian news media organizations, the report ignores another fundamental fact that does not fit the story it wants to tell: advertising revenue across the entire economy has stagnated for close to a decade. Moreover, per capita advertising spending dropped from $371 per person in 2008 to $354 in 2015 – the last year for which a complete set of data is available. TV advertising specifically has stayed flat in absolute terms while falling from $102 per person in 2008 to $94 last year (see here). That said, however, and unlike the report’s claim to the contrary, total TV revenue continues to grow, and indeed revenues for specialty and pay TV as well as OTT services have soared over the years based on subscriber revenues, albeit with slow growth in some aspects of some of these services in the last year or two.

In addition, the report’s claims regarding the steep decline in “private station” profits from 7.3% to -8% between 2011 and 2015 is misleading (p. 16). The statement implies that it applies to TV in general but in fact refers only to the smallest and shrinking part of the TV landscape: commercial broadcast TV. Operating profits for pay and specialty TV — the biggest and still growing segment of the TV landscape — were 20.8% in 2015, however. For cable TV and radio, they were 19% (see CRTC here, here and here). Meanwhile, operating profits at Bell Canada Enterprises’ media arm were 25% in 2015 and an eye-popping 40% for the company as a whole – four times the average for Canadian industry (Statistics Canada). Figure 2 below illustrates the point.

Figure 2: Bell Media Operating Profits, 2015

fig-2-bell-profitsSource: BCE, 2015 Annual Report, p. 130.

Parenthetically, it is also important to note that Bell is the biggest, vertically-integrated TV operator in Canada by far, accounting for roughly 30% of all TV revenues and 28% of total revenue across the network media economy. Ignoring conditions at a company with this clout across the media economy is negligent, but also part of a tendency in this report to selectively invoke a small part of the picture to fill in a portrait of catastrophe of a larger kind. In terms of the rules of rational argument, this pattern is a type of spurious reasoning called an “indexical error”. The report is chock-a-block full of such examples, which lends to the impression that the report’s authors are goosing the numbers.

Let’s consider a few other claims made about collapsing circulation and the “vanishing newspaper” and the scale of journalistic job losses, before turning to its willful refusal to deal with fundamental considerations about how the unique structure of communication and media industries in Canada directly bear on its topic but which are wholly ignored.

The Vanishing Newspaper?

These examples are not innocent. They are part of a process of “threat inflation” with the aim of buttressing the case for the policy recommendations on offer. Much the same pattern can be seen in the report’s depiction of circulation trends for daily newspapers. Now, make no mistake about it, the picture cannot be spun as a good news story. That is not my point. Looking at the issues from different angles and a more measured and nuanced view reveals that that things are far from rosy, but they are not the catastrophe that The Shattered Mirror makes them out to be. The reasons why things are as bad as they are also demands a richer and more multidimensional explanation than the ‘single-bullet’ explanation the report offers: blame the internet (and Facebook and Google). To illustrate the point, let’s return to Figure 1 above, which is repeated below to make the job easier.

Figure 3: The Vanishing Newspaper: Newspapers sold per 100 households in Canada, 1950-2015, projected to 2025

figure-1-vanishing-newspaper

The message of the Figure 3 is clear: newspapers have undergone a precipitous decline, and could vanish altogether soon. Indeed, already by 2015, the number of newspapers sold per 100 households was one-quarter of what it was in 1975. By this measure, the relentless decline and seemingly inevitable outcome look really, really bad – catastrophic even.

Now, let’s expand our measures to look at things from four additional angles: (1) total number of newspapers sold per week per person; (2) total number of newspapers sold per week per household; (3) total circulation; and (4) by revenue – shown for both total revenue and just advertising revenue. My numbers start in 1971 because that is the earliest date for which I could gather data fit for the task, but as far as I can tell that has no impact on the main point. And just to make my main point clear, it is that the Public Policy Forum’s Shattered Mirror report has selectively chosen a measure that paints the worst-case scenario rather than a nuanced, multidimensional picture of a situation that is bad enough that it doesn’t need to be exaggerated. In other words, I am depicting a strategy of policy argumentation that I call “threat inflation”.

Figure 4, presents two sets of data, one for the number of newspapers sold per week per person and another for the number of newspapers sold per week per household – both for the period from 1971 to 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available).

Figure 4: Per Household and Per Capita Decline of Daily Newspapers Circulation in Canada, 1971-2015

fig-4-circulation-decline-per-hhld-capita

Sources: Newspaper Canada; Statistics Canada.

Figure 4 confirms that newspaper circulation has been in long-term decline and there appears to be nothing on the horizon to turn that around. If we care about newspapers because they are one of the main sources of original journalism – as I emphatically do – this is a ‘bad news’ story. Yet, while the decline shown in Figure 4 is obvious – indeed, circulation was cut in half over the period covered on the basis of total copies per week per household – that is half the rate depicted by The Shattered Mirror. The difference is likely due to the fact that the number of people per household has declined over time, so fewer people per household means fewer newspapers in each house even before we take declining circulation into account — versus the “vanishing newspaper” scenario.

Now, let’s look again from the vantage point of circulation per capita shown in Figure 4 above. It also shows that circulation levels have declined steadily since 1971, but by only about 35% versus the four-fold collapse The Shattered Mirror depicts. This is what I mean by threat inflation: choosing methods and numbers that inexorably lead to the worst-case conclusion.

Now let’s look at things from the vantage point of total newspaper circulation because if you’re in the journalism business, a key consideration has got to be not how many daily newspapers you can sell per person or per household but in total. Figure 5 depicts the trend over time.

Figure 5: The Rise and Fall of Newspapers Circulation in Canada, 1971-2015

fig-5-rise-fall-of-newspaper-circ

Sources: Newspaper Canada; Statistics Canada.

Figure 5 shows that, in terms of sheer volume, newspaper circulation continued to rise until 1990 (versus falling steadily from 1950). It has fallen since, albeit in fits and starts. And obviously, against a population that has swelled from 22 million to nearly 36 million over the timeframe covered, circulation is shrinking in relative terms, which is the point of the earlier figures. Yet, the point is once again that this is a ‘bad news’ story but not a catastrophic one, and the fact that circulation peaks in 1990 and then goes down in fits and starts thereafter also raises interesting questions about timing that are ignored by the Public Policy Forum report, again likely because they don’t fit the tale of doom and gloom that it is mobilizing, but which I will return to below.

Now let’s turn from circulation to revenue data to see what things look like from this vantage point. Figure 6 does that based on stand-alone advertising revenue and all sources of revenue (advertising, subscription and other, including digital/internet).

Figure 6: The Rise and Fall of Newspapers Revenue in Canada, 2000-2015

fig-6-rise-fall-of-newspaper

Sources: Newspaper Canada; Statistics Canada.

As Figure 6 shows, advertising as well as subscription and other sources of revenue continued to rise for newspapers into the 21st Century. Indeed, while circulation was in decline regardless of the measure used, revenue continued to climb. Revenue peaked in 2008 at $3.9 billion and $4.7 billion, respectively, for advertising and ‘total’ revenue measures — a crucial point in time for reasons that will emerge in a moment. Revenue has plunged since, with newspaper advertising revenue falling to $2.3 billion (a drop of 40%) and total revenue to $3.2 billion (a drop of 32%) in 2015. This is bad.

Thus far, none of the measures reviewed leads to a ‘good news story’, but each of them in their own way change the magnitude, timing and potential causes of the problem. Of utmost importance is that there is no downward spike in the fortunes of the press on any of these measures that coincides with when the internet takes off, either in its dial-up phase in the mid- to late-1990s or when broadband internet took centre stage in the early-2000s. Given this, the internet – and Facebook and Google – cannot be the villain of the piece that The Shattered Mirror (and so many lobbying the government from the “creator” and “cultural policy” groups) makes it out to be.

In fact, this is not news. While such claims are common, that they are wide of the mark is well known. One of the world’s top media economists, Robert Picard of the Reuters Institute of Journalism at Oxford University, for instance, has made this point for much of the last decade. I have too with respect to Canada and across the world. That neither circulation nor revenue dives downward with the arrival of the internet cuts to the heart of the central claim in The Shattered Mirror. Yet, like so much of the evidence that does not fit its “sky-is-falling-because-foreign-internet-giants-ate-Canadian-news-media’s-lunch” rhetoric, this evidence doesn’t make the cut. If all of this is correct, we must also change our diagnosis and policy proposals accordingly.

Alternative Explanations: Stagnating Advertising Revenue and Vanishing Jobs

Not only does newspaper revenue not spike downwards with the advent of the internet, the onset of economic woes for advertising supported media do not coincide with the time frames that the Public Policy Forum report identifies, typically 2005 or 2006 for newspapers and ‘recently’ for TV. The upshot of its misdiagnosis is to effectively carry on with the ill-fated case its authors want to make while avoiding another possible – and I believe far better — explanation for the woes they describe: the impact of the financial crisis in 2008 and economic instability that has followed ever since.

Figure 7 below illustrates the point by showing a sharp downward kink in revenue for nearly all the media sectors it covers since 2008. This reflects the impact of the global financial crisis on the media economy. At this point in time, advertising revenue falls for total TV advertising revenue, broadcast TV, newspapers, radio, out-of-home advertising and magazines. The impact even hits internet advertising and pay TV services, as their revenue growth flattens temporarily before rising again a year or two later.

Figure 7: The Impact of the Financial Crisis and Economic Stability on Media Revenue (millions$), 2004-2015

fig-impact-of-financial-crisis-on-ad

Sources: IAB.canada 2015 Actual + 2016 Estimated Internet Ad Revenue; TVB (2016). Net Advertising Volume, CRTC Communications Monitoring Report.

Total advertising revenue fell by 7% from $11.6 billion to $10.8 billion. It rose again the next year to recover the lost ground but unevenly. Tellingly, however, advertising revenue has fallen from $371 per person in 2008 to $354 on a per capita basis in 2015, and from $102 per Canadian to around $94 for TV– as indicated earlier.

The recovery that has occurred has taken place in fits and starts and has been very uneven across different media sectors. The long-term effects of that appear to be three-fold. First, it has gutted newspaper advertising revenue. Second, it has propelled the shift of the economic base of TV from advertising to subscriber fees. Third, amidst the upheaval, the internet has consolidated its place at the centre of advertising revenue. It now accounts for more than a third of all advertising revenue (36.2%) in a stagnating pool of advertising money.

Again, none of this is a mystery, except to those who work the policy apparatus here in Canada, and there is no mention of it in The Shattered Mirror or indeed in any of the policy reports being wheeled into action by the myriad of groups vying to shape the outcomes of Heritage Minister Melanie Joly’s Canadian Content in a Digital Age review. Beyond this cloistered community, however, the fact that the fate of advertising-based media turns tightly on the state of the economy – and indeed, is something of a canary in the coal shaft for it – is reasonably well known and discussed by media economists from across the political spectrum. This has been the case for many, many years (see, for example PicardGarnhamMiegeVogel but also any media economics text). That the subject is not even broached by the Public Policy Forum’s report is a measure of the extent to which it ignores evidence and ideas that don’t fit the story it wants to tell, and of a piece with its methodological tactics throughout the report.

In sum, it is a mistake to focus on a ‘silver bullet’ explanation of complex issues like the one before us. The fixation on the negative impact of the internet and the two villains of the piece, i.e. Google and Facebook, is misplaced. In short, advertising revenue has taken a nose dive because the economy has been shattered not because Tyrannosaurus Digital Media Rex Google and Facebook ate the news media’s lunch.

A Catastrophic Loss of Journalists?

Just as the data with respect to declining circulation and lost revenues in The Shattered Report is circumspect, so too are the figures that it cites for the number of journalist and editorial positions lost over the years partial and incomplete. The report says that between 12,000 and 14,000 such positions have been lost over an indefinite period that sometimes stretches back to the 1990s but with a stress on recent events. The figures cited are based on a tally of headlines announcing such cuts and more systematic record-keeping by the Canadian Media Guild, Unifor and the Communications Workers of America. I have no doubt that the human impact of the losses they document are real and severe.

However, there are two short-comings of the data presented. For one, it is based on headlines and record keeping that do a great job chronicling jobs lost but a poor one at keeping track of those gained. Second, Statistics Canada data depicts a wholly different picture. The report needs to at least explain why the Statistics Canada data offers a less satisfying account of the conditions than the sources it relies on. It does no such thing. In fact, and once again consistent with a pattern, the authors ignore this data completely.

According to Statistics Canada data the number of full-time journalists in Canada has not plummeted. In fact, it has crawled (stumbled?) upwards from 10,000 in 1987 to 11,631 in 2015. Figure 8 below illustrates the point.

Figure 8: Journalists vs the PR, Advertising and Marketing Professions,
1987-2015

fig-8-of-journos-vs-pr

SourcesStatistics Canada (2016) Employment by occupation: 1123 Professional occupations in advertising, marketing and public relations and Statistics Canada (2016). Employment in Journalism occupation, by province. Custom LFS tabulation. File on record with author.

While this is a small increase, it is an increase all the same, and counter-intuitive as well. Things that are counterintuitive beg you to explore why they are so. Also consider that after years of a sluggish economy in the early-1990s, and extensive consolidation and cut backs in the latter part of the decade, the number of working journalists fell to a little over 6,000 (1998). If we take that as our base, the number of working journalists has nearly doubled since and, consequently, the period looks more like one of modest growth rather than a catastrophe.

Of course, this small increase should not be over-played. It has occurred against the backdrop of a media economy that has quadrupled in size. Even if the number of journalists has stayed relatively steady rather than collapsed, this still means that their numbers have shrunk relative to the size of the media economy. In other words, similar amounts of journalistic resources in a much bigger media pie constitutes a relative decline. This is cause enough for concern without the hyperbolic rhetoric that The Shattered Mirror leans on.

In addition, whatever modest growth has taken place has been vastly out-paced by the number of people working in the PR, advertising and marketing professions. Whereas there were four people of the latter type for every journalist in 1987, by last year, the imbalance had swelled to 10:1 — a triumph of the persuasion professions over journalism, which again is cause enough for commentary and concern. Yet again, the Public Policy Forum’s report is silent on the point.

My point, once again, is not to assert that the Statistics Canada data is definitive on the matter of journalistic and editorial job losses. Instead, it is to highlight how selective The Shattered Mirror report is. The pattern is one where evidence that fits its grim vision of the current state of journalism in Canada is highlighted while that which cuts across the grain is either downplayed or ignored completely.

Blindspot: the Media Concentration Problem

The Shattered Mirror also gives short shrift to the idea that media concentration and the structure of the communication and media industries might be a significant factor giving rise to the woes besetting the news media, except for the highly concentrated nature of internet advertising. As Greenspon told J-Source, media concentration is just not “the existential risk to media that it was for a number of years”. However, the report is more than willing to turn the screws on Facebook and Google’s dominance in the one market — online advertising – where they undoubtedly and overwhelmingly do dominate, while simultaneously turning a blind eye to high levels of concentration in several media markets and in terms of vertical- and diagonal-integration across the telecoms-internet and media landscape in Canada.

By The Shattered Mirror estimation Facebook and Google account for two-thirds of all internet advertising spending in Canada. It also shows that internet advertising has become more concentrated over time, not less: the top ten companies took 77% of all internet and mobile advertising revenue in 2009, but by 2015 that number was 86%. The top twenty companies accounted for 90% (pp. 31-32). There is evidence that these levels are growing. I agree with this part of the report’s analysis, not surprisingly since it draws heavily on data and estimates from the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project that I direct.

The same claims have been circulated by those who have advised or influenced the direction of The Shattered Mirror. Ian Morrison, the head of the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, summarized the key claims being made as follows, for example:

Based on data from the Canadian Media Concentration Project [sic] at Carleton University we estimate $5 billion of Canadian advertising goes to foreign-owned internet companies such as Google and Facebook . . . . With the Interactive advertising Bureau projecting $5.55 billion in overall internet advertising revenue . . . for 2016, we estimate that almost 90 percent of what Canadian advertisers spend on digital ads will leave the country.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail’s Simon Houpt, Greenspon asserted that Google and Facebook alone “take in about 85% of digital ad dollars” – although that number conflicts with others elsewhere in the report. However, the numbers do seem to regularly get mixed up, so that it is not quite clear if we are talking about just Facebook and Google or some ‘other’ foreign internet giants as well.

My main concern is that claims that foreign-owned internet companies will take $5 billion in projected internet advertising revenue for 2016 – or 90%, and that Google and Facebook alone account for up to 85% of the total — out of Canada are stretching the available data beyond what can be reasonably supported. They build estimate upon estimate, jump through hoops, and draw questionable inferences to come up with these figures (see pp. 30-31).

The CMCR Project data estimates with reasonable confidence that, combined, Google and Facebook accounted for about $3.1 billion, or two-thirds, of a total of $4.6 billion in internet advertising revenue in 2015 – the last year for which final figures are available. There’s some room for adjustment either way. Based on what we do know the figures touted in The Shattered Report and elsewhere do not seem credible, even if repeating them in one venue after another seems to have given them an aura of holy writ.

This is especially troubling because the estimates offered not only extrapolate from the limited base of what we do know but serve as a springboard to The Shattered Mirror’s #1 Policy Recommendation:

Policy Recommendation 1: Change the Income Tax Act to make advertising on Canadian internet news sites tax deductible (as has been the case for newspapers and broadcasting since 1965 and 1971, respectively) while applying a ten percent withholding tax for advertising on foreign websites. The key aim is to open a new “revenue stream of $300 to $400 million that would be used to finance a special fund” much along the same lines as the existing levy on cable TV companies is used to fund Canadian content (pp. 83-84).

At a bare minimum, if their numbers are off, so too are these estimates.

Overall, the path to this policy recommendation and the proposal itself is flawed for a handful of reasons. For one, as just indicated, the available evidence is insufficient to support the report’s #1 policy proposal. Second, even if the numbers were right (or close), both the analysis and the policy proposal ignore the structural shift in the economic base of the media from advertising to the pay-per model described earlier, while assuming advertising has and should forever form an integral part of the natural order of the news media. Third, it appears to swap the bad idea of an ISP tax levied against wireline- and mobile wireless internet access providers (which, not coincidentally, are Canadian) for a “platform levy” applied against ‘foreign digital platforms’, e.g. Google and Facebook. If this is correct, the bait and switch on nationalistic grounds is objectionable on its own.

The bigger problem, however, is that the recommendation seeks to take an approach that has been applied to limited (single) purpose broadcasting distribution systems for the past half-century and apply it to general purpose internet platforms that host, store and facilitate a dizzying and ever expanding array of content, applications, services and uses. And it does so in the name of supporting a narrow range of content – “real news”, as the report calls it – that constitutes a tiny sliver of what people use and enjoy these platforms for. Whether applied to ISPs or digital platforms, the idea that the multitude of uses that people make of the internet should be harnessed to promoting journalism (or Canadian content generally) – no matter how important – is objectionable. In terms of a common test applied to free speech cases, while the goal being sought is legitimate, the means being promoted to achieve it is akin to a sledge hammer when what we need is a scalpel.

Finally, while the report does a good job of documenting the extent of the internet giants’ dominance of the online advertising market, both the analysis and proposal exaggerate the extent to which Google, Facebook and other ‘foreign internet giants’ influence reaches across the media landscape in Canada. By ignoring the latter, the effect is to minimize the extent to which media concentration and the uniquely high levels of vertical and diagonal integration between telecoms-internet service providers and other key areas of the media, especially television, have given rise to homegrown problems rather than the debilitating “vampire economics” imported from afar (the following paragraphs draws heavily from a series of CMCR Project reports: see here, here and here for more details and elaboration).

How to Look at Media Concentration

Using what I have learned as the “scaffolding method”, it is essential to look at the state of competition and/or concentration in one media sector at a time, group the different sectors together into reasonable clusters such as “content media” (e.g. newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, etc.), “connectivity media” (e.g. internet access, mobile wireless, etc.) and “internet media” (e.g. search, internet advertising, social media, browsers, etc), and then group everything together so as  to get a view of the network media economy in its entirety. One must also look at trends over time, and in comparison to other parts of the world.

The Shattered Mirror report does nothing of the sort, and so it paints a picture sloppily with a broad brush, declaring that media concentration is not a problem when it feels fit to do so, but a worrying concern where that suits its purposes, i.e. in the areas that Google and Facebook dominate. Ultimately, there is no overarching sense of how everything fits together, and so the image drawn is arbitrary, and wholly dependent on the whims of the observer.

So, let’s try to get things straight in a minimal amount of space in what is already a long post. Google and Facebook do dominate internet advertising and the general trend with respect to concentration in this specific media market is up – as stated above. However, once we scaffold upwards from there to get a sense of how internet advertising fits into the whole media economy, we can see that it accounts for just 5.9% of a total $78 billion in revenue in 2015. Google and Facebook were the 6th and 14th biggest media operators in Canada in 2015, and had estimated Canadian revenues of $2.3 billion and $757.5 million, respectively. They accounted for 3% and 1% of all revenue across the media economy.

By comparison, the biggest player, Bell Canada, had $21 billion in revenue from its telecoms and TV operations in 2015. This was 28% of all revenue across the whole media economy, and nearly twice the size of its largest rivals: Rogers and Telus. It ten times that of Google and more than 25 times the revenue of Facebook. Thus, while certainly impressive, Google and Facebook don’t quite cut the imposing figure that The Shattered Mirror makes them out to be once placed in context.

When we look at specific media sectors and across the media economy as a whole, four observations about concentration levels in Canada stand out:

  1. They are generally high (with the exception of radio and magazines);
  2. They have gone up since the turn-of-the-21st Century (except modest dips from still high levels in the past five years for mobile wireless and cable/IPTV TV);
  3. They are not unusually high by comparative international standards but that’s mostly because, as one of the most authoritative sources on the subject states, media concentration around the world is “astonishingly high” (Noam, 2016, p. 25 and especially chapter 38, pp. 1307-1316);
  4. Canada is unique, however, in its high levels of vertical and diagonal integration.

In terms of vertical integration, Canada stands unique amongst countries insofar that telecoms operators own all the main television services, except the CBC. The scale of vertical integration more than doubled between 2008 and 2015, as the “big 4” – Bell, Rogers, Shaw (Corus) and QMI – expanded their stakes into mobile wireless, internet access, television distribution and more traditional areas of the media such as TV and radio. The “big 5” television groups – Bell, Shaw (Corus), Rogers, Quebecor and the CBC – collectively owned 217 television services in 2015. They accounted for 86.2% of total television revenue, up from three-quarters in 2008. Their TV operations include Canada’s major TV news outlets, from broadcast TV networks like CTV, Global, CityTV and TVA, as well as cable news outlets such as CTV, BNN, the Canadian franchise for the BBC, CablePulse 24, and so forth. The big four vertically-integrated telecoms giants are central to the news ecology in Canada. The Shattered Mirror gives no sense of this.

Beyond this, there are three other reasons why the unique structure of the media and communications industries in Canada are not peripheral, or anachronistic, but central to the study of news.

Lush Profits, Thin Journalistic Gruel

First, similar to the conditions at Bell that we saw earlier, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor had operating profits of 42%, 38% and 37%, respectively in 2015 — roughly four times the average for Canadian industry. Shaw’s operating profits for its media division (including Corus, which is jointly-owned and controlled by the Shaw family) of 33% — even higher than those of Bell (25%). Operating profits at Rogers and Quebecor’s media divisions were a more modest 8.3% and 7.3%, respectively – a little lower than the average for Canadian industry. These observations are at odds with the story of doom and gloom that permeates The Shattered Mirror. The situation ranges from ho-hum at the media divisions of Rogers and Quebecor to fantastic at Bell and Shaw. While there is a difference between their focus on television news versus newspapers, which are increasingly ‘sticking to their knitting’, the fact that they are among the top news sources for Canadians furthers the point that they should be at the heart of the matters before us rather than pretty much excluded altogether.

Journalism and Data Caps: Reducing Dependence on the ‘Vampire Squids’ (i.e. Google and Facebook)

Second, these vertically-integrated companies also own all the main distribution networks (e.g. mobile wireless, wireline, ISPs and BDUs). Consequently, instead of wireline cable and telephone companies competing with wireless companies for control of customers’ access to the internet, TV and beyond, they have dominant stake on both sides: e.g. wireline and wireless. This is known as diagonal integration.

The last stand-alone mobile wireless company in Canada – Wind Mobile – was acquired by Shaw in 2016. By contrast, in many countries there are stand-alone, ‘maverick’ mobile network operators such as T-Mobile or Sprint in the US, or 3 in the UK.

Diagonal integration is important because it dampens competition between rival networks. Where it looms large, subscription prices for internet access and mobile phones tend to be a lot higher, data caps much lower, the application of zero-rating to some content and services but not others is more extensive, and ‘excess use’ charges very steep. Recent studies show that the cost of mobile wireless data plans is very high and data caps low in Canada relative to the EU28 and OECD countries (see Tefficient, 2016, p. 12; Rewheel, 2016, The state of 4G pricing – 1st half 2016 DFMonitor 5th Release).

These structures of ownership and the practices they engender can also transform carriers into editors, or gatekeepers. In doing so, it makes them more like broadcasters and publishers rather than common carriers (an idea that is similar to but not the same as what is now commonly referred to as Net Neutrality). The heavy reliance on relatively low data caps and expensive overage fees by all the telecoms-internet and media giants – Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor — in Canada constrains what and how people consume the news, watch TV, listen to music, communicate with one another over the internet and mobile devices, buy stuff, consult online health and education resources, and work.

As an integral part of human experience, and the critical infrastructure of the economy, society and journalism, this is an enormous issue. Many of those pushing for a renewed sense of cultural policy have called on the government to leverage these conditions by zero-rating Canadian content (i.e. exempting it from data caps) while applying data caps to everything else. Doing so is an explicit call to gerrymander control over the pipes to tilt the field against ‘foreign content’ in favour of Canadian content. Imagine, however, if data caps were far more generous and prices more affordable. Then, Canadians could freely access content of their choice, including news which, as The Shattered Mirror shows they value greatly (even if unwilling to pay for it), without worrying about going over their restrictive monthly data caps and paying a punishing price because of that.

This would have great value for news organizations as well. They would benefit in two ways. First, news organizations would enjoy a less obstructed pathway to where their audiences increasingly get their news from: their smartphones. Second, they would avoid the non-negligible costs of designing their online news offerings for platforms such as Google’s AMP and Facebook Pages.

Google AMP and the news sites that use it are explicitly designed for mobile wireless access, for example, where the cost of data is high and the use of data caps by mobile wireless operators prevalent and a lot lower than the desktop Internet. Based on this, Google’s AMP strips down webpages and services so that results load nearly ten times as fast, thereby saving on data charges.

The costs of designing for Google AMP, however, are considerable and a whole new sub-industry of designers with specialized technical and journalistic skills is being called into existence to service the need, and charging accordingly. The roster of the ‘big brand’ news organizations that have signed up to these efforts speaks volumes about who can afford the additional burdens, financial, technical, human or otherwise: eg. the CBC, Postmedia, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Financial Times, Vox, Atlantic.com, to name the most prominent.

At the end of the day, the central question remains: does any of this work? Nobody knows.

Nonetheless, these platforms are fast becoming an integral part of the news ecology, and they are also part of the problem of news providers having to give up control of their content and operations to internet companies. By dealing with the high-levels of vertical and diagonal integration in Canada that are at the root of restrictively low data caps that magnify the cost of uniting audiences with journalism to begin with, the happy upshot could be to lessen journalism’s excessive dependence on the ‘vampire squid’ internet giants like Facebook and Google that the Public Policy report rails against.

Blowing up the Bottom Line: The High (Social) Cost of Media Concentration

Perhaps one of the most important reasons that it is folly to willingly turn a blind eye to high levels of media concentration and the peculiar structure of the media industries in Canada is because the costs of bulking up have had devastating impacts. The cost of bulking up that have led to where we are have not been negligible and were built atop dreamy-eyed visions of convergence from the late-1990s until the turn of the century. At the time, the valuations of media assets soared but such visions of the future failed while saddling media enterprises with unsustainable debt levels that were payable at interest rates that sometimes ran as high as 18% in the case of Canwest, for example. This took place precisely when all-hands-on-deck were needed to deal with the rise of the internet and changing audiences’ behaviour. Many of these ventures failed and wiped out billions in capital. A few highlights will help to illustrate the point.

Sun Media, for example, was acquired by Paul Godfrey at a total value of just under $400 million in 1996, with a few small papers added in exchange for the Financial Post the next year, and then flipped to Quebecor in 1998 for $983 million – double the original value in two years. Quebecor then acquired regional newspaper publisher Osprey for $517 million in 2007. All-in-all, the combined value of Sun and Osprey was nearly $1.5 billion. They were sold back to Godfrey and Postmedia in 2015 for $316 million — $1.2 billion in the value of the capital behind the newspapers wiped out, while onerous debt payments continue to hang like an albatross around the biggest chain of newspapers in the country until the present day.

So, too, with the Southam newspaper chain. Conrad Black consolidated ownership over the chain in 1996 for around $1.2 billion, then sold them to Canwest four years later for $3.2 billion. However, Canwest went bankrupt and the papers were sold to Postmedia in 2010 in a highly leveraged deal for $1.1 billion — the same as when Black gained control decade-and-a-half earlier. Last year, Postmedia was worth $56 million — a loss of a billion dollars in market capitalization in five years (also see Bruce Livesey’s National Observer article and Marc Edge’s new book on the meltdown of journalism within the Postmedia empire, and more broadly).

At the height of the turn-of-the-21st Century convergence craze, Bell acquired CTV and the Globe and Mail. Together with the Thomson family it created Bell Globemedia, with Bell holding a 70% ownership stake in the entity and the Thomson family the rest. The capitalization of the new company was $4 billion. Bell Globemedia floundered from the beginning, however, and Bell exited the business in 2006. The venture was renamed CTV Globemedia and recapitalized at a value of $1.2 billion – a loss of nearly $3 billion (BCE AR 2006, p. 84). Of course, Bell reacquiring CTV in 2011 for $1.3 billion.

Collectively, roughly $6 billion in market capitalization was destroyed and precisely when the country’s biggest media companies should have been focusing attention, investment and whatever other resources they could muster on dealing with the rise of the internet and, somewhat later, the smartphone, and changes in how people were using the media. This is to say nothing of the extraordinary wave of lay-offs and job cuts at these outlets, and the labour strife that accompanied such processes. The Public Policy Forum’s report gives us a whiff of the costs in terms of journalistic and editorial jobs lost, but nowhere does it connect the dots. Of course, having ruled these issues “off-limits”, what should we expect?

Inner Circles, Cloistered Views and Missed Opportunities

That The Shattered Mirror, as it’s lead author’s post release comments indicate, willingly walked away from these issues is stunning, and naïve. In doing so, it walks away from an impressive body of research from around the world that says that these issues are important, extraordinarily complex, and foundational to understanding the emerging digital media environment.

While I am happy that the authors plucked from some of our flagship reports (see here and here), I am disappointed that they only picked the juicy parts that fit into their vilification of Facebook and Google and the “vampire economics” that they say rules the highly concentrated internet advertising market in Canada while turning a blind-eye to all the other data and discussion in our report. Interested readers will also find much value in the work Eli Noam, a Professor of Finance and Economics at Columbia University and editor, most recently, of Who Owns the World’s Media, a thirty-country survey done by as many research teams covering three decades that looks at the issues in front of us with an open mind, and some stunningly important conclusions – many of which are counter-intuitive and at times seems to run at cross-purposes to one another. Robert Picard of the Reuters Institute of Journalism at Oxford University is another excellent media economist who looks at these issues with an open mind, as is Gillian Doyle, among many others.

That the report refuses to engage with media concentration and the peculiar structure of the media is not surprising given that many of those surrounding its lead author, Edward Greenspon, in the development of this report have not just sat back and taken arm chair academic views on these matters but have been leading cheerleaders for the processes of consolidation in Canada that have got us to where we are. So why look in the mirror? The industrious reader can consult the list of acknowledgements to sort out who is who and draw their own conclusions.

Given all this, that media concentration wasn’t on the agenda is not surprising. It’s still a pity, though, because the issues are serious. By taking the course that it has, the report has also squandered an opportunity to build on the momentum that has been building in regulatory circles at the CRTC, Industry Canada and even the Competition Bureau. For the past several years, each of them have been using many of the policy levers at their disposal to address media concentration and counter some of the abuses of dominant market power present in several media markets – abuses that are no longer mere allegations but established legal facts. That the Public Policy Forum has taken the stance it has is a missed opportunity, not just in terms of building on the momentum that already exists amongst regulators and policy makers, but also the incredible amount of research and writing that many scholars, public interest and consumer groups, citizens and others have poured into these activities.

Final Thoughts and a Few Policy Proposals

The effort fails in terms of the analysis conducted for all the reasons set out above, and because the prescriptions counselled draw from the past and will be a drag on the future. Its analysis fixates on a dwindling part of the media, namely media that are subsidized by advertising, as if they are a part of the natural order of things and should be so forever. As both an empirical and a normative matter, this is simply not the case.

In the real world, however and as we have seen, the media economy is increasingly internet- and mobile wireless centric. For better or worse, subscriber fees and the “pay-per model” have become the driving force. The report fails to deal squarely with the idea that the underlying subsidy that has been provided by advertising for a good part of the 20th Century is stagnating, and by some measures in decline (per capita), and that the part of the advertising revenue that does remain is going to Facebook and Google not because they are venal but because they are more efficient at doing what the ‘legacy media’ used to do best: deliver audiences to advertisers.

That was always a bit of a Faustian bargain, and still is. There is no reason why we should pull out all the stops to try to bring it back. It won’t happen, and advertising subsidized media raise their own prickly problems, not least of which is it is never really the audience – us – that are the main parties calling the shots. Given the extent to which it is wedded to advertising, it is also not surprising that the report acknowledges but shies away from another undeniable fact that is inseparable from the points raised here and which is key to understanding journalism: the general public has never paid for a general news service. This has not changed (see here and here, for example).

Forgetting also that there has never been any true love between business and the advertising-supported media model — just a marriage of convenience — the report keeps alive the innocent fable of how the mutually beneficial relationship between advertisers, journalism and audience brought us “the free press” and how we must wrestle this back from the “vampire economics” of Silicon Valley. No, that won’t work, no matter how much the report gooses the numbers and argues in favour of its proposal to impose a withholding tax on the advertising and subscriber fees of ‘foreign digital platforms’. Nor should it. The invidious distinctions between Canadian media versus those from the world beyond our borders that it draws is based on warmed over cultural nationalism from the 1960s and 1970s, and this, too, should also raise an eyebrow.

The idea that we should harness society’s whole communication infrastructure – increasingly the internet – to foster a small sliver of activities that people use it for is also backwards. As said earlier, in the past, this may have been an acceptable idea because a limited purpose broadcasting distribution network was leveraged to support a single activity: broadcasting. Means were directly related to ends, and this made sense, even against the tough standards of free speech. Yet, today, we are in a different place where Canadians are being asked – incessantly – to harness a multi-purpose and general communication infrastructure (the internet) that already supports a vast array of activities that continue to expand in terms of diversity to a narrow, albeit incredibly important, range of activities.

The Shattered Mirror is not a forward looking report in these regards. It largely ignores questions about how the availability and control of distribution infrastructure (rather than just “digital platforms”) fundamentally effects the shape of the news media overall. To the extent that it does, the recommendations trot out the familiar calls for an ‘ISP tax’ to fund journalism that is so beloved by resurgent cultural nationalist groups (rather than the capacious language of “general intelligence” and “the people’s correspondence” that informed the universal postal system during the founding days of American democracy). They seem to see Minister Joly’s review of Canadian Content in the Digital Age as a once in a lifetime chance to entrench policy tools designed a half-a-century ago for ‘the industrial media age’ forever by applying them holus bolus to the emergent internet and mobile wireless-centric communications and media universe of the 21st Century. Nothing could be less helpful.

As I have tried to make clear above and every time I write on these matters, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the idea that a viable democracy needs good journalism, and that the culture of a democratic society needs arts, knowledge, media, public libraries, schools, science, archives, and a whole bunch of other things. We need a big view of culture, and we need to pay for it accordingly. So here are a few of my big ideas:

  1. Bite the bullet and accept that the general public has never paid full freight for a general news service and that, consequently, it has always been subsidized by advertising, “the state” or rich patrons. The question is how to do that today in a way that is fair, independent, effective, and accountable? The report goes part way in this direction with its Policy Recommendation #3 to change tax laws to encourage charities and philanthropists to step into the breach and invest in original news. I agree, but also think we need to dig deeper along the lines suggested below.
  1. Apply the HST/GST to all advertising expenses and subscription fees without discrimination based on medium or nationality, and earmark the funds generated for a “Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund” of the type the Public Policy Forum envisions (Policy Recommendation #5), but make the fund even broader to support other kinds of original Canadian content creation, from films, TV drama, video games, music, archives, etc. Consolidate the CanCon funds I say, and take a very big view of what CanCon is.
  1. Bolster the CBC across its mandate to inform, enlighten and entertain versus The Shattered Mirror’s emphasis on the first function (its Policy Recommendation #10). Do this because a ‘platform agnostic’ public media service not only informs people but plays a key role in cultivating new talent across the arts, and exposing artists to the audiences they need to go on to become bigger commercial successes. In line with these ideas, unshackle the CBC from any suggestion that its sails have been forever tied to the listing mast of the broadcasting ship. It should also be funded accordingly and in line with median levels of government support for public media in OECD countries (versus at the lower ends of the scale) (a modified version of the Public Policy Forum’s Recommendations 11 and 12, but without the restrictive focus on the CBC’s “informing” function).
  1. We can no longer think about journalism and the media without thinking about broadband internet and mobile wireless. In an ever more internet- and mobile wireless-centric media universe, this is essential. The “founding fathers” in the US stressed the essential role of a free press to democracy (as The Shattered Mirror notes), but they also went much further by subsidizing a universal postal system to bring “general intelligence to every man’s [sic] doorstep” to the tune of tens of billions of (current) dollars a year in the 19th Century to achieve that aim. So, too, must we integrate our thinking about broadband and mobile wireless policy with content, journalism and news together today (on postal history and news, see John).
  1. This means emphasizing the importance of common carriage and universal broadband internet. It is essential to not impose the publishing or broadcasting models on society’s communication infrastructure. Mobile wireless and internet access providers should be gateways not gatekeepers. This will help ensure that news organizations and all forms of media, cultural and personal expression can have unfettered access to those with whom they’d like to share an experience, an idea, a story. It will also help to reduce journalists and news organizations from their growing dependence on Google, Facebook, Apple, etc. for the reasons outlined above. Universal broadband internet service should also be funded accordingly by raising the subsidy from its current level of roughly $2 per person per year to a figure, by way of suggestion, between the $5 per person per year that Sweden invests to promote universal broadband internet uptake and the $33 per person per year that we currently invest in the CBC. The report is silent on these issues but by implication, it is hostile to them.
  1. Crush the idea that appears from time-to-time in the report that Facebook and Google should be treated like publishers. They are not. Similar to how the development of modern capitalism depended on the creation of the limited liability corporation so too do broadband internet and digital platforms that host, store and distribute huge amounts of other people’s content require the concept of the limited liability ‘digital intermediary’ to operate at scale. Google, Facebook, and the others that facilitate commercial and cultural intercourse over the internet are already treated this way by the law, and they should continue to be treated as such, without being ‘above the law’, or worse enrolled by governments using beyond the rule-of-law tactics to tackle a myriad of evils, whether stamping out child pornography, mass piracy, terrorist propaganda, counterfeit goods, etc. Where the interest is great, the law needs to swing in behind the power that these intermediaries have by dint of the fact that they stand mid-stream amidst the torrent of internet traffic.

The fact that intermediaries are increasingly being enrolled by governments to undertake these tasks without proper legal underpinnings, however, has already created problems enough (here, here and here). Calling, as this report does, to enroll ‘digital intermediaries’ like Facebook and Google to suppress “Fake News” is similarly fraught with problems. That this is so is readily evident in Facebook’s ham-fisted approach to enforcing its “community standards” that have led it to censor, for example, the Pulitzer Prize winning “napalm girl” photo of Kim Phuc running naked away from a village just after it was bombed by the US during the Vietnam War and when it has taken down or otherwise blocked access to images of, for instance, the famed Statue of Neptune in Bologna, the Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen, Evelyne Axell’s Ice Cream and Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World. Illma Gore’s sketch of Donald Trump in the nude has also been banned from the site (see here).

While the desire to stamp out ‘fake news’ may seem especially appealing at the moment, there is good evidence that despite the fact that “fake news stories” were plentiful in the 2016 US election, the effects are probably not as strong as many seem to think. As the new “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election” study by Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow from New York University and Stanford University, respectively, finds, this is because even though Americans use social media a lot, only a small portion of them – 14% — relied on social media as their “most important source of news” during the election. Instead, TV was the main source of political news by far. Even those who did get their news from social media, and were therefore exposed to fake news that favoured Trump over Clinton by a wide margin, very few could remember “the specifics of the stories and fewer still believed them”, observes a Poynter Institute summary and commentary on the study being recited here.

Ultimately, we need to see this report for what it is: the latest in an unending firehose of reports from well-heeled think tanks across the country, including the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting (here, here, here), the Fraser Institute, the MacDonald Laurier Institute and the C.D. Howe Institute that cover much the same ground. All of them respond to and in one way or another try to influence Heritage Minister Melanie Joly’s call for a top-to-bottom review of cultural policy, dubbed Canadian Content in a Digital World. That she has stimulated such interest is to her credit. However, the extent to which these reports are flooding the ‘marketplace of ideas’ with tired old ideas is a problem that I hope she and the good folks at the Department of Canadian Heritage – the cultural policy sausage factory, if you will – recognize them for what they are, and deal with them accordingly.

The Shattered Mirror also complements the Canadian Heritage Parliamentary Committee’s unfinished survey of similar terrain, and a series of recent decisions by the CRTC that are intended to shape the future of TV, broadband internet and mobile wireless services in this country: (1) its trilogy of Talk TV decisions; (2) its universal broadband internet service, and (3) several others that go to the core of the increasingly fibre and mobile wireless internet infrastructure that underpin the entire communications and media landscape upon which more and more of our economy, society and our day-to-day lives depend.

This report has nothing to say on the full sweep or specific details of these matters but lines up with those complaining bitterly about the CRTC’s new found willingness to take on media concentration and the perils of vertical and diagonal integration. The extent to which they do so and pine to keep industrial-era media policies — tweaked to bring them up to ‘digital speed’ — forever is a measure of how backwards such stances are and really just how much they see things through a rearview mirror. We deserve better, and let’s hope we get it.

Why Bell’s Bid to Buy MTS is Bad News

Last week, BCE announced its $3.9 billion bid to acquire MTS, the incumbent wireless, internet and IPTV provider in Manitoba. BCE’s share of revenue (28%) across the telecoms-internet and media landscape is already close to double that of Rogers (16.3% market share) and Telus (15.9%). Approving this deal would only further gird Bell’s place at the apex of the Canadian communication system.

Blessing the deal would also be at cross-purposes with findings by the CRTC and Competition Bureau on several occasions last year that telecoms and TV markets in Canada are highly concentrated, while turning a blind eye to the anti-competitive behaviour that led to those findings. The number of mobile wireless competitors in Manitoba would also drop from four to three as a result, effectively putting a stake through the last government’s policy of promoting four wireless carriers across the country.

Of course, there is no need for the new Liberal Government to keep a policy created by its predecessor, but it would be well-advised to consider the real benefits of keeping this policy (see the OECD’s review for why this is so). Finally, and this is key to the analysis that follows, what if, contrary to the claims of the deal’s backers, MTS has maintained low prices while achieving profit levels and making substantial capital investment in 4G mobile wireless, fibre-to-the-doorstep and competitive TV services?

Do Low Prices Amount to a Short-Sighted Race to the Bottom and Low Quality Network Infrastructures?

So far several commentators have raised the alarm that a takeover of MTS will drive up prices as Bell, Rogers and Telus assert their dominance in Manitoba in a manner all to familiar to other regions across the country (Geist and Blackwell). Such a prospect turns on the fact that already Bell, Rogers and Telus price their plans $30 to $70 less than their equivalent offerings in Ontario, Alberta and BC to meet the rates charged by MTS and SaskTel in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, respectively. Figure 1 below illustrates the point.

Figure 1 Retail Wireless Plan Prices by Province (September 2014).

Screenshot 2016-05-10 02.35.38.png

Source: MTS, SaskTel & tbaytel (2015). Telecom Notice of Consultation CRTC 2014-76 Review of Wholesale Mobile Wireless Services (para 25).

According to Bell and MTS, however, the deal is not about maintaining cheap but lower quality services at all. Instead, it is about bringing MTS out of the dark ages and into the future with an ambitious billion dollar investment program spread over five years to bring state-of-the-art fibre optic networks in Manitoba, increase the reach of Bell’s “world class” Fibe TV service, and to expand wireless 4G LTE network coverage in the province (BCE, Analyst Presentation, 2016, p. 6).

BCE’s CEO George Cope has been keen to emphasize that the market might become even more competitive after the deal. As he sees it, there will be three large firms competing even more aggressively after the deal than the current situation where MTS rules the wireless market with over half of all subscribers followed by Rogers with a third of the market share, trailed far behind by Telus (9%) and Bell (7%) (based on 2014 figures) (CRTC, 2014, unpublished data; also MTS, 2014 Ann Rpt, p. 7).

The intensification of “sustainable competition” would be especially likely, it is claimed, after Bell divests one-third of MTS’s wireless subscribers to Telus, as the deal envisions, according to Cope. The upshot is that instead of two strong competitors, MTS and Rogers, followed in the distance by Telus and Bell, there will be three “strong players”. Table 1 below shows the pre- and post-merger results.

Table 1: Mobile Wireless Carriers’ Market Shares in Manitoba Pre- and Post-Merger

Figure 1

Source: MTS (2015). Annual Report 2014, p. 7.

According to this view, this is how dynamic competition works. Big players with deep pockets, staying power and know-how compete vigorously with one another on the frontiers of technological and service innovation rather than on the basis of “unsustainable price rivalry”. Regulatory economist Gerry Wall also chimed in to support this line of argument, telling the National Post that while MTS wireless pricing “forced the Big Three to match [its] low prices”, such a strategy is “unsustainable”. As Wall further added:

The aggressive pricing strategy has been successful in terms of keeping customers but I think it has taxed them financially – and the investment required for 4G and next gen networks is very challenging (quoted in Corcoron, 2016, “Good Riddance to Fourth Carriers”).

In simple terms, to focus on cheap prices now might sell Manitobans down the river in the long-run if MTS is not making enough money to build the infrastructure needed to support the province in the 21st Century. These are serious issues indeed, but are they right?

I don’t think so. In fact, as we will see below, while prices are low in Manitoba compared to much of the rest of the country, profits and capital investment at MTS are actually higher than Bell’s.

Why Even Imperfect Competition is Better than a Tight Oligopoly

BCE’s bid for MTS must obtain the blessing of three regulators: Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED, the recently renamed Industry Canada), the Competition Bureau and the CRTC. One of BCE’s main claims in favour of the deal is that it holds forth the prospect for sustainable competition if given the green light by regulators. Seeming to recognize that this is not a slam dunk, BCE and MTS expect the review process to take up to a year.

On the basis of the standard tools typically used to examine these things – i.e. Concentration Ratios (CR) and the Herfindhahl–Hirschman Index (HHI) – the case is doubtful. In terms of the CR measure, we will go from a situation where the top four firms control 100% of the market to one where three firms will do so.

While the distribution of market shares of Bell (40%), Rogers (34%) and Telus (26%) (see Table 1 above) that will result should the deal be approved does tally with Bell’s view of things, the HHI – which is specifically designed to assess competitive intensity – tells a different story. The HHI score will decline from 3786 to 3441, but the more urgent point is that this still indicates skyhigh concentration levels. Indeed, any result over 2,500 indicates extremely high levels of market concentration. This deal will do nothing to change that.

Even these points underplay the extent to which consolidation dynamics will likely be ramified by BCE’s takeover of MTS. For instance, while Bell presents its plan to divest a third of MTS subscribers to Telus as a magnanimous gesture intended to mollify regulators, this ignores the fact that the two have had a network sharing deal that covers the province since 2001 (see Klass, 2015).

Furthermore, Bell’s takeover of MTS could leave Rogers out in the cold given that it and MTS have paralleled Bell and Telus to build jointly-shared networks of their own. MTS and Rogers first joined forces in 2009, for instance, to build a shared HSPA+ mobile wireless network in Manitoba. Similar arrangements were struck again in 2013 to build a shared LTE network; in fact, before the takeover was announced, MTS already had plans in place to cover more than 90 per-cent of Manitoba’s population with 4G LTE wireless service by 2018 (MTS, 2013 AR, p. 12).

Where Rogers will stand once that agreement comes to an end, however, has so far gone unspoken. If Rogers is left out in the cold, then the circumstances will be worse than ever, with not even a full duopoly left, given Bell and Telus’ shared interests in the province. However, even if Rogers is taken care of, so to speak, the cozy oligopoly that now straddles much of the land will only be reinforced.

That already very high levels of concentration exist and could get worse is not a mystery. As Eli Noam (2013) observes, concentration levels around the world for these markets tend to be “astonishingly high” (p. 8).

What has made the difference is regulators willing to face up to such realities and deal with them accordingly. And a key element in such responses has been the adoption of fourth wireless carrier policies. Of course, there is no magic number in terms of how many players a market can sustain but experience shows that a fourth competitor helps to break dominant players’ tendency to fly as a flock in markets defined by a tight oligopoly.

The advent of four or more rivals, in turn, results in more competitive retail pricing as well as more robust wholesale access regimes and a virtuous circle of more competitors, greater pricing diversity and the advent of mobile virtual network operators, for instance – all of which helps to breakdown barriers to adoption. This is especially important in Canada with respect to mobile wireless services, where it ranks 32nd out of 40 OECD and EU countries (see Broadband Wireless Penetration sheet)

Moreover, the pursuit of the “fourth competitor” policy is far from being just a populist ploy, as some critics grouse. Indeed, with communication costs a key part of doing business within Canada and around the world, businesses are pushing for lower wireless and broadband internet prices. This is why such issues are pressing more urgently not just on Canadian policy-makers and regulators but also their international counterparts at the OECD and WTO as well (OECD, 2013, p. 21).

Profits @ MTS are High, Not Low

Claims that competition and low prices have been artificially sustained in Manitoba collide with the reality that profits at MTS are very high, not low, and much higher than BCE’s actually. Bell itself noted the point in its presentation to analysts, suggesting that MTS EBITDA rates were comparable to its own, i.e. in the 40% range (BCE, Analyst Presentation, 2016, p. 5).

However, even that low-balls the state of affairs. As a matter of fact, EBITDA at MTS has been considerably higher than those at BCE for the past six years for which data was examined. Table 2 below illustrates the point.

Table 2: Revenue and EBITDA @ MTS vs BCE, 2010-2015

Figure 2

Sources: Company Annual Reports.

In short, MTS has maintained low prices while achieving profit levels that are even higher than those of BCE. The same story holds for capital investment.

Capital Investment @ MTS is Not Low but Higher than BCE’s

To hear BCE boss George Cope and MTS’s CEO Jay Forbes tell it last week, MTS is starving for investment capital because cheap prices have led to low profits. Consequently, MTS is at risk of falling behind when it comes to upgrading the information infrastructures that Manitobans will need to survive and thrive in the 21st Century.

The very high levels of profit – by the standards of BCE, the communications sector, and across Canadian industry as a whole – however, paints a very different picture. The evidence with respect to capital investment also belies the claims being touted in support of the deal. As a matter of fact, capital investment at MTS has also been higher than BCE in relative terms. Table 3 illustrates the point.

Table 3: Capital Investment @ MTS vs BCE, 2010-2015

Table 3

Sources: Company Annual Reports.

MTS has been investing in the range of $200 million for the past half-decade or more. At best, BCE’s commitment to spend $1 billion over the next five years will hold the line on what MTS has been investing. In other words, the deal offers nothing better than what is currently on offer and we can only hold our breathe that BCE follows through on its pledges, but on this score, its track record does not instil confidence.

Capital Investment in 4G Mobile Wireless Services

Without taking an overly rosy view of things, MTS has made substantial capital investments in fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) and fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) networks, and to expand its 4G HSPA+ and LTE networks in cities and communities across the province. Its 4G HSPA+ and ‘true 4G’ LTE wireless networks now cover 98% and 78% of Manitoba’s population, respectively (MTS, 2015, para 20).

The latter is less than the 86% coverage that Bell has achieved in its service areas in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic region (BCE, 2015, p. 10), but this reflects two things: first the more rural and dispersed nature of Manitoba’s population and, second, the fact that the deployment of new networks takes place in “step changes”, with early leads typically being transitory. In any case, the gap that currently exists will likely narrow during the next 18-24 months as MTS reaches its goal of 90% population coverage by 2018 (MTS, 2013 AR, p. 12). To the extent that this falls short of BCE’s aim for 98% coverage, BCE has not included any targets beyond those MTS has already made in its takeover bid.

If there’s any question about the quality of MTS’s LTE network, such concerns can also be allayed by its first place ranking by PCMag.com in 2013. Moreover, its network sharing deal with Rogers also allows it to obtain access to wireless devices that might otherwise be hard to get for smaller scale carriers like itself (MTS, 2014 AR, p. 6).

Leaders and Laggards and a World Turned Upside Down to Sell a Dubious Deal

Wireless investment is one thing, but MTS’s investment in highspeed broadband networks has been greater than Bell’s for years. Indeed, the irony of the deal now being pitched is that the laggard (Bell) seeks to take over the leader (MTS) when seen from the vantage point of broadband internet development in general, and fibre-optic based networks in particular.

In terms of residential broadband internet availability, for example, 95% of Manitobans have access to basic broadband from MTS at 5 mbps – the current broadband target set by the CRTC in 2011 — a figure that compares favourably with Bell in Quebec and Ontario (94% and 97%, respectively) but which is higher than in the Atlantic provinces, where access to 5 Mbps broadband ranges from 77% in PEI to 90% in NB (CRTC, 2014 CMR, Figure 2.0.5).

Turn our attention to more advanced fibre-based networks to the neighbourhood and the premise, and services that run overtop of these networks, notably IPTV, however, and the advantage tilts significantly in MTS’s advantage.

MTS began to roll out such services in 2003 and within a year the number of IPTV subscribers began to take off. Now, 70% of households in Manitoba have access to its IPTV service – Ultimate TV — and with internet speeds up to 50 Mbps, while FTTH is available in sixteen communities (MTS, 2014 AR, p. 12).

In contrast, Bell only began to deploy such services first in the Atlantic Provinces in 2009, followed a year later in Ontario and Quebec. Bell boasts that 7.5 million businesses and homes currently have access to its FTTN or FTTH network (Bell, 2015 BSO Submission, para 39), and that its Fibe TV is available to 6.2 million households (BCE, 2015 AR, p. 32).

These numbers may appear impressive at first blush but reconcile them with Statistics Canada data on the number of businesses and residential households in Bell’s service areas and a different picture takes shape: i.e. only about 60% of all households have access to Fibe TV, while less than two thirds of residential households and businesses have access to the company’s FTTN and FTTH network. In short, Bell was slower off the mark than MTS and continues to lag behind in terms of the uptake of these services. Table 4 below illustrates the pint. .

Table 4: IPTV Subscribers, 2004-2014

Table 4

Sources: Company Annual Reports.

The uptake of the MTS’s Ultimate TV IPTV services has also been swifter than the take-up of Bell’s Fibe TV in its territory. Indeed, as Table 5 below illustrates, the take-up of MTS’s Ultimate TV is nearly twice that of Bell.

Table 5: IPTV Subscribers/Total Network Access Connections, MTS vs Bell, 2012-2014

Table 5 

Sources: Company Annual Reports.

Small Cable Packages, Pick & Pay TV and Consumer Choice: MTS Subscribers are Already There

The fact that IPTV take up in Manitoba is high compared to the standards that prevail in Bell’s operating areas reflects the broader fight that has been taking shape over “cable TV” during the past decade. Indeed, the conservative versus more progressive views of Bell and MTS, respectively, also comes into focus when we look closer at their respective approaches to TV.

In this regard, Bell, the largest vertically-integrated telecoms-internet and media conglomerate in the country, and the biggest force in TV by far (61 TV channels and one-third of all TV revenue), has fought the CRTC tooth and nail over the regulator’s push to give people more choice over their cable TV subscriptions by mandating the offering of “skinny basic”, pared down channel bundles and, by the end of 2016, true ala carte channel offerings. Indeed, having banked on the vertically-integrated model through its take-over of CTV and Astral in 2011 and 2013, respectively, Bell has been loath to yield control over its TV operations.

MTS, in contrast, is not vertically-integrated, and having taken the plunge into the TV delivery business with the launch of its IPTV services since 2003-2004, it has been eager to pick up subscribers as swiftly as it can. To this end it has been successful, with twice the number of subscribers on a per capita basis as Bell (see Table 5 above). And as part of this effort, MTS has been offering smaller TV packages for several years and even some of the most popular sports channels on a pick-and-pay basis.

Thus, as the company states in its most recent Annual Report about the CRTC’s Talk TV rulings last year:

. . . Because we offer a number of services on a standalone basis today, the changes to our systems to introduce pick-and-pay by December 2016 should also be relatively simple to implement (p. 25).

Yet, while MTS has been ahead of the curve, it also notes year-after-year that access to programming, especially high-end entertainment and sports programs, has been extremely difficult. Why? Because:

Much of this content is created and/or owned by our competitors (Bell, Rogers and Shaw), who could have conflicting interests when we negotiate for their content. To date, the CRTC has offered broadcasting distributors such as MTS limited protection against attempts by our competitors who own this content (for use in both traditional television and mobile applications) to charge us unfair rates or deny us access to this content altogether (emphasis added, MTS, 2015 AR, p. 25).

In other words, the CRTC’s attempts to introduce more competition and flexibility have been met by fierce opposition from Bell, which has turned to Cabinet and the courts in a series of bids to overturn these moves. Smaller, non vertically-integrated entities such as MTS, however, have seen the regulator as offering too little, too late.

Data Caps: Hesitant Use at MTS versus Major New Revenue Stream and Broadcast TV Protection Tool @ BCE

Another significant area where MTS has distinguished itself from Bell is in the use of data caps. As MTS comments,

. . . We are the only provider in Manitoba to provide unlimited data plans. With MTS, our customers can surf, download and stream all they want on our Internet and wireless services without worrying about paying overage charges within Manitoba. Our wireless networks, coverage and experience are all built to make it easy to stay powered and connected (MTS, 2014 AR, p. 7).

At Bell, in contrast, data caps are prevalent and so-called overage charges steep. Whereas MTS has been hesitant to use data caps to limit how people use the mobile wireless and internet access they pay for, Bell uses restrictive data caps routinely as a lucrative new stream of revenue and to protect its highly leveraged investments in broadcasting from the onslaught of over-the-top streaming service such as Netflix, Spotify and so forth.

This point strikes at the heart of Bell’s bid to acquire MTS because, as the telecoms consultancy Rewheel (2015) has shown, in markets that go from 4 to 3 wireless carriers, not only do prices tend to rise steeply but data caps become smaller and the cost of data on a per GB basis far higher. BCE’s take-over of MTS threatens to take a situation that is already exceptional by international standards (i.e. the prevalence of data caps is comparable in only three other OECD countries: Australia, Iceland and New Zealand) from bad to worse.

In sum, with data caps much less common and the cost per GB much lower in Manitoba than in most of Bell’s operating territory, the potential for similar results to take hold in Manitoba are great, especially with the CEOs and financial officers of both firms openly talking about the desire to drive up ARPU at MTS.

Some Concluding Observations and Options for What Might be Done

To be sure, one has to be careful not to idealize conditions in sunny Manitoba versus those in Bell’s operating territories. Indeed, not all is just fine in Manitoba.

The CRTC’s review of basic telecommunications service, for example, heard from one intervener after another that broadband access in both companies’ operating territories leave much to be desired. Yet, neither company appears eager to rectify the situation unless a strict business case can be made to do so. Moreover, while BCE and MTS executives have waxed on at length about how to raise average revenue per user (ARPU) at MTS, they have had little to say about how rural service might be improved (BCE, Analyst Presentation, 2016, p. 6).

The contention that conditions in the province lag those in Central and Eastern Canada, however, and that Bell will ride to the rescue of a beleaguered provincial carrier down on its knees due to populist pandering through cheap services that have undercut the potential for dynamic competition and innovation over the long run, is woefully misleading. There is no evidence that competition will become more intense on account of a marriage of the two companies, especially if Bell hands off a third of MTS’s mobile wireless subscribers and retail stores to Telus. This will be doubly certain without any game plan to ensure Rogers maintains network access comparable to what it currently has in Manitoba, but even then that would do little more than keep the tight oligopoly alive, and there is little to commend such a policy.

Furthermore, there is little to no evidence of a profit crunch at MTS disabling its ability to invest substantially in the information infrastructure needed to support the Digital Economy in the 21st Century. In fact, profit and investment levels are higher at MTS than at BCE, while prices remain substantially less in Manitoba compared to BC, Alberta and Ontario where the dominance of the big three remains solid. Despite the significantly lower prices in the province, ARPU levels at MTS are consistent with those elsewhere in Canada, implying that cheaper rates are leading to more use – exactly what the aim of good communication policy should be. Any takeover of MTS by Bell would likely see such realities quickly overtaken by Bell’s preferred model where expensive prices, restrictive data caps and high ‘overage charges’ are the norm.

So, what’s to be done? From easiest to hardest, at least in terms of political will, four options seem possible. They are:

Option #1: Do Nothing

Accept the deal as proposed by Bell with the divestitures to Telus and maybe some minor tinkering around the edges.

Option #2: The OFCOM Solution

In this scenario, Canadian regulators could join forces to arrive at a solution similar to what Ofcom did in 2011 when faced by a reduction of five mobile wireless competitors to four in the UK market. In that case, when Orange (France Telecom) and T-Mobile (Deutsch Telecom), the 3rd and 4th biggest players in the market, respectively, proposed to merge in 2011, the UK telecoms and media regulator blessed their merger on the condition that the new entity – Everything Everywhere (EE) — hand over a quarter of its prized LTE/4G spectrum to the number four player, Hutchison 3. The two other largest players – Vodafone and O2 – complained bitterly, but to no avail, and with access to spectrum, towers and other resources needed to be viable, 3 stepped into the breach to become a significant 4th player in the UK market ever since.

In the present situation, Bell’s plan to divest subscribers to Telus might look good on paper but ignores their long-standing network-sharing agreement. In the eventuality that Bell does acquire MTS, steps might be taken that simultaneously prevent Rogers from being frozen out the market once its network sharing agreement with MTS comes to an end while going further to support Telus as a larger force in the province at the same time as a new 4th player is encouraged.

Yet the chance of a new 4th player emerging in Manitoba are slim given that the most likely candidates, e.g. Shaw and Wind, already showed little interest in entering the province before the latter was taken over by the former. Indications since are that their reluctance to launch in Manitoba has, if anything, hardened. Shaw, for instance, transferred the 1700 MHz AWS spectrum it acquired at discount rates in 2008 as part of the government’s bid to cultivate new entrants to Rogers in 2014, while Wind sold 15 MHz paired AWS-1 spectrum to MTS last year (MTS, AR 2015, 6).

Thus, while potentially the most interesting and earnest option on offer, the hope of keeping four players alive — the “Ofcom Solution” — is probably the most complicated and least likely to work.

Option #3: Double-down on the open access and regulated wholesale access rules while promoting Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs)

Given that the second option is unlikely to succeed, and the reasonable prospect that a combined Bell-Telus arrangement and a marginalized Rogers might lead to an even tighter oligopoly than that which already exists in much of the rest of the country – i.e. with effectively 2.5 players – regulators might double down on the CRTC’s wholesale mobile wireless ruling from last year, while expanding it to include stricter access to towers, backhaul and for MVNOs.

Strict limits on the use of data caps might also be imposed. They might even be banished for a period of time, as the FCC recently did as a condition for blessing Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks (see here).

Option #4: Kill the deal

If evidence and rational argument were our guiding light, then the most palatable option – but also perhaps the most politically difficult, especially given Bell’s intensive lobbying of the new government some thirty-two times in the seventeen weeks since the Liberals have been in power – would be to simply kill the deal.

With concentration levels already sky high, it would be unseemly to bless more consolidation. This is especially so with the CRTC and Competition Bureau having found on several occasions in the past year that Bell, Rogers and Telus have significant market power in the mobile wireless and wireline markets and that they have used such power to do everything they can to give new rivals a still birth. Both regulators also arrived at similar findings on the TV side as well, to which the CRTC’s series of TalkTV decisions are a response.

Without these remedies having yet had time to produce the desired results, and Bell – more than most – fighting them tooth and nail every step of the way, giving it the green light to buy MTS would be akin to blessing bad behaviour. Moreover, Bell’s attempt to tee up a take-over of MTS within this context is a sure sign of hubris, and reason enough to turn it back.

A Radical Broadband Internet & Cultural Policy for Canada

This post responds to last weekend’s announcement by Canadian Heritage Minister Melanie Joly of a top-to-bottom review of Canadian broadcast, arts and culture policy. It’s also informed by the CRTC’s #TalkBroadband review where it is wrestling with the vital question of whether universal, affordable basic telecoms services should be expanded to include broadband internet access and, if so, at what standards of speed, quality and affordability, and who should pay for it all?

Both events offer enormous opportunities for good things to happen, but also for much mischief, especially if those who have been lobbying the new government day and night since it arrived in office last November get their way. Indeed, Bell has lobbied various arms of the new Trudeau government thirty-two times – nearly twice a week! — between the time it took power in November and the end of March (Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada). In light of this, while careful and considered thought is essential, there is no time to waste.

In this post, I want to do three things:

  1. outline the scale of the media economy and the state of concentration and vertical integration across the telecoms, internet and media landscape in Canada – the bedrock upon which all else unfolds;
  2. discuss what regulators and policy-makers have done in response to these conditions so far and broader policy issues related to broadband internet, mobile wireless and broadcast policy; and
  3. conclude with five modest proposals, one large one and one radical suggestion about what might be done to close the gap between how things are and what we might want them to be.

A Lay of the Land: Bigger Players and A Bigger Pie

While the Canadian media economy is small by US standards, it is amongst the biggest dozen or so in the world. The telecoms, internet and media markets in Canada have nearly quadrupled in size in the past thirty years. Total revenues were $75.4 billion in 2014.

Is media ownership concentration in Canada high?

Yes, based on historical, international and conventional economic measures (see the CMCR Project’s Media and Internet Concentration in Canada, 1984-2014 report).

Is the level of vertical integration in Canada high? Yes. The top 4 Canadian vertically-integrated (VI) companies’ – Bell, Rogers, Shaw, QMI, in that order — share of all telecom, internet and media revenues is 57%.

Figure 1: The “Big 4” VI Companies’ Share of the Media Economy, 2014

Figure-3-Vertical-Integration-and-the-Network-Media-Ecology-2014

Sources: CMCR Project Media Industry Data.

This is significantly higher than the top four VI companies in the US (40%): AT&T (DirecTV), Comcast, Charter (including Time Warner & Bright House) and Cox. Figure 2 below shows the state of affairs before yesterdays amalgamation of Charter, Time Warner and Brighthouse was approved.

Figure 2

 

Screenshot 2016-04-27 02.20.18

Sources: Company Annual Reports.

Canada ranks at the very top of the list of 30 countries studied by the IMCRP in terms of vertical integration (see here and here).

The big Canadian telcos – except Telus – all own substantial television operations, sports teams and arenas, and so forth. Other than AT&T’s recent acquisition of DirecTV, most US telcos do not own their own television and film operations: Verizon, Frontier, Centurylink, T-Mobile. Besides AT&T, there are no telcos on the list of four biggest vertically-integrated companies in the US.

But what about Google, Facebook and Netflix? Their combined share of all media revenues in Canada is less than 4 percent – as of 2014 (see CMCR Project Workbook “Top 20 w telecoms” sheet).

Are Canada’s vertically-integrated media companies too big to regulate? No.

Are they being regulated effectively? Not as effectively as they might be.

Do regulators have justifiable reasons to intervene? Yes.

Concentration and vertical integration levels are high and the companies’ abuse of their market power is now a conclusion of fact, not conjecture.

Wireless markets are under-developed; prices per GB on wireless and wireline networks are high; speeds relative to comparable international peers are high for wireless, modest for wireline. Adoption is moderate for the latter, but extremely low for the former (mobile phones) (a series of international price, speed, access, adoption and subsidy comparisons can be found here)

People in Canada are voracious users of the internet and all kinds of media, and have long been so (see Cisco’s Visual Network Index Forecast, 2015-2020, for example). Still, however, they must also measure what they watch and do with these vital tools of modern life because of the high cost of a GB in Canada and the prevalence of relatively low data caps on wireless and wireline networks.

Restrictive data caps reflect the high levels of vertical integration in Canada and serve to protect the VI giant’s broadcast operations from streaming services like Netflix, etc. Just two days ago, in contrast, the FCC in the US approved the take-over of the Time Warner and Brighthouse cable companies by Charter but only on condition that it commit to not using data caps for the next seven years. This was done specifically to remove an barriers to the further development of over-the-top video services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and unbundled services from CBS, Viacom, HBO, the NLB, and so on (see here, here and the WSJ).

In Canada, the CRTC gave provisional blessing to data caps back in 2009. However, they have gone from being used sparingly to manage internet congestion to become a steady and lucrative new stream of revenue for Bell, Rogers, Telus and Videotron ever since (Shaw advertises data caps but does not apply them). Canadians loathe data caps and the expensive “overage charges” they entail. Data caps send a dumb message as well: that somehow we are using “too much internet”.

While Shaw distinguished itself on this point when appearing before the CRTC on Tuesday, it has been discouraging to listen to Bell, Telus, MTS, SaskTel, Bragg and the small indy telcos talk about the need to scrimp on how much internet people use and the speeds that should be available. Their visions of what Canadians deserve as part of a universal basic broadband service is myopic and wholly uninspiring.

The extensive reliance on relatively low data caps in Canada constrains what and how people watch TV, listen to music, communicate with one another over the internet and mobile devices, and work. As part of human experience, and critical infrastructure for society and economy writ large, this is a problem.

Information and cultural goods are public goods and paying for them out of the public purse is reasonable and ought to be pursued but commercial media stand steadfastly and vocally opposed to any such expansion of public communication. I propose that we amalgamate Canada Post with the CBC to create the Canadian Communications Corporation, the combined result of which could operate as the 4th National Wireless Company, Broadband Provider in remote, rural and under-served urban communities, and Public Broadcaster rolled into one.

Netflix and Google should be able ply the land free as they like within the usual bounds of the rule of law with respect to market power, privacy, copyright, free speech, etc.

It is not unreasonable, however, to talk about levying a “public data resource” royalty on Google in return for giving it a free hand in gathering all the data from our ‘human’ and natural resources that it uses to run Google Search, Android, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Books, etc. Such a levy could be used to restore some of Statistics Canada’s funding and technical expertise, and the long-form census. At the very least, foreign internet firms operating in Canada should pay taxes like the rest of us. Indeed, rumour has it that Canada is the only country where Netflix doesn’t pay any taxes. Western University Professor Sam Trosow is right: we must think about information policy in a holistic way.

Whereas the Competition Bureau folded in its antitrust investigation of Google last week the day before the European Commission opened up a second prong in its antitrust case against the digital behemoth – the first with respect to its dominance of EU search markets, where it often has a market share over 90%, the latest a new front targeting Google’s leveraging of its Android operating system to gain prime real estate on people’s mobile devices for the its Play Store, Chrome Browser and Search to the exclusion of other competitors and a different range of preloaded functions, capabilities and apps – there is still time to take another look in light of the fuller view being brought into focus by Joly’s DigiCanCon review and the CRTC’s ongoing #TalkBroadband proceeding. We need a “whole of government” approach, and so far, that is missing in action.

What are regulators doing?

They are:

Unbundling the Network: Partially. Hesitantly. . . . Slowly turning from a systems and broadcast-centric view of the world to a lego-land, telecoms-internet-mobile wireless centric view of the world – skinny basic, untied streaming tv services like Shomi and Crave, and pick-and-pay TV are just the start (for an early vision along these lines, see Huber’s The Geodesic Network II).

The CRTC and the previous government have made the high levels of concentration in mobile wireless, broadcast distribution undertakings (DBUs) and television a centre-piece of their proceedings and policies.

They are rediscovering market power

The CRTC called a spade a spade in its Wholesale Mobile Wireless decision last year, for instance:

Bell Mobility, RCP [Rogers], and TCC [Telus] collectively possess market power in the national market for GSM-based wholesale MVNO access (CRTC 2015-177, para 88).

The Competition Bureau’s findings were crucial to this outcome, although its appearance before the CRTC hearing on the matter was abysmal.

They have rediscovered and applied section 27 of the Telecommunications Act in three cases: Wholesale Roaming investigation 2014-398; Wholesale Mobile Wireless Decision 2015-177; Mobile TV 2015-26.

The Wholesale Roaming investigation 2014-398 found that wholesale mobile wireless roaming rates were “clear instances of unjust discrimination and undue preference”; banished exclusivity provisions in wholesale roaming agreements; and opened a wider examination into wholesale mobile wireless services that led to the second-shoe falling, the Wholesale Mobile Wireless Decision 2015-177.

In Wholesale Mobile Wireless Decision 2015-177 the CRTC re-asserted its authority to regulate wholesale mobile wireless facilities and rates, set temporary caps on wholesale roaming rates and called a Phase II costing proceeding upon which it will set out new guidelines for wholesale wireless roaming rates.

The Mobile TV 2015-26 Decision did four things.

  1. it found that Bell and Videotron were giving themselves “an undue and unreasonable preference” by “providing the data connectivity and transport required for consumers to access the mobile TV services at substantially lower costs . . . relative to other audiovisual content services”.
  2. the CRTC concluded that this was bad for competition, the development and growth of new OTT services, and for consumer-citizens.
  3. it drew a sharp line between transmission (common carriage) and broadcasting (content). In so doing, it forced Bell, Shaw and Rogers to bring their Mobile TV offerings into compliance with some of the common carrier principles flowing from section 27 of the Telecommunications Act.
  4. it acted on the well-founded and meticulously researched and formulated complaint by a citizen and now Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, Ben Klass.

Return of the State and Zombie Free Markets

That the previous government’s actions and ongoing regulatory intervention in the market is substantial in Canada is beyond doubt. At the same time, however, this is not unique. We have seen the “return of the state” in many countries. In the real world, the effective operation of “real markets” depends on the rule of law and the firm hand of independent regulators, back-stopped by, yet independent from, politicians, policy makers and the Ministers whose bailiwick it is to see that good things happen (in this case, this is Minister Navdeep Bains at Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Minister Melanie Joly at Canadian Heritage).

In terms of what has been done in recent years, we have had spectrum auctions aplenty, explicit spectrum set asides for new cellcos, regulated wholesale mobile wireless roaming rates, adoption of the Vertical Integration Code, the stripped down ‘skinny basic’ TV with a price cap, the push to keep over-the-air TV alive in so that the digital switch over of a few years back might bear fruit and become a thorn in the side of cable, satellite and IPTV companies whose rates continue to climb much faster than inflation, and the forced unbundling of tv channels.

All of these steps run counter to some of the companies’ – especially Bell and Shaw, but less so Rogers and QMI — ‘walled garden/information control’ models of operation. Having banked on such a model (and with the banks, especially RBC, holding significant ownership stakes in most of the key players), the push back against these efforts to limit the companies’ ambitions are coming from some of the most powerful forces in the land. Such push back can be seen, for example, in:

  • Bell’s recurring editorial interventions in the country’s biggest TV and radio news media outlets;
  • litigation (e.g. against the Mobile TV, Wireless Code, Superbowl Simsub rulings from the CRTC);
  • a Petition to Cabinet to overturn the CRTC’s forward looking wholesale access to fibre-to-the-X ruling;
  • threats of capital investment strikes and a bevy of other efforts to turn back the tide.

So what are the limits to this newly interventionist Regulatory State?

First, while the CRTC has rediscovered section 27 of the Telecommunications Act – the no undue preference clause – we must remember that it is followed immediately by section 28, which those in the know see as saying that carriers cannot give undue preference EXCEPT when doing so advances the objectives of the Broadcasting Act. This puts the best bits of the telecoms act at war with itself and risks subordinating telecommunications – broadband internet, basically – to broadcasting.

Such waffling runs counter to the principles of telecommunications upon which the open internet and mobile phones are built — tried and trued principles that come down to us in section 36 of the Telecommunications Act from Roman Roads, Venetian Canals, and the Taxis family courier service in medieval Europe.

Moreover, while one might argue that section 36 should be the crown jewel of the Telecommunications Act, there has been an extreme reluctance to use it. Why?

Regulatory hesitancy seems greatest on this point. This is evident in its almost complete lack of use during a time when those who own the media have become so inextricably intertwined with the ownership and control of messages. It is also evident in the exception carved out for over-riding this principle if it meets some ill-defined objectives of the Broadcasting Act. It is time to wheel section 36 out of storage and put it back in place as the crown jewel around which the entire set-up of the evermore internet- and mobile wireless-centric universe revolves.

This hesitance was also visible in the Mobile TV, a case in which content — and the carriers’ control of it — is very much front and centre. While drawing a sharp line between carriage and content, however, the CRTC refused to reach for the bedrock of common carriage: section 36. This seems to mark the outer limits of where it seems willing to go and in continuation with the fact that this section has been largely dormant over the years.

While the decision to kick some new life into section 27 is to be applauded, and the increased willingness to constrain the power of vertically integrated companies by loosening their grip over the basic building blocks of the network media ecology – spectrum, wholesale mobile wireless facilities and roaming rates, data transport and content – and sharpening the lines between carriage and content is great, much more is needed.

Like what?

5 Modest Suggestions + 1 Big One + 1 Radical One.

  1. Eliminate section 28 of the Telecommunications Act;
  2. Eliminate section 4 in the Broadcasting and Telecommunications acts so that both pieces of legislation can talk to one another (we don’t need new legislation and any attempt at such will only ensnare us in interminable delay and special (corporate) interest pleading;
  3. Breathe new and vigorous life into section 36 by firmly separating control over the infrastructure from influence over the messages / content flowing through the pipes / ether. Sharpen and harden the line between carriage and content. Any proposals to use a levy on ISPs and mobile phones to fund CanCon should be given a stillbirth. While the entrenched clients of the existing broadcasting system never miss a beat to promote “the ISP tax”, these ideas are out of synch with the times and the tastes of the people. They are anti-internet and prolong “a systems” view of the world that conceals a murky labyrinth of cultural policy funds flowing from one pocket to another, often within the vertically-integrated companies.
  4. Impose vertical separation along functional lines between carriage and content, and between wholesale access to passive network infrastructure and network operators and retail telecoms service providers.
  5. Transfer authority over spectrum from Industry Canada to CRTC.

1 Big Proposal

  1. Eliminate the whole category of broadcast distribution undertakings (BDUs) upon which the cable, satellite and IPTV industry is based. It’s all telecom-internet access and carriage now. Take the funds funneled into the Canadian Media Fund from BDUs directly out of the general treasury.

More generally, we need to think about bringing subsidies for broadband connectivity into line with funding for the CBC and Cancon. Currently, the CBC receives $33 per person per year, with nearly three-quarters of that amount again for the arts and culture at large. Broadband internet subsidies, by contrast, are a comparative pittance at roughly $2 per person per year.

I do not think that Canadian citizens would chafe at upping that amount to somewhere between what Sweden spends on broadband internet access subsidies (an average of $5 per person per year) and the CBC ($33 per person per year) (see sheets 3 & 4 here). Any bid to pare back the CBC and other arts and culture funding should be dismissed out of hand. We are not big spenders when it comes to arts, culture and Cancon, and generally at the lower end of the scale. In short, there’s little room for cutting, although how subsidies are organized, allocated and used are other matters altogether and surely up for grabs under the sweeping review that Minister Joly is spearheading.

1 Radical Proposal: The Canadian Communication Corporation (C3)

Merge Canada Post with the CBC to create the Canadian Communication Corporation (CCC) with a mandate to become the fourth national mobile wireless provider; blanket cities with open access and light up the vast stock of under- and unused municipal dark fibre; extend public wifi; extend broadband internet access to under- and unserved people in rural, remote and poor urban areas; create, disseminate and make public art and culture as accessible and enjoyable as possible, and fund it from the treasury not by an opaque labyrinth of intra- and inter-industry funds overseen by a fragmented cultural policy bureaucracy.

The original goal of the U.S. Post Office was to bring “general intelligence to every man’s [sic] doorstep”, while also serving as a heavily subsidized vehicle for delivering newspapers (John, 2010; Starr, 2004). The CCC could be to the broadband internet and mobile-wireless centric world of the 21st century what the Post Office was to the print world of times past.

The CCC could repurpose some of the CBC’s existing spectrum holdings and broadcast towers for mobile wireless service coast-to-coast-to-coast, real estate could be combined and used to site towers, local post offices used to sign up cellphone subscribers and sell devices, and Canada Post vehicles given more windshield time making sure that the country’s system of correspondence, communication and parcel delivery run as they should.

Postal workers are giving some thought to renewing the post office for a broader sense of purpose, but have not ventured into this territory — yet; at the same time, informal discussions with some Canada Post senior execs suggest that this isn’t the first time they have heard of such ideas. Equally important, I don’t detect any inherent hostility against them.

Maybe it is time to discuss a #RadicalMediaPolicy4Canada? With two official proceedings underway, maybe we can broaden the terrain with a third?

* This post reworks ideas first presented at the Forum for Research and Policy in Communication’s Rebooting Canada’s Communication Law at the University of Ottawa, May 22, 2015. Thank you to Monica Auer for inviting to present there.

Telus Trifles with Telephone History to Service its Constrained View of Universal, Affordable Broadband Internet Access Today

Setting the Stage

Today, the CRTC enters week two of its major review of affordable basic telecoms service in Canada. The key issue? Whether universal, affordable basic telecoms services should be expanded to include broadband internet access and, if so, at what standards of speed, quality and affordability, and who should pay for it all.

Some of us argue that the goal of affordable, universal broadband service needs to be defined broadly. Others, such as Telus, argue that it should be drawn very narrowly to include only services based on needs not wants. In Telus’ restrictive view of the world, basic broadband internet access should support email, web browsing and maybe a couple of e-commerce activities but not over-the-top video services or H-D two-way interactive gaming. If the CRTC is to adopt a broadband speed target at all, Telus says, it should be no more the 5 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up (see its second intervention, paras 90-91).

To support its view, Telus hired two experts to critique the work submitted by those who argue for the more expansive view, including that of your’s truly. The gist of my submission is that affordable universal service is a concept that is not static but changes with developments in technology and society. I also argue that the politics of universal service involved in working this out are coterminous with the history of general purpose communications networks from the post office to the telephone and now the internet.

In the US, for example, this began with the post office starting with the Postal Act of 1792, and whose mandate was “to bring general intelligence to every man’s [sic] doorstep”, while also serving as a heavily subsidized vehicle for delivering newspapers across the country with the aim of helping the nation’s journalism flourish (John, 2010, p. 20; Starr, 2004). In short, universal postal policy was also about press, information, social and economic policy, all rolled into one.

I then argue that people agitated for such goals in relation to POTs (plain old telephone service), libraries and broadcasting. That they are doing so now in relation to broadband internet access is no surprise.

Indeed, in Canada and the US people pushed hard to transform the telephone from the late-19th and early 20th centuries from a luxury good and tool of business and government into a social necessity (Pike & Mosco, 1986), and a popular means of interpersonal communication. In an all-IP world, people are building upon this history by not only bringing intelligence to every citizens’ doorstep but by helping to make that doorstep the perch from which we can see and speak to the world.

Hired Guns, Weird Timeframes and Looking for Keys Under Lampposts

In line with Telus constrained view of basic service, its hired expert, McGill Political Scientist Richard Schultz writes that we need to clear away the many misconceptions and myths that exist about how “universal service became part of Canadian regulatory and policy debates” (para 2). Taking aim at my intervention specifically, Schultz asserts that

. . . perhaps no single statement in the various submissions epitomizes the problems . . . than the following from the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project first intervention: “Policy makers have struggled for over 100 years how best to achieve universal telecommunications service” (para 4).

Purporting to set the historical record right, Schultz argues that we need to do two things: first, to look at the period “from 1906, or more precisely 1912” up to around 1976, followed by another thereafter” and, second, search for explicit statutory statements where universal basic service is set out as a formal legal requirement for basic service, with the assumption being that the absence of such statements means that there’s never been such an idea in Canada and that claims to the contrary are just hollow rhetoric.

After doing what is akin to a text search of the relevant laws and coming up empty handed, Schultz concludes that there never were such politics over, or legal basis for, universal service in the late-19th or early-20th centuries and, in fact, that such issues were largely ignored. To the extent that such issues were given attention at all, he argues, the impetus came from enlightened corporate leaders at Bell and other telephone companies rather than politicians, policy makers or the public at large – in other words to the extent that universal service existed at all, it was an act of noblesse oblige (paras 5-9). Moreover, according to Schultz’s telling, to the extent the regulators and policy makers have played a role in bringing it about, universal service is of recent vintage.

Shultz’s arguments are curious for two reasons. First, the date that he begins with ignores vitally important points that predate 1906, while ignoring or giving short shrift to events within his selective timeframe. Second, the idea that a text search for “universal service” in the relevant legislation that comes up empty handed supports the conclusion that the idea was non-existent is like the proverbial drunk looking for their keys under the lamp post.

History Cut Short: Looking Just Outside the Weird Timeframe . . .

Let’s deal with the start date that Schultz selects first, i.e. 1906. This date is plausible because this is when telephone companies were brought under the remit of the Railway Act of 1903 and the purview of the first regulatory board in Canada, the Board of Railway Commissioners. Yet, starting in 1906 is fundamentally wrong for many reasons. For one, if we start just a few years earlier, we see that the adoption of the Railway Act was predicated on the idea that there are certain industries so fundamental to the economic and social life of the nation that they are imbued with a public interest and an “obligation to serve”. Railways came first, telegraphs and telephones next.

Statements aplenty to this effect underpin the legislative history of the Railway Act, and when telegraph and telephone companies were brought under its purview three years after its adoption the same principles automatically applied. Thus, when the Railway Act was expanded to include telephones in 1906, there was no need to be explicit about the “obligation to service” because that was baked into the statutory basis upon which railway, telegraph and telephone regulation was based. In short, there was no need to state the obvious.

The classic text on such matters, Alfred Kahn’s The Economics of Regulation: Principles and Institutionsprovides an excellent introduction to businesses cloaked with a public interest, their obligation to serve, and the role regulators play in using the best available knowledge and experience to decide how such matters will be dealt within in any particular instance (see pp. 3-5, for example). These are the guiding rules and principles of regulation, not legislation, although regulators’ authority to do what they do is and must be grounded in laws that give them the authority, mandate and legitimacy to take the steps they do.

Schultz’s start date of 1906 is especially odd given the monumental inquiry into the telephone industry convened just one year earlier – 1905 — by the Liberal Government of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, otherwise known as the Mulock Committee, after its chairperson and Postmaster General at the time William Mulock. The Mulock Committee helps to put the CRTC’s review of the basic service obligation in perspective given that while the Commission will hear from 90+ intervenors over three weeks, the Mulock Committee heard from many more during its forty-three days of hearings and thousands of pages of testimony.

As part of the public record, it received interventions from members of the public, co-operatively run telephone companies, municipal governments, foreign telephone systems and experts, and Bell management, among many others. It was an enormous undertaking, and one that underscored the fact that achieving some measure of public control – i.e. regulation in the public interest — over the telephone network was of the utmost importance.

Contra Schultz and Telus’ claim that issues of universal service were missing in action during this early period of telecommunications history, voices aplenty called for accessible and affordable telephone service at this time, not just for the business classes who were its main users but for all classes of the public. One among many, the Manitoba Government’s submission, for example, highlighted these points as follows:

. . . the telephone is . . . one of the natural monopolies, and yet is one of the most . . . necessary facilities for the despatch of business and for the convenience of the people . . . .[T]he price . . . should be so low that labouring men and artisans can have convenience and advantage of the telephone, as well as the merchant, the professional man and the gentleman of wealth and leisure” (Manitoba Government to Mulock Committee in 1905, quoted in Winseck, 1998, p. 137).

If this is not a call for affordable service, I am not sure what is. The only reason they are missing for Schultz and Telus is because such activities fall outside of their self-selected – and odd — time frame that begins a year after the biggest inquiry into the telephone and public service in the 20th Century occurred (except maybe the proceedings dealing with the introduction of competition in the last twenty-five years of that century).

We can also go well beyond 1906 and the Railway Act, or 1905 and the Mulock Telephone Inquiry, to the first days of the Bell Telephone Company of Canada’s operations to add further insight into the history of universal telecoms service. Thus, in 1882, Bell’s founding charter was revised to include the touchstone phrase that its operations were to be conducted and overseen by the federal government for “the general advantage of Canada”.

A few years later, and a decade before the United States pursued the same course of action, the federal Patent Commissioner voided Bell patents because Bell was not making enough use of its equipment in Canada and blocking access to those who might (see MacDougall, 2013, p. 43). Municipalities also chafed — and told the Mulock Committee as much – at how their weak powers under the federal government’s authority and the “general advantage of Canada” idea in Bell’s charter constrained their capacity to grant competing franchises, regulate rates and adopt other methods that might help extend the telephone beyond a small number of business users to make it more accessible and affordable.

And when competition did break out, as in Montreal in 1888, for instance, Bell launched a ruthless price war with its rival, the Federal Telephone Company, until the latter capitulated and sold out to Bell three years later. In Winnipeg it created a “dummy company”, the People’s Telephone Company, to give the illusion of competition; while in Peterborough and Dundas, to kill new independent telephone companies, Bell gave away service for free. Yet, all this, too, is ruled out by the self-selected time frame that Schultz imposes on the subject.

When Kingston joined the Ontario Municipal Association in 1903 to adopt a resolution calling for municipal authority to regulate telephone rates, Bell threatened not to renew its franchise and to withhold further capital investment. In the same year, the Mayors of the Montreal suburb of Westmount and Toronto, William Lighthall and Oliver Howland, respectively, spearheaded a drive to gain greater regulatory authority over telephone rates for municipalities while calling on the federal government to take control of the long distance network. By 1905, 195 municipalities had joined the call, with support from the Montreal and Toronto business associations and the farmers’ association, Dominion Grange (also see MacDougall, 2013, pp. 44-46, 125-127; Winseck, 1998).

In an immediate sense, the cities’ calls largely fell on deaf ears at the federal government. As a result of this drift of events, in 1902, 1-in-50 Ottawa citizens had regular telephone service. The upshot, as Bell Canada President Charles Fleetford Side never missed a chance to stress, was that the telephone was treated as a luxury not necessity.

It was against this backdrop, however, that Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal Government convened the Select Committee on Telephones in 1905. However, none of this even merits a mention in the hired expert report that Professor Schultz has prepared for Telus and submitted to the public record of the CRTC’s current review of basic telecoms service. In short, those parts of the historical record that don’t fit Telus’ restrictive view of universal telecoms service are simply omitted from Schultz’s account.

Inside the Timeframe Things Disappear

Missing, also, is the fact that all three prairie governments effectively nationalized their telephone systems between 1906 and 1909 largely because, as Manitoba had told the Mulock Committee, Bell refused to extend its network in the province or to make the service more affordable for more people. During this time, Bell vacated the field as prairie governments took over telephone service between 1906-1909 in Manitoba and Alberta, although with Saskatchewan following the ‘Scandinavian’ model whereby the government initially owned the long distance networks while cities and cooperatives built up the local networks (MacDougall, 2014, p. 190).

In addition, far from the folding of telegraph and telephone companies into the purview of the Railway Act being an inconsequential gesture, as Telus and Schultz suggest, Canada’s first regulator – the Board of Railway Commissioners — cut its teeth on a wide variety of issues that all had to do with carving out what it means to set public policy and regulate businesses affected with a public interest, to use Alfred Kahn’s terminology. Thus, and for instance, even though some people suspected that the Government had simply shelved the recommendations of the Mulock Committee, the report helped to set the zeitgeist and in the next few years the BRC found its footing on ground made solid by the extensive proceedings that had just transpired.

Thus, between 1908 and 1915, the BRC displayed the will and room for independent action needed to increase the availability of affordable telephone service to business and all classes of people alike. For instance, the BRC nullified the then widespread exclusive contracts that Bell had hitherto sewn up with railway stations – the main centers of commerce and the flow of people – across the country. The provisions in the Railway Act requiring telephone rates that were “just and reasonable” were also given new life; as were those that required that rates and services be offered in a manner that was “not unjustly discriminatory or unduly preferential” (Railway Act, c. R-2).

Standard technical interfaces allowing interconnection between Bell and independent telephone companies were adopted, and telephone companies were required to file their tariffs with the BRC. In 1910, the BRC made a landmark ruling that brought common carriage into the purview of telecommunications in Canada as well, and which remains a defining pillar of the Telecommunications Act (sec 36) to this date.

The BRC also began systematically collecting data on Bell and other telephone companies with respect to rates, miles of telephone line and the number of exchanges in operation, people served, workers employed, and so on and so forth. The first monitoring reports, Telephone Statistics, were published. The number of independent telephone companies soared from 530 in 1912 to 1700 by 1917, accounting for half of all subscribers at the time. To be sure, the exact phrase “universal service” may not appear in these efforts, and the aims of such an objective were not achieved, but its spirit – in bits and pieces and the totality of the record – is undeniable.

To be sure, while Bell struck a tone then that was as parsimonious as the one Telus is striking now, it was not completely tone deaf to the drift of events taking place. Thus, while the Bell Telephone Company of Canada’s long-standing chair, Charles Fleetford Sise was renowned for his penny-pinching ways and emphasis on serving only high-end business users who appreciated the high quality of the company’s networks and didn’t mind paying the price to do so, by 1912 even he seemed to be changing his tune.

Thus, in Bell Canada’s Annual Report of that year, Sise is quoted as follows:

. . . In 1906 the operation of the Company was placed under the supervision of the Railway Commission, which has considered several matters brought before it for adjudication, and has, in its conclusions, acted in an impartial and judicial manner.

Our relations with the Public continue to be very satisfactory, and the general feeling now seems to be that the telephone service to be perfect must be universal, intercommunicating, interdependent, under one control…and that rates must be so adjusted as to make it possible for everyone to be connected who will add to the value of the system to others (emphasis added, Fetherstonhaugh, 1944, pp. 224-225).

This is hugely important because, in Schultz’ words, to the extent that we had universal service at all, it was because the companies gave it to us out of the goodness of their hearts. Yet, here is Sise saying something very different, and in his account, the regulator looms large.

Schultz also draws on Milton Mueller’s (1998) history of universal service in the US to argue that the concept of universal service didn’t really mean what we think it means, but rather was more of a technical concept that referred to a single system (i.e. a monopoly) available everywhere rather than to everyone at affordable rates (see paras 30-31 in Schultz). Again, Sise’s words suggest something different.

The Politics of Telecoms Policy and Universal Service Restored

While Sise was likely singing from the same hymn sheet as the American Bell, the reading that Schultz tries to impose is at odd with a broader reading of Bell and its management’s stance within the context of the politics of the progressive era in the US (circa 1890-1920) when people like AT&T boss Theodore N. Vail worked harder than ever to reconcile a nascent kind of big business capitalism that his company represented, large technical systems of which the telephone system was an example par excellence, and the public interest (see Sklar, 1988, for example). All of these ideas were at play and expressed from a wide variety of positions, from the narrow and technocratic (Walter Lippmann, for example), to the broad and expansive (John Dewey). Even on the face of it, Sise’s invocation of a telephone service that is universally available at rates that “make it possible for everyone to be connected” chime with such views while also resonating strongly with our modern conceptions of universal service.

Suffice it to say that Schultz’s fundamentally flawed account of the history of universal service carries on throughout the period he covers. To be sure, there are times, for example in the post WWII era in which the politics of telecommunications and universal service did fade into the woodwork, but that, I would argue, is due to the “corporatist politics” and social settlements of the era. This meant that such matters were attended by those directly involved: the telephone companies, the regulators, and to an extent the telephone company labour unions. Indeed, when telephone regulation rested with the Board of Transport Commissioners (1938-1967) and then the Canadian Transport Commission (1967-1976), respectively, they did take a particularly technocratic and narrow view of things whereby, rather than hearing from people directly, they believed that the company engineers and economists appearing before them were best placed to deliver insights and results that were in the public interest.

The Public Returns and the Public Interest is Revived

That kind of thinking was also prevalent in the US at the time, as well. Crucially, however, it was also rejected in the landmark United Church of Christ case in 1966 when the Courts scolded the FCC into a new way of thinking by arguing that the only way to know what the public interest is, was to have the public in front of the FCC to tell them what it is. The doors to the FCC swung open and the preceding phase of corporatist politics was jettisoned in favour of public participation as a result.

The CRTC followed course a decade later, in 1976, but on its own accord after its remit was expanded to take over telecommunications from the Canada Transport Commission. Immediately upon taking over telecoms, the CRTC candidly announced the following:

… In a country where essential telecommunications services are provided largely by private enterprise with some degree of protection from competition, the public interest requires that those services should be responsive to public demand over as wide a range of possible, and equally responsive to social and technological change.

The principle of “just and reasonable” rates is neither narrow nor a static concept. As our society has evolved, the idea of what is just and reasonable has also changed . . . . Indeed, the Commission views this principle in the widest possible terms, and considers itself obliged to continually review the level and structure of carrier rates to ensure that telecommunications services are fully responsive to the public interest.[1]

Indeed, these ideas and values stand as a consistent thread between then and now: the Commission sets what constitutes basic service in light of constantly evolving technological, economic, social and political realities. That such ideas were in the air at the CRTC in the mid-1970s was also not anomalous but part and parcel of the times as well. Schultz offers a glimpse of this when he mentions the Department of Communication in passing (see para 46). However, the DOC is more important than he leads on. It articulated a broad vision of the “wired society” that it saw as being on the immediate horizon as broadband networks converged with computing and a cornucopia of information and media services to become the infrastructure of society in the near future. We’re here now, even if Telus hopes that the DOC’s broad vision is not.

Such ideas play little role in Schultz’s account and thus in helping us understand universal service and its evolution over time. They are part of what he thinks is a moment when the politics of universal service does emerge for the first time, but they are not given the gravitas that they probably deserve nor are they stitched into the flow of time – backwards or forwards – in ways that they need to be. As a result, the argument that was the closing decades of the 20th Century there were a watershed moment when the values, ideas and politics of universal telecoms services emerge for the first time is incorrect, for all of the reasons indicated above.

Look Where Things Are Not Where the Light Shines Brightest

Finally, and as I told the Commission last week and in my response to Telus’ questions to me earlier, most countries do not legislate specific affordable broadband service targets. Instead, the normal practice is to pursue broadband targets as a matter of public policy, developed and back-stopped by regulators and policy-makers that have the legal and political mandate to do what they need to do to achieve outcomes that are in the public interest. And this is as it is in Canada as well.

Ultimately, Schultz’s history is fundamentally flawed. Its main function appears to be to marshal scholarly credibility and legitimacy in the service of those who seek a specific, strategic outcome. It is a poor piece of research and hopefully will be given very little attention by the Commission, or anyone else for that matter.

Universal service for an all-IP world is something that we have to arrive at. It will not be easy. But an already difficult task won’t be made easier by those who use and abuse history for their own strategic ends.

 

[1] emphasis added, CRTC (1976). Telecommunications Regulation – Procedures and Practices (prepared statement). Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.

Guilty Pleasures and Proper Needs: Who Gets What Kind of Internet, and Who Decides?

On Tuesday night I joined several other speakers at the Internet4All public forum held by ACORN, an advocacy organization that works on behalf of low- and moderate-income families in cities and neighbourhoods across Canada. The event was part of the run up to today when ACORN and its other partners in the Affordable Access Coalition[1] plan to tell the CRTC basic telecoms service review that broadband internet access is expensive and out-of-reach not just for people in rural and remote areas – the focus of many of the presenters in the first three days of the Commission’s review – but for people with low incomes in cities across the country as well.

ACORN’s Internet4All Public Forum

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The link between income, affordability and internet adoption is clear, even if the exact causal links between them are not. Thus, while 80% of households in Canada subscribe to the internet from home, 2-out-of-5 of in the lowest income bracket do not, and one-out-of-every-three Canadians do not have a mobile phone. At the top of the income scale, in contrast, adoption levels are close to universal at over 95% for both. The figure below illustrates the points.Screenshot 2016-04-12 16.48.03.pngWhile some wonder if this is because some people might not want to use the internet, the strong relationship between income and adoption suggests that this is not a choice but a function of affordability. Moreover, study after study tell us one thing: that the price of broadband internet and mobile phone services in Canada are high by the measure of all respectable studies of the issue (see, for example, the Wall, OECD and FCC reports). The high prices these studies document might account for a modest portion of the budget for the “average Canadian”, but for low- and modern-income families they compete with putting food on the table and a roof over their heads.[2]

Such realities also help to describe why, at best, ‘wired broadband internet’ adoption rates in Canada fare only reasonably well compared to other developed countries, but terribly for mobile wireless services. That affordability is clearly an issue is also illustrated by the fact that in Toronto, for example, just 20% of households in public housing communities have broadband internet service. These are the realities that are motivating ACORN members, and why the advocacy group is going to the CRTC today.

While the industry has done little to counter these realities, at least one has taken voluntary steps to help ameliorate the problem for some: Rogers. In 2013, it launched its ‘connected for success’ initiative with the aim of bringing affordable broadband internet access to 58,000 low income families in Toronto public community housing. Last week, Rogers came to the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation to announce that the program is being extended to 150,000 families in 533 public housing communities in Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland & Labrador for the next two years.

In its expanded “connected for success” initiative, Rogers offers broadband internet with speeds of up to 10 Mbps download and up to 1 Mbps upload, with data caps of 30 GB, for $9.99 per month. As a voluntary effort, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

At the same time, however, announced on the eve of the CRTC’s review of the basic telecoms service it is hard not to see the venture as a fine example of “regulation by raised eyebrow”, wherein just the threat of regulatory action brings about some gestures toward the desired results.

The people attending ACORN’s internet4all forum also suggested that while Rogers’ focus on non-profit community housing is good, the vast majority of low-income families do not live in social housing but market housing. Who will serve them?

In Ontario alone, 168,000 families were on the waiting list for community housing last year. This is more than Rogers is targeting across all of Central and Eastern Canada! For them, the cheapest option Rogers offers is its newly launched “Internet 5” service, but it offers only half the speed of the public housing option and is three times the price, once the cost of renting the modem is factored in.

Perhaps the biggest drawback is that these services are designed for individuals rather than households with several family members who might be running multiple devices at the same time, as Rogers’ own marketing materials on its website indicate.  It is not just that the speeds are slow but that the data caps for both services — 30 GB for the public housing version, 25 for the latter – are exceedingly low. Cisco, in contrast, estimates the average Canadian household used 56 GB in 2014, and is expected to reach around 180 GB by 2019.

Figure 2: Rogers Internet Service Plans Compared

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And what about the punishing overage charges that come along with those low data caps? On this, many of those attending the internet4all event the other night had a lot to say. Lastly, what happens to those who sign up for “connected for success” when the program meets its expiry date in two years?

Some argue that some access is better than none. More specifically, there are those who assert that when it comes to defining basic internet service, the aim is to give people basic broadband internet based on need rather than wants and desires.

We have certainly heard a lot of this kind of thinking already. Telus, in particular, argues that the only change the CRTC should consider is making the current “aspirational target” of 5 Mbps up and 1 Mbps down for all Canadians a formal obligation (see here, for example). In response to all those who claim that the standards of 25 and 30 Mbps up and 3 down adopted in the US and 28 EU countries, respectively, and that apply to all citizens and  which must be met, as the FCC in the US puts it, a “reasonable and timely fashion”, Telus says humbug.

Over-and-against the view that anything less than these standards are not up to how individuals and families actually use the internet, especially in terms of viewing video and using multiple devices at the same time, Telus takes a flinty eyed view to argue that things like

. . . email access, web browsing and e-commerce . . . are the services that are necessary for meaningful participation in the digital economy. It is not reasonable to include over-the-top video and H-D two-way interactive gaming as essential applications that must be supported by Internet access faster than TELUS’ recommended 5/1 Mbps BTS (Telus, paras 90-91).

The Commission also appeared to strike a similar note when Chairman J. P. Blais kicked off proceeding Monday morning with the remark that the basic service objective must be firmly grounded in evidence, and that “it is crucial not to confuse ‘wants’ with ‘needs’”. Some chimed in immediately that Blais’ words reflected a “disciplined start”, while the CBC, in contrast, interpreted the remarks to imply that the Commission had already trimmed its sails and people ought not to expect much. Already by the end of first day, however, the Commission seemed to soften its tone.

Drawing the lines between basic needs and productive uses along such lines and whatever else people might do with their internet connections smacks of a long and hoary history where people have been told that what they use the media at their disposal for should take a backseat to more “important” uses, and consequently frowned upon and discouraged as a result. When I expanded on this idea at ACORN’s Internet4All forum, people got up one after another to give rhyme and verse on why such distinctions are not only wrong-headed but objectionable.

Why should people and families with low incomes — precisely the ones most likely to “cut the cable cord” to save money — be told that watching TV is beyond the pale. Isn’t it enough that they be able to do so without affordable basic internet access being hedged about by so many narrow and utilitarian values as to rule out such pleasures?

On this point, I heard much about Netflix and cartoons, and how telling stories, art and culture are essential to who we are as human beings, to our imaginations, and how we express ourselves. The gentlemen who relayed the bulk of this line of thinking will be there to tell the CRTC the same today.

And what about using the internet to get the news, a point that Chairman Blais also appears to fully grasp, given his remarks that with the French language newspaper LaPresse being available online only now, people have to have an internet connection to read it? This chimes with the results of a recent Statistics Canada study on how people “get the news”. As the video component of online news grows, it is going to become a lot harder to carve out this bandwidth intensive aspect of online news from the low capacity text based part.

Another person observed that as government departments put more information online they are also putting it online in video form. She pointed to Health Canada videos on palliative care and diabetes to illustrate the point, and to the essential role that these videos play in educating people and raising awareness about both conditions. How to distinguish between such “worthy” forms of high bandwidth intensity video and the frivolous kind we don’t hold aloft?

Another woman spoke about how her hearing impaired partner communicates regularly with her family back home in Australia by video and how doing so is not only crucial to their relationship but to her partner’s mental well-being more generally. Then there was another woman who spoke of coupon cutting online because, well, all the coupons are now online, and so too, by the way, are most of the rental housing advertisements.

A young man came up afterward and spoke to me about working a grueling 70+ hour work week throughout high school because both of his parents were on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), and the income they received was not enough to make ends meet. Despite being in the “gifted class” at Lisgar Collegiate here in Ottawa, with an average over 90%, his role of main family breadwinner meant that he had to drop out, unable to meet the competing demands of doing both. Yet, a few years later he completed an internet-based high school course, much of it based on instructional videos and video conferencing. He’s now at Algonquin College with hopes to complete his studies at Carleton when finances allow.

Another helped a friend faced with a $190 repair bill for a broken washing machine that she could ill afford. Instead of calling the Maytag repair guy, he turned to Youtube, found a $3 solution, and his friend kept her much needed money for other pressing uses. As a recent MTM study observes, nearly two-thirds of all Canadians used Youtube to learn how to fix or do something in the last year.

Of course we can pile up anecdotes like leaves in autumn but the point is, that even those of us who study these matters full-time don’t have a clue about many of the things that people do with the internet, for both pleasure and productive purposes. I see little way to effectively distinguish between the two and don’t think that much good will come from trying.

That we don’t know the half of what people do in their uses of media comes as no surprise to communication scholars because if the field teaches anything, it teaches that people use communication technologies in unintended ways and that this in turn pushes those technologies along unanticipated paths of development. Any effort to distinguish between “basic” uses that people should have access to as part of an affordable broadband internet obligation and those they shouldn’t risks running roughshod over these lessons. Worse, it risks substituting the regulator and carriers’ judgments for what people themselves are in the best position to decide.

As I pointed out in my testimony to the Commission the other day, providing people with affordable, universal broadband internet in the 21st century is a necessity, and it is in line with what we have done historically in Canada in relation to plain old telephone service. And it is in line with what other countries comparable to ours are doing around the world.

To be sure, this is going to cost money, and that means that somebody’s going to have to pay and who ultimately pays will be us — citizens and taxpayers. I do not see a problem with that.

Total federal subsidies for broadband internet development and affordable prices in Canada are at the very low end of the scale at around $2 per year. This is similar to what people in Bulgaria, Romania and Austria invest, whereas I think we could easily move into the middle of the pack to spend, say, $4.50 to $12 a person per year as they do — that is 40 cents to a buck a month extra on our internet bills — in Sweden, Estonia, the UK, Germany and Finland to subsidize internet development (compared to NZ and Australia at $25 and $163, per person, per year, respectively, for their own national broadband initiatives).

Consider this as well: In Canada, compare the $2 per person per year in total federal subsidies for broadband connectivity to the $33 given to the CBC, by contrast. The point is not to bring the latter down to the former by any stretch of the imagination, but rather to bring broadband subsidies closer to those that we give to the CBC (to say nothing of the myriad of other ‘content subsidies’). In the internet age, while content may be king, it is connectivity that is probably emperor. Our public funding arrangements should better reflect such priorities.

Ultimately, any steps to draw lines between frivolous wants that we can cast aside and productive uses that can be folded into basic internet service will likely look, at least in hindsight, like so many similar such efforts in the past: as paternalistic and elitist efforts, and foolish ones at that. The Commission should give little credence to such ideas, and indeed should reject them out of hand. Get the structure of the internet policy framework right, and the rest will likely fall into place as it should.

For these reasons, we need less flinty-eyed, utilitarian outlooks drawn from Victorian England and a more imaginative view of the future, albeit one that is still grounded in what people are already doing with the internet and plenty of room to grow so that all Canadian citizens can use the internet as they see fit, both today and tomorrow.

[1] Which also includes the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Consumers Association of Canada, Council of Senior Citizens Organization of BC and the National Pensioners Federation.

[2] On this measure, Canada ranks in the middle of comparable EU and OECD countries according to the ITU, see pp. 102 and 109, for example.

The clash over the Internet infrastructure of the 21st century

Cities, corporate interests and the new Trudeau government are at the centre of a debate with massive ramifications on how Canadians access the web.

 

Just days before the Trudeau Government was about to be sworn in at the end of 2015, Bell landed a rarely used Cabinet Petition of a vitally important CRTC decision on the new government’s desk. The CRTC decision (2015-326) in question allows wholesale access by rival internet companies such as TekSavvy, Primus, Distributel, etc. to the fibre-based internet access networks now being built by the incumbent telcos and cablecos in cities across the country (Bell’s appeal can be found here and all of the responses for and against it can be found here).

The decision updated the wholesale access regime that has long been in place for the telephone and cable companies’ existing ‘copper’ and ‘coax’ networks and applied it to the fibre optic-based internet access networks that are now being built and which will likely be the information infrastructure for Canada throughout the 21st century. It’s basic thrust was that as the internet infrastructure evolves so too must the wholesale access rules, lest even the modest competition that independent ISPs like TekSavvy, Distributel, Primus and nearly 500 others across the country have been able to generate be left to wither on the vine.

As part of its appeal, Bell sought and obtained support from several mayors, notably the Mayors of Toronto and Ottawa, both of whom submitted letters to Cabinet supporting Bell’s position. Written on city letterhead, the letters implied that Mayors Tory and Watson of Toronto and Ottawa, respectively, were acting on behalf of their cities (see here and here), but the past few weeks has shown that they acted on their own without consulting council.

Thus, last week, in a 28-5 vote, Toronto City Council passed a motion that stands as a major rebuke to Tory while lending its support to the CRTC’s smart, well-reasoned and forward looking decision (see here). The Toronto Star and Globe and Mail both covered the issue.

In Ottawa, Councilors Jeff Leiper and Diane Deans, among others, have raised similar concerns and yesterday (February 10), Leiper introduced a motion in City Council similar to that adopted by Toronto. The motion is significant not just because it too, if passed, will stand as a rebuke to Watson and support the CRTC, but also because Leiper has several years of high level experience at the CRTC and much experience before that at a major consultancy specializing in the telecoms and internet industry. The plan is to put the motion to a vote at the next meeting of City Council on February 24. The Ottawa Citizen covered the story here.

These moves by the Ottawa and Toronto city councils also line up with an intervention by Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who far more than just offering up a modified boilerplate letter along the lines offered by Tory and Watson, had city staff prepare a smart and very detailed 30 page report in support of the CRTC, and with strong arguments as to why more competition is both needed and possible. You can find this intervention here.

While the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa and a few others signed off on letters in support of Bell, most cities across the country sat this one out: e.g. Montreal, Windsor, Vancouver, Quebec City, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Halifax, St. John’s, Saint John’s, etc. We can be quite certain that Bell approached these cities and, not feeling that they could support the company, they likely chose to stay silent. Add these cities to Calgary’s opposition, and the overwhelming majority of Canadian’s live in cities that have not lined up in Bell’s corner.

There’s two other points to be made about Tory and Watson’s support. First, both of their letters repeat one of Bell’s key talking points on the issue: namely, that the CRTC is unfairly giving rivals discounted access to its infrastructure and this will likely deter future investment. As Watson told the Ottawa Citizen yesterday,

“They [i.e. Bell and the other companies] invest tens of millions of dollars in their network, just to have competitors come and use their network at a severely reduced cost” (emphasis added).

A week earlier John Tory hit the same notes in an interview with the Toronto Star:

“If you put politics aside, . . . when people make these investments, they have to be able to garner proper return on them, otherwise they just won’t make them. And I think that would be very damaging for the city”.

The CRTC dealt with such claims head on in its ruling and rejected them.

The problem with the mayors’ view is that the CRTC’s decision does not grant discounted access to the incumbent telephone and cable companies fibre-based networks. Instead, it gives rivals regulated access on terms that are still being hammered out between industry players and the regulator. However, if history is our guide, and it no doubt is, in the case of the old ‘copper’ networks, the Commission set the wholesale rates at a 40% mark-up on costs, or in other words, at a level that guarantees Bell a 40% return on its investment (see here and here).

In other words, far from being short-changed, Bell is likely to be compensated handsomely for the use of its networks.

Lastly, the intersection of federal telecoms-internet policy with municipal politics in our own time harkens back to the formative era in telecoms in Canada over a century ago. A few examples will help to illustrate the point.

  1. When the federal Patent Commissioner voided Bell patents in 1885 because Bell was not making enough of its equipment in Canada, Bell feared, and others widely believed, that competition would emerge, as happened in the US a few years later. However, this did not transpire. Why? Because while nullifying the patents gave would be competitors access to the technology, Bell’s exclusive municipal franchises blocked cities from granting competing franchises. With only weak powers under a strong federal government that had granted Bell a charter to develop the telephone system for the “general advantage of Canada”, municipalities tried to eek out a tiny amount of influence via their ability to grant franchises, but those often came back to haunt them.
  2. When Kingston pushed to have the telephone company’s poles, wires & rights-of-way taxed as capital assets in 1899, Bell mounted a legal case to have them taxed on their value as scrap–and won.
  3. When competition did break out, as in Montreal in 1888, for instance, Bell launched a ruthless price war with its rival, the Federal Telephone Company, until the latter capitulated and sold out to Bell three years later. In Winnipeg it created a “dummy company”, the People’s Telephone Company, to give the illusion of competition; while in Peterborough and Dundas, to kill new independent telephone Bell gave away service for free;
  4. When Kingston joined the Ontario Municipal Association in 1903 in the adoption of a resolution calling for municipal authority to regulate telephone rates, Bell threatened not to renew its franchise and withhold further capital investment;
  5. In the same year, the Mayors of the Montreal suburb of Westmount and Toronto, William Lighthall and Oliver Howland, respectively, spearheaded a drive to gain greater regulatory authority over telephone rates for municipalities while calling on the federal government to take control of the long distance network. By 1905, 195 municipalities had joined the call, with support from the Montreal and Toronto business associations and the farmers’ association, Dominion Grange. While evidence at the time and recent historical research has shown (Wallsten) that the model had been successful in some Scandinavian countries at the time (e.g. Sweden and Denmark), the cities’ calls fell on deaf ears at the level of the federal government.
  6. As a result of this drift of events, in 1902, 1-in-50 Ottawa citizens had regular telephone service. The upshot, as Bell Canada President Charles Fleetford Side never missed a chance to stress, was that the telephone was treated as a luxury not necessity.[1]

This history reminds us that, unlike Toronto and Ottawa today, and similar to the position now being struck by Calgary and its more progressive mayor Naheed Nenshi, cities have long chafed under their weak position subordinate not just to the giants of the telecoms industry but to a federal government seemingly all-too-willing to turn a blind eye to their demands. Instead, at least historically, the latter has seemed more willing to acquiesce to incumbents’ demands to build things on their own terms and time line rather than, as Bell’s charter once required, for the general advantage of Canada.

The CRTC’s wholesale fibre internet access decision offers a chance to turn this around. While it is easy to get lost in the weeds on this one, the key point is that fibre internet access will be a key part of cities and Canada’s infrastructure for the 21st century. Without it, the stubbornly high levels of concentration and strong tendency for incumbent telephone and cable companies to fly as a flock rather than compete vigorously will likely persist, at the expense of Canadians from coast-to-coast.

The new Trudeau Government should act swiftly and decisively in the present case. It would be wise to avoid granting Bell’s wish lest it erode confidence in the regulator while lending succor to the view that the “Natural Governing Party” – as the Liberal Party is known in far too many quarters — is too close to the industry, and thus unable to act in the best interest of all Canadians.

[1] The points on the history of the telephone in Canada are taken mostly from Robgert MacDougall’s (2014) The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age (pp. 44-46, 125-127). Philadelphia: Penn State University; Dwayne Winseck (1998). Reconvergence: A Political Economy of Telecommunications in Canada. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton; Robert. E. Babe. (1990). Telecommunications in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto.

At Bell Media, Editorial Meddling by Execs Appear to be a Recurring Problem

Today, the Globe and Mail’s James Bradshaw reports that Bell Media President Kevin Crull issued orders last Thursday to staff banning CTV media outlets from including CRTC Chair Jean Pierre Blais in coverage of the recent TalkTV decisions. Interviews with Blais that had been planned for CTV show Power and Politics were cancelled at the last minute and footage of Blais was dropped from coverage at Bell’s thirty TV stations across the country.

Senior news editors and junior journalists feared for their job and mostly went along, although CTV National News anchor Lisa Laflamme and senior journalist, Robert Fife, refused to bend. The fact that this story has broke is an index of rancour in the ranks of journalists and news execs within the Bell media empire. That we know about this at all is due to some of these journalists and news executives deciding to go public with their concerns about the heavy-handed editorial meddling they are experiencing, and probably not just on this occasion.

Indeed, such concerns appear to be part of a recurring pattern. I gave a glimpse of such problems in my Bell Memos post back in late 2013, where I laid out a chain of emails originating with Bell Media President Kevin Crull calling on news executives and editors at Bell TV and radio outlets across the land to cover a report that cast Canada’s three biggest wireless companies – Bell, Rogers and Telus – in a positive light compared to what most studies on the subject conclude.

Soon after I released the Bell Memos post, I was approached by a journalist at Business News Network (BNN) with claims that the Crull emails I cited was not an isolated instance. They chimed well with their own experience at BNN, I was told. Senior editors and news managers at the BCE-owned TV channel have also adopted editorial policies and interviewing practices that give special treatment to BCE executives who appear on BNN shows such as Business Day and Streetwise, according to my source.

A redacted copy of my correspondence with BNN Insider and the memos, emails and stories they provided can be found here.

Among the content is a memo from Bell CEO George Cope calling on Bell staff to contact CRTC chair J. P. Blais – replete with his email address — to register their dismay with the CRTC’s decision in October 2012 to reject Bell’s first attempt to take-over Astral Media. The idea that all Bell employees would share such a view is presumptuous to say the least, while also sending out a signal that if they aren’t already of this view, then perhaps they should be.

The materials also outline a series of events where BNN programs have been stage-managed through “pre-interview editorial meetings” that allowed BCE executives to broadcast the company’s views on matters of public policy and corporate interests in the best light possible. As examples, BNN insider pointed to interviews of BCE executives in relation to:

  • BCE’s response to the CRTC’s decision on October 18th 2012 to kill the first version of BCE’s attempt to acquire Astral Media,
  • US telecoms giant, Verizon’s, possible entry into mobile phone market in 2013,
  • the Canadian Government’s wireless policy designed to help foster a viable fourth national wireless competitor across the country,
  • the 2014 700 MHZ spectrum auction.

As BNN insider told me, “In all my years as a journalist I’d never witnessed such editorial interference or ‘bullying’ tactics. I was shocked.” They also asked me to “keep my name off-the-record as this could jeopardize my career prospects”.

BNN Adopts Pre-Interview Meetings for Interviews with BCE Executives

According to BNN insider, the pre-interview editorial meetings just mentioned are unique only to its coverage of BCE. According to these procedures, when BCE execs are to appear on BNN programs their interviews are often preceded by special ‘pre-meetings’ “with the ‘interviewee’ on what to ask and how to ask it”. Pre-meetings are arranged by senior news managers and editors and often include program hosts as well as journalists who will be talking to the guest from BCE and asking questions on air.

Pre-meetings are also sometimes used to discuss who might make a good ‘guest’ with an opposing point of view to create the semblance of balance and objectivity. However, BNN insider states that the editors’ intent seems to be more of an attempt to stage manage opposing points of view and to ensure that BCE execs appearing on BNN are not broad-sided by their critics, rather than a bona fide effort to ensure the widest range of expression possible.

Sometimes these meetings can actually be useful, as when BCE’s resident experts give tutorials to journalists on complex technical and policy issues surrounding mobile phones and spectrum auctions, for instance. Crucially, however, even in these matters it is BCE’s experts framing the technical issues not independent ones.

The upshot, however, is that such practices look more like stage-managing the news than independent journalism.

In tandem with the Crull memos sent out across CTV1 and CTV2 and to local TV and radio stations across Canada – both today in relation to the CRTC’s Talk TV decisions and back in the late summer of 2013 at the height of the “Wireless Wars” – suggests that editorial meddling within Bell Media is extensive and routine. Such practices do not bode well for the state of the news at Canada’s largest communications and media company. They undermine the editorial autonomy of the news and compromise journalists’ work, while tarnishing the credibility of news organizations more generally in the public’s eye.

A Timeline and Synopsis of Key Events

The meetings, memos, emails and so forth given to me begin on October 19th, 2012, the day after the CRTC issued its landmark ruling that flatly rejected Bell’s take-over bid for Astral Media. They continue until the end of August 2013 when the “Wireless Wars” were at a high boil, with BCE executives appearing on BNN several times to make the case against allowing the US telecoms giant Verizon to enter the Canadian cell phone market, and against the Harper Government’s wireless policy.

October 19th, 2012 — Cope’s Memo to Bell Media Editors and Journalists: the CRTC Got it Wrong in Bell Astral 1.0

The morning after the CRTC’s landmark decision rejecting BCE’s bid to take-over Astral, BCE CEO George Cope emailed a memo to Bell Media staff relaying his anger with the decision as well as the company’s determination to do whatever it took to overturn it. Assuming that everyone within Bell Media was reading from the same hymn sheet, Cope called on those who felt so inclined to email CRTC chair J.P. Blais to let him know their views, with Mr. Blais’ email provided in order to make the task all staff were being called upon to do all that much easier.

The assumption in Cope’s email that journalists, editors and media workers across Bell Media are at one with the company’s views on the CRTC’s decision (or any issue for that matter) clashes with the principle that journalists and editors must use their own professional judgments to reach their own conclusions rather than assuming that they share a commitment to BCE’s corporate interests and views on matters of public policy.

October 19th, 2012 – Cope Goes on Business Day to Further Tell Everybody Why the CRTC Got it Wrong in Bell Astral 1.0

Later that day, Cope appeared on the BNN program “Business Day”. However, before he did, senior editors at BNN convened an hour-long “pre-show” meeting to help set the stage.

The senior editors at the meeting decided to sideline the usual hosts of the program in favour of two BNN journalists who had been working the Bell – Astral file: Paul Bagnell and Andrew McCreath. True, Bagnell had been covering the Bell – Astral merger and so had good knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the deal. However, even if that was the bona fide reason for this decision, the usual hosts were told not to recap the interview or to ask their own questions, but also to let the audience know that others with opposing views had been invited to appear but had apparently turned down the offer. It was an unusual move, and it was one that left some shaking their heads and unhappy.

Journalists Rattled

That things were getting uncomfortable inside BNN on October 19th became more apparent as news that Cope was coming on to “Business Day” to discuss the CRTC’s Bell Astral decision began to spread among those working on other BNN programs. As the emails show, journalists began to consider their own stories for the day, but while they did the assignment editor made it clear that one thing they would not be covering was BCE. Indeed, while fielding queries about a third story that was needed to fill out the Streetwise segment for the day, the Assignment Editor stated bluntly, whatever the journalist had in mind, it would “Definitely not [be] BCE”. The company line on that story had already been set elsewhere and they were not about to cross it.

A key point in this exchange is that the two of the journalists involved are not full-time BNN journalists at all. Instead, they parlay their roles as business reporters at the Globe and Mail (where BCE also holds a 15% ownership stake as well and Bell Media President Kevin Crull is a board of director) into the Streetwise segment they, at least at the time, had been hosting at BNN — another indication that the media world in Canada is a small place, indeed, with BCE casting a long shadow over it.

We’ve Gotta Democracy Problem

In sum, today’s report from the Globe and Mail’s James Bradshaw reveals another piece in what is a pattern. Given the examples I have presented, this pattern is one that has also been persistent across time. That they straddle much of the time frame since Bell re-entered the media business – and journalism – after re-acquiring CTV in 2011 should give pause for concern about the wisdom of allowing such extensive consolidation to begin with.

That these events have come out at all is in some ways a relief and a modest victory insofar that they imply that journalists are so upset with the state of affairs that they are blowing the whistle. They are an index that things are not well within BCE’s telecoms, media and internet empire and amongst its journalist rank and file.

Ultimately, given it’s dominance across the length and breadth of the mediascape in Canada, this is an indicator that we have a media problem of major significance. It is also a reminder why allowing such vertically-integrated media giants was a bad idea to begin with. The room for conflicts of interest is just too great and the hubris and will-to-power of those at the top seemingly impossible to keep on a short leash.

Moreover, this is not just a media problem but a democracy problem. In essence, one of Canada’s largest telecoms and media giants appears to be using its media outlets to advance its interests and to meddle deep in government policy while torquing news coverage of such matters.

The CRTC’s Latest Talk TV Decisions: Sweeping Change or Plus Ça Change?

Yesterday the CRTC announced the second phase of its Talk TV decisions (Blais Speech; Decision). The Commission’s efforts are being cast as a significant overhaul of the regulatory framework for TV in Canada, but are they?

Out with the Old (Maybe)

Cast against the anachronism of film and TV quotas forged in the 1920s when Canada was still a member of the British Empire and the CBC just coming into being a decade after that, followed by the Broadcasting Act of 1968, and a long chain of events ever since, Blais’ message was clear: the regulatory edifice built up over the past century must be cleared away. The 21st century is the “Age of Abundance”, and with people increasingly using broadband internet and mobile devices to access content from around the world, the time for change is now.

Some Significant Steps Forward

At the top of the list of things to be discarded are Canadian content quotas during daytime hours. In prime-time, half the hours must still be filled with Cancon while quotas for pay and specialty cable channels have been harmonized downwards to 35% versus their current range from 15-85%. Genre protection for specialty TV channels will be eliminated and licensing requirements for discretionary channels with less than 200,000 subscribers have been dropped.

These moves open room for new services to emerge and could make it easier for people to pick and pay for TV channels they want — depending on the next instalment of the CRTC’s “Talk TV” decision next week.

Another cornerstone of the CRTC’s new approach to TV is to go from protection to promotion, and from a focus on quantity to quality, it says. The CRTC wants to encourage the production of fewer but bigger budget, higher quality TV programs that it hopes can attract Canadian and global audiences. While such efforts have been in the works since the late 1990s, the greater sense of urgency attached to this goal and changes in the means to get there are new.

To such ends, two new pilot projects were announced to fund big budget productions. The Commission also encouraged the government to change the Canadian Media Fund so that financial support can be funnelled to fewer but larger production companies and without the requirement for them to have a licensing agreement in place with a broadcaster (read: Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Quebecor, or the CBC) — in essence cutting out the middleman and giving independent producers direct access to CMF financial support. There is also a push for more international co-productions, and to get the fruits of such efforts into as many foreign markets and as many distribution platforms as possible, from Netflix, to Apple, Amazon, and so on.

The CRTC also adopted measures that aim to help staunch the problems that have beset journalism in the past several years. To this end, TV news services will be required to dedicate at least 16 hours a day to original programming, maintain news bureaus in a least three regions outside their main live broadcast studio and to have the “ability to report on international events”. Given the fact that news budgets have been slashed across the country for years, one can hope that such measures may help to stem the tide.

Beware of Vested Interests Wrapping Themselves in the Flag and the Public Interest

In a world in which the forces of the status quo loom large, these changes will rattle some. Anticipating resistance from some well-established quarters, Blais took aim at those who would fight to turn-back the clock:

If you hear criticisms of our decisions ask yourself this question: Are the arguments advanced by these critics those of the public interest or are they rather those that find their true roots in private entitlement, dressed up to look like they are founded on the broader public interest? This town is full of lobbyists whose job it is to spin their client’s private interests into something else, to wrap themselves up, as it were, in the flag, and to puff about Parliament Hill with an air of shock and dismay.

Three Steps Backwards

If we stop the discussion here, then yesterday’s ruling appears to take on the industry and its’ phalanx of lobbyists in order to yank Canadian TV into the 21st century. However, other measures give cause pause for concern.

A Cull of Independent TV Production Companies is Needed

First among these is the CRTC’s view that too many independent television production companies exist, many of which are set up for one-off projects and then wound down. Pointing to an estimate that there are 900 such companies, the CRTC argues that

. . . This project-by-project system hinders growth and does not support the long-term health of the industry . . . . The current situation is no longer tenable. The production industry must move towards building sustainable, better capitalized production companies capable of monetizing the exploitation of their content over a longer period, in partnership with broadcasting services that have incentives to invest in content promotion.

Yet, stand back and questions immediately emerge. The idea that there are 900 firms appears inflated alongside the Canadian Media Production Association’s estimate that 350-400 such companies exist and that a quarter of them have been created for specific projects and wound down immediately afterwards. Moreover, about 20% of those firms account for 80% of the industry’s revenue.

The existence of a vast pool of precarious, short-term production outfits is the norm in the film and TV business, not just in Canada but LA, New York, Wellington, London, Mumbai, almost everywhere (see Tinic and Gasher). This has long been the case, not just in film and TV, but the publishing industry since the 16th century and across the cultural industries from the last half of the 20th century (see Miege and Thompson).

Finally, the CRTC’s notion that too many creators exist stands at odds with the idea that it is supposed to be fostering more diversity, not less. Moreover, it also sounds a lot like the tired old ‘national champion’ strategy which has created the highly concentrated telecoms and media industry and high levels of vertical integration that currently exist and which are the source of so many of the problems being faced today to begin with.

Tearing up the “Terms of Trade Agreements”

Yesterday’s decision discards the ‘terms of trade agreements’ between producers and the large vertically-integrated media companies – Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Quebecor – that were put in place in 2011 and 2012 after years of protracted negotiations. Consolidation has reduced the number of sources that producers can go to for financing, rights deals and distribution – the real levers of power in the ‘cultural industries’. The terms of trade agreements tried to offset this reality by creating standard terms of trade and a ‘use-it-or-lose-it” clause that required broadcasters to use the rights they acquired within a year or turn them back to the producer; international and merchandising rights were reserved for producers.

Disputes over such issues, especially for mobile and internet rights, continue. They were a cornerstone of license renewals in 2011 and 2012 and a key reason why many of the producer interests reluctantly signed off on Shaw’s acquisition of Global in 2010 and Bell’s take-over of CTV and Astral Media in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Discarding the ‘terms of trade’ deal is another victory for the vertically-integrated giants and a big loss for independent producers, as head of the CMPA, Michael Hennessy, intimated earlier today on Twitter.

Screenshot 2015-03-13 23.20.53

Vertical Integration and “Tied TV”

The CRTC also treads lightly when it comes to TV services delivered over the internet and mobile, such as Bell’s CraveTV and Shomi, a joint venture by Rogers and Shaw. Unlike Netflix, or HBO, CBS’s “all access”, and other services in the US, these services are not available to everyone in Canada over the internet but tied to a subscription to one of Bell or its partners’ (i.e. Telus and Eastlink) TV services in the case of Crave TV or to Rogers and Shaw’s internet or TV subscribers in the case of Shomi. They are defensive measures designed to protect Bell, Rogers and Shaw’s existing business models and the established TV “system” generally.

If the CRTC really wanted to disrupt the status quo then these attempts to leverage old ways of doing things into the emerging areas of distributing TV over the internet and mobile services would have been a primary target for action.

Instead of tackling the issue head-on, however, the ruling seems to skirt the issues by creating a new category — “exempt hybrid video-on-demand” model – intended to encourage companies to offer TV services to everyone over the internet without being required to subscribe to any of the companies’ other TV or internet services. In return, they could offer exclusive content and be relieved of obligations to fund and showcase Canadian content, as Figure 1 below shows. This is the same treatment that all stand-alone OTT services get under the Digital Media Exemption Order, but with the idea that such services could be distributed across the companies’ closed cable networks and the ‘open internet’ as well.

Video on Demand Services Source: CRTC (2015), The Way Forward, para 106.

Bell statement concluded that the decision will not change the way it offers CraveTV; Rogers has remained mum.

The ruling, however, puts the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Consumers Association of Canada’s recent challenge against Crave TV and Shomi on the grounds that the services play fast and loose with the broadcasting and telecoms acts, as well as the CRTC’s Digital Media Exemption Order, on hold (see here). PIAC-CAC responded to the decision by saying that they

are skeptical today’s decision will have the effect of motivating Bell, and Rogers and Shaw, to make their content available online to every Canadian as a true ‘over-the-top’ service. . . . What today’s decision does not do is declare that Bell, Rogers and Shaw are such ‘hybrids,’ and therefore it appears that the commission will allow the closed, tied model to continue.

Plus Ça Change?

Reducing content quotas and eliminating genre protection are important departures from the past, while taking steps to foster better quality program production may produce fruit. The push to rationalize the TV production sector around fewer and more highly capitalized companies, tearing up the terms of trade agreement, and letting Bell, Rogers and Shaw’s ‘tied TV’ offerings off the hook, however, all appear to reinforce the power of well-established players who have pushed so hard to hold back the tides of change that the CRTC claims to be promoting.

David Wins Against Goliath: CRTC Bolsters “Net Neutrality”, Limits “Zero-Rating” & Strengthens Local TV

Today’s trilogy of CRTC decisions on “network neutrality”, local TV and simultaneous substitution are a huge win for Canadian citizens. They reinforce Canada’s network neutrality regime while backstopping local, over-the-air TV as a viable alternative to cable and satellite and as an important source of news and information.

Of the three decisions, the most important is probably the Mobile TV ruling. The decision responds to a complaint filed by Ben Klass with the Commission in late 2013 about Bell’s Mobile TV offering that allows Bell Mobility subscribers to access 10 hours of television programs for $5 per month while watching the same amount of TV on your wireless device from the CBC, YouTube or Netflix, for example, would cost up to $40 – an 800% difference. Klass’s complaint expanded in early 2014 after the Public Interest Advocacy Centre raised concerns about Rogers and Videotron’s Mobile TV services on much the same grounds. The CRTC then wrapped them into one proceeding. Today’s major decision supports Klass and PIAC’s claims.

In each case, watching television programs delivered over the internet on your mobile device from sources outside one of the carriers’ TV packages counted towards your data caps, while those inside their Mobile TV offerings did not.

Recognizing that they were likely fighting a losing battle, Rogers folded on the case last summer and Videotron began to phase out its preferentially priced Mobile TV service at the end of 2014. Bell soldiered on, however, claiming that despite being delivered over the internet and the same wireless networks as any other data, video, voice or internet services that subscribers might use, it’s Mobile TV service was not a telecom or internet service at all.

According to Bell, its Mobile TV service is a broadcasting service, and thus outside the reach of the charges that Klass and PIAC raised. Moreover, far from this being a bad thing, its Mobile TV service is making substantial contributions to the policy aims of the Broadcasting Act, Bell argued.

The CRTC’s decision resolutely rejects that claim. While the decision refers to Bell and Videotron’s Mobile TV services, since the latter has been phasing out the version of its service in question since the beginning of the year, the biggest impact of the decision will fall on Bell.

With respect to whether Mobile TV services are telecommunications or broadcast services, the Commission was crystal clear:

Bell Mobility and Videotron are . . . providing telecommunications services in regard to the transport of their mobile TV services to subscribers’ mobile devices, and are therefore subject to the Telecommunications Act (para 35).

In addition, the Commission is clear that far from being a good thing for Canadians and the aims of the Broadcasting Act, the services work a:

 . . . disadvantage to consumers in accessing other Canadian programs on their mobile devices, and . . . could not be said to further these [the Broadcasting Act] objectives (para 60).

Furthermore, Bell and Videotron’s claims about their Mobile TV services being good for Canadians lacked “quantifiable evidence to back the magnitude of those claims” (para 39).

Having found that the key issues revolved around telecommunications, the CRTC than turned to the heart of the matter: were the carriers giving their own Mobile TV services an advantage and, if so, was that advantage unreasonable? Again, the Commission is unequivocal. By charging one rate and exempting their own services from their data caps while charging much higher rates and applying data caps to all others, Bell and Videotron are giving themselves an unfair advantage.

Here’s the centerpiece of the decision in this regard:

Bell Mobility and Videotron, in providing the data connectivity and transport required for consumers to access the mobile TV services at substantially lower costs to those consumers relative to other audiovisual content services, have conferred upon consumers of their services, as well as upon their services, an undue and unreasonable preference, in violation of subsection 27(2) of the Telecommunications Act. In addition, they have subjected their subscribers who consume other audiovisual content services that are subject to data charges, and these other services, to an undue and unreasonable disadvantage, in violation of subsection 27(2) of the Telecommunications Act(Para 61).

Crucially, in making this decision, the CRTC saw the issues being raised by Klass and PIAC as something of a litmus test case, a test whose resolution would hold much in store for the evolution of the internet and the converging media ecology in the future. Again, as it says,

the preference given in relation to the transport of Bell Mobility’s and Videotron’s mobile TV services to subscribers’ mobile devices, and the corresponding disadvantage in relation to . . . other audiovisual content services available over the Internet, will grow and will have a material impact on consumers, and other audiovisual content services in particular. . . . [I]t may end up inhibiting the introduction and growth of other mobile TV services accessed over the Internet, which reduces innovation and consumer choice (para 58).

In short, the decision responds to current realities while looking to the future. It took the opportunity delivered up to it by a hard-working and careful student, Klass, and the additional effort by PIAC, to nip a problem in the bud. The fact that the issues raised complex issues today as well as for the years, even decades, ahead, also helps explain why this decision was more than a year in the making rather than the usual four months or so.

The Mobile TV decision effectively limits zero-rating in Canada, a practice where some internet content services pay to obtain fast lanes and exemption from carriers’ data caps. Doing so reinforces Canada’s strong “network neutrality” rules and places it shoulder-to-shoulder with other countries where zero-rating has been banned (e.g. Netherlands, Sweden, Chile) or discouraged and not practiced by wireless companies (e.g. Norway, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta and Iceland).

The upshot is an unambiguous win for strong “Network Neutrality/open internet” rules, including their unambiguous application to wireless internet access. As Blais put it, “the Mobile TV decision is all about Canadians having fair & equal access to content of their choice on internet. There will be no fast lanes & slow lanes”. It is about keeping control over what people access through the internet in their hands, not under the editorial control of ISPs and telecoms companies.

Three other things about the Mobile TV decision stand out.

First, it’s a message that Canada can send, with love, to the United States as the FCC gets set to decide in the next month on many of the same issues to replace its relatively weak ‘Open Internet’ principles that were tossed out by the courts in last year’s Verizon decision. With strong encouragement from Obama, the FCC is widely seen as leaning toward reinstating Title II common carrier classification for all broadband internet access providers – wireline, cable, wireless – and restricting zero-rating practices. This will reverse decisions taken in 2002, 2005 and 2007 under the Republican controlled FCC that redefined high speed internet access by cable, DSL and wireless as ‘information services’ and, thus, beyond the reach of the regulator.

Second, the CRTC decision rests entirely on the common carriage principle at the heart of the Telecommunications Act (namely sections 27 and, less so, 28) rather than its so-called network neutrality rules. This is a good thing because it returns the politics of the internet to sturdier ground, i.e. the centuries old and battle-tested grounds of common carriage versus the woollier notion of network neutrality.

Third, the concurring opinion of CRTC Commissioner Raj Shoan at the end of the decision is a must read. His ruminations on the ‘cone of silence’ around the issues raised by the Mobile TV proceeding reminds us that in an industry dominated by a handful of massive vertically-integrated companies who control access to distribution networks, content and audiences, a pervasive fear seems to have settled in amongst independent TV broadcasters, creators and others that appears to have kept them from stepping forward. It reminds us that the Canadian media industry is a tight and closed, if not so cozy, community where independent voices step forward at their own peril.

As Shoan observes, when “students, not-for-profits and charities have to contend against the deep pockets of large, national, vertically integrated entities in order to bring to light relevant issues of public interest without the support of affected parties (i.e. Canadian broadcasters)”, we are in trouble. The CRTC looked at that reality today squarely in the face and made three bold decisions that go someway to addressing the issues. We can be thankful to smart and interested citizens such as Ben Klass and public interest groups like PIAC for lighting the spark and all the hard work that led to today’s decision, and for groups such as Open Media for keeping these issues in the public eye. For all those who have stood as defenders of the status quo, indeed, often as their mouthpieces, it should be a message.

A few quick words on the other two decisions regarding keeping local television alive and simultaneous substitution.

First, Blais made it clear that maintaining local, over-the-air television is important to Canadians, as citizens, not just consumers. Why? Because that is where many of us still get a great deal of our news and information from. Blais did not mince words: the major TV companies have obtained enormous privileges, and it is time to meet their obligations. “An informed citizenry cannot be sacrificed on alter of corporate profits & debt reduction”, he intoned, in an implied reference to the steady flow of cut-backs and journalist lay-offs in an industry that has been allowed to bulk up through mergers and acquisitions on the promise that synergies would deliver benefits, not just to the corporate bottom line but to all Canadians. It’s time to deliver.

Local TV also needs to be kept alive because it provides a realistic alternative to cable, satellite and IPTV providers who have consistently raised prices far in excess of the rate of inflation. This is especially so because, as Greg Taylor, Steven May and others from Ryerson University, have made clear, Canada has recently completed the switch over to digital over-the-air television. The benefits of this now need to be nurtured rather than given a still birth by those whose loyalties are, at best, split between seeing things through versus protecting their cable, satellite and IPTV distribution networks, i.e. the same entities that own most of the local TV stations and the biggest cable, satellite and IPTV companies in Canada are one and the same: Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor. Brandishing updated bunny-ears as a prop, Blais encouraged Canadians to think about them as a viable option that was both free and of higher quality in terms of picture clarity.

There will be no new revenue stream from fee for carriage of local TV stations, a cornerstone of Bell’s submission to the Talk TV hearings. However, neither will one of the cornerstones that have supported the commercial viability of local TV since the 1970s be taken away: simultaneous substitution that allows Canadian broadcasters to substitute their commercials on US signals airing the same programs and carried by cable and satellite companies in Canada. The policy is a massive gift that delivers about a quarter-of-a billion dollars a year to the industry. This was a “big ask” for Bell, Shaw, Rogers and other television companies and, for all intents and purposes, they got it today from the CRTC, with the exception for the SuperBowl starting in 2016.

In sum, today’s CRTC decisions are bold. They send a clear message in support of an open internet, broadly interpreted to cover mobile wireless, cable and wireline networks. TV is not dead, and in fact, the evolution of the two are fundamentally intertwined, and need to be thought of as such. The CRTC’s decisions go a long way to doing just that. The decisions, in particular the open internet, Mobile TV and future of local TV parts, underscore the decisive role of independent voices, and the importance of listening to them, rather than just to incumbents and far too many scribes (but certainly not all) who think that relaying the views of rival media giants on a particular issue, and a financial analyst or two, to the Canadian public constitutes ‘balanced’ reporting.

No Regulatory Cherry-Picking Allowed: the CRTC vs. Netflix Clash @ the TalkTV Hearing

Netflix

The final day of the CRTC’s hearing into the future of television saw a heated clash between CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais and online video distributor Netflix. It was a moment with few precedents, and one ripe with a myriad of fascinating questions (Netflix presentation here; CPAC coverage here).

The clash ignited when Blais’s request to Netflix’s Director of Global Public Policy, Corie Wright, to file information with the commission about the number of subscribers it has in Canada, its revenues in Canada and other information the company does not routinely disclose was met by much hesitance on Netflix’s part. As Wright repeatedly returned to concerns about confidentiality, Blais testily questioned whether Netflix did not trust the CRTC’s ability to deal fairly with companies’ request for confidentiality.

The problem, however, is that while Netflix demanded guarantees of confidentiality, it is the CRTC’s prerogative to determine whether such requests outweigh the public interest in disclosure. And in this regard, Blais refused to concede that prerogative while Netflix was equally intent on assuring confidentiality for information that it never gives out to anyone, no matter who asks.

While that may cut it when it comes to researchers and journalists, it won’t do in the context of a CRTC hearing that is, after all, a quasi-judicial proceeding with stringent legal standards about evidence. The point was made on the opening day of the “Talk TV” hearing as well when a similarly frustrated Blais encountered PR puffery from Google that hardly constituted robust evidence that could be used to shed light on anything other the company’s own interests and story that it’d like to tell the world.

This is not novel and is, indeed, well-established practice. Indeed, for all those who play in the regulatory arena, there is little more frustrating than the extensive use of the infamous hashtag (#) in instances that the CRTC has granted companies confidentiality over those who have sought disclosure. Indeed, for many, the problem is that the CRTC has been too generous in granting confidentiality over disclosure. So, to have Netflix say that it was seeking to pre-empt the question by having guarantees of confidentiality from the get go was beyond the pale, and Blais treated it as such.

So, where do these trade-offs between confidentiality and disclosure come from? Three places.

First, from the general tradition of regulated industries where the interest of the public in the matters at hand are always weighed against business demands – typically expansive – to keep their affairs private.

Second, the CRTC took up the issue in 2007 in a proceeding about just this issue where the Commission observes the following:

. . . [The CRTC] conducts its public processes in an open and transparent manner. In some instances, parties submit information in the course of proceedings for which they request confidentiality. . . . [O]ther parties to the proceeding may request public disclosure of the information. If such a request is granted, the information is put on the public record. If it is determined that the harm outweighs the public interest in disclosure, the request is denied and the information remains confidential.

Basically, Netflix was trying to force the CRTC into a corner today over this issue, and Blais was not having any of it.

Lastly, the CRTC’s Digital Media Exemption Order under which Netflix and other OTT providers operate in Canada albeit exempt from the normal requirements of the Broadcasting Act, makes it clear that such companies are required to submit information regarding their “activities in broadcasting in digital media, and such other information that is required by the Commission in order to monitor the development of broadcasting in digital media”.

Some may not like these requirements, but for the time being they are the rules of the game and having decided to play by the rules of the game since its entry into Canada in 2010, today’s hearing was not the right place for Netflix to challenge them.

We must remember that, since its first New Media Order in 1999, the CRTC has always claimed regulatory authority over television and other broadcasts delivered over the internet but has exempted them from the requirements of the Broadcast Act. It did so on grounds of technological neutrality, fostering creativity and innovation and that doing so would not prove disastrous to the Canadian “broadcast system”. In short, it is not whether the CRTC can regulate the internet broadcasting, as Michael Geist noted the other day, but will it? The answer has unambiguously been yes, the CRTC can regulate internet broadcasting, but will not for the time being. That was the answer in 1999, in 2009 and in its last statement on the matter, the Digital Media Exemption Order (2012).

Three final points. First, Netflix cannot cherry pick the elements of Canadian media and telecoms policy that serve it while cocking a snook at those elements it would rather not deal with. Netflix has been the beneficiary of the CRTC’s robust network neutrality rules, rules that apply both to wiredline telecoms and mobile wireless telecoms providers. This has been a huge benefit to Netflix, and partly on account of such measures its ability to locate its content caching equipment at Canadian telecoms and ISP providers such as Bell, Rogers, Telus and Shaw are a far cry easier in Canada than in the US. The forthcoming CRTC Mobile TV proceeding will help to determine the utility of these rules.

As Netflix does battle in the US at the FCC hearings now taking place over the future of network neutrality in that country, it would do well to recall the comparably better conditions it has in Canada. As Netflix itself noted today, Canada is its best international market and I would suggest that the combination of the CRTC’s network neutrality and light touch Digital Media Exemption Order help explain this state of affairs. As such, when the Commission asks for information and to trust that it will make the proper decision in weighing the company’s claims for confidentiality with the benefits of public disclosure, Netflix would do well to play ball.

Third, Netflix also needs to recognize that, faced with a wall of claims from incumbents for two week’s running that unregulated OTT services threaten the Canadian “television system” altogether, robust evidence could help put such self-serving claims in perspective and is just what the CRTC needs. Indeed, Netflix should meet the CRTC’s deadline for its orders for information of this Monday to help in just this regard, otherwise the CRTC will be left with much self-serving bluster about falling skies and doom and gloom.

Finally, it’s time to recognize that while I don’t personally think that Netflix should be subject to all of the requirements of the Broadcasting Act, this is no longer the days when technophiles could see the Internet as an unregulable space. Those days were always an illusion and, regardless, are over. There is a discussion to be had, and that discussion is already underway in many other countries around the world, as Netflix knows full well.

Outside Canada, the European Union’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive brought online video providers under its sway in 2010. The Dutch and France have also reportedly required it to torque its algorithms to give priority to local content and to contribute to the creation and circulation of television content from both countries and Europe as a whole.

Whether we agree with that or not, it’s now the discussion to be had, rather than ducked with gestures towards the internet as some kind of nirvana that exists outside the normal laws of the land. Neither Netflix, Google nor any other ‘digital media giant’ can escape this reality by invoking the internet as an world beyond regulation when they please while calling for network neutrality when that suits. What we all need to realize, is that an open media requires smart regulation not no regulation.

Arm’s Length or Strong Arming the CRTC?: Minister Moore’s “Mandate Letter” to CRTC Head Jean-Pierre Blais

Early in December a journalist from the Huffington Post, Althia Raj, contacted me about a letter that she had turned up through an access to information request. Sent by then Heritage Minister James Moore to the, at the time, new chair of the CRTC, Jean-Pierre Blais, on his first day on the job (June 18, 2012) the letter lays out what is expected of the incoming chair in a surprising amount of detail, despite the fact that the CRTC is suppose to be independent from the government-of-the-day.  

In this so called “mandate letter”, Moore lays out a number of “issues of mutual interest” that he hopes he and Blais “can work together on”, while remaining mindful of the fact that whatever cooperation does occur must “maintain[] an appropriate level of distance between our two organizations”.

After initially reading the letter, I was struck by how much I agreed with many of its goals:

  • more room for consumer participation in CRTC proceedings is needed, Moore tells Blais;
  • the Commission needs to “comprehensively address consumer affordability and service complaints”;
  • “consumers should have access to more programming choices and affordable choices across all distribution platforms” (radio, television, broadband networks and mobile devices);
  • more “competition, investment, innovation and consumer choices” is needed in telecommunications services, and all with a light regulatory touch but with a keen eye on “consumer protection and participation”.

While I like the broad contours of the letter, however, I also think it is unusual, and deeply problematic. Why?

First, because there is no precedent, to my knowledge, of a Minister sending a ‘mandate letter’ to a new head of the CRTC laying out what is expected of them.

Second, a ‘mandate letter’ has no basis in the Broadcasting Act (1991) (sections 7-8, 15, 26-28) or the Telecommunications Act (1993) (sections 8, 9 and 12) – the two main pieces of legislation that apply in such matters.  Both laws give Cabinet broad powers to issue policy directions and to review, vary and overturn CRTC rulings (Orders-in-Council), but they do not give the Minister authority to do any of these things, or to send a letter telling an incoming chair of the CRTC what the Minister expects of him or her. 

Third, while the Minister tries to straddle the awkward zone between respecting the CRTC’s independence and framing a mandate around ‘mutual interests’, the very existence of the letter casts doubt on the regulator’s autonomy. As a result, it is impossible to know for certain whether the CRTC’s newfound standing as a champion of the Canadian consumer on Blais’ watch is the fruit of consumer friendly decisions that have rankled incumbent interests, or the unintended prize of serving up just what the Minister ordered?

Three high-profile decisions in particular have defined Blais tenure to date but they could just as easily be seen as fulfilling the requirements of the mandate letter:

  •  the CRTC’s flat out rejection of BCE’s first bid to take-over Astral Media in October 2012;
  • the adoption of a National Wireless Code that came into affect in December;
  • the recently launched inquiry into wholesale mobile wireless roaming rates at the end of December 2013 after its fact-finding mission found the Big 3 – Rogers, Telus and Bell – to be “charging or proposing to charge significantly higher rates in their wholesale roaming arrangements with other Canadian carriers than in their arrangements with U.S.-based carriers.”

Blais seemed to wince when Raj raised the notion that perhaps he was just following orders rather than marching to his own drum. However, he also worked hard to parry the appearance that the CRTC’s might be being used for partisan ends. He had to because, ultimately, the legitimacy of the regulator depends on being seen and believed to be independent from the government.

I do not think that Blais is doing the Minister’s bidding. However, it is naïve to not see the problem here. It is also naive not to see Blais and Moore as at least rowing in the same direction on the ‘consumer friendly’ approach to telecom and media regulation.

The consumer focus of the Conservative Government is real, and Blais appears to have little trouble with that. There is also no doubt that the Government chose Blais because it sees him as ideologically allied with them, and probably because of the close relationship that he and Moore cultivated when the former was a copyright lawyer at Heritage – Moore’s former home turf.

All of this should have been enough without the Minister firing off a letter that only raises doubts about the CRTC’s autonomy while at the same time being of doubtful legal standing or even effectiveness. Furthermore, the letter reinforces views that the Harper Government keeps bureaucrats on a short-leash, while the fact that the letter only turned up through an access to information request only furthers notions that the government prefers to rule in secret rather than in the light of day.   

Curious to know what others thought about this, I canvassed scholars, lawyers and former high-ranking bureaucrats to find out what they thought. None of them has ever seen a ‘mandate letter’ before, but could imagine such a thing, as their replies reproduced below show. Their views about whether such a thing was a good or bad thing are mixed. 

David Skinner, Professor, Communication Studies Program, York University.

This sounds intriguing (and problematic). I have never heard of such a thing before. Perhaps obvious suggestions, but have you asked Liora Salter or Konrad von Finckenstein? It would be interesting to know if there is something here and who/what party “invented” it.

Konrad von Finckenstein, former chair of the CRTC (2007-2012), head of the Competition Bureau (1997-2003), Justice of the Federal Court (2003-2007) and now an independent arbitrator of Canadian and international business disputes.

The letter to Blais was indeed unprecedented. Like you I have no problem with the general contours. Strictly speaking it should have taken the form of a direction to the CRTC like the government did on forbearance for instance. Instead they used the more informal letter carefully saying “should” instead of “shall” thereby leaving some leeway to the Commission to differ with the expectations expressed in the letter as it sees fit to do so.

Frankly, I think the letter is useful. It shows a delineation of the government’ s overall policy and will avoid any unintentional conflict between the Minister and CRTC yet leaves the CRTC open to go a different way, if it feels circumstances warrant, and allows it to spell out in detail, in an preemptory defense, why it took the decision. Personally as chairman I would have preferred such a letter to the sudden criticism that resulted when the CRTC took a decision the government did not agree with.

By the way you might want to file an access to information request to see if a similar letter regarding broadcasting was sent by Minister Glover to the chair.

Jon Festinger, Q.C., media, regulatory and corporate lawyer and a faculty member of the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver. He also teaches law at the UBC Law School and Thompson Rivers University.

Having practiced regulatory law for much of my career […], I can say that I have never heard of a “mandate letter”. More interesting than my opinion is that of Sheridan Scott former counsel to the Commission and past Commissioner of Competition, heading the Competition Bureau of Canada. Sheridan very recently spoke to my class at UBC Law (Video Game Law) on the intersections of policy, politics & Law. She expressed her opinions and surprise on the subject of procedures being followed by cabinet vis-a-vis the Commission, if memory serves. You can find video of Sheridan’s talk here. Her talk starts at 1:03:44.

Sheridan Scott, co-chair of the competition practice at Bennett Jones LLP and Canada’s Commissioner of Competition from 2004 to 2009 and Chief Regulatory Officer of Bell Canada before that.

I also believe that this sort of letter is unprecedented but my reaction to it is generally positive. I have always been in favour of policy directions rather than Cabinet appeals, since they necessarily speak to general rather than case-specific issues.  While a letter such is this is not the same as a policy direction, and is not subject to the same procedural safeguards, I would nonetheless see it as providing useful context to a regulator that operates at arm’s length but not in a complete vacuum.  I do not think that it in any way forces the CRTC down a specific road:  it instead provides some useful considerations to be aware of in carrying out their statutory mandate. 

In the telecom side this direction is nothing more or less than the Policy Direction issued several years ago, so nothing new.  On the broadcasting side, there is more guidance but the wording is quite general.  Obviously there are many ways for the Commission to provide access to more programming choices and affordable choices and this letter does not prejudge or dictate any of these.  Nor are these unusual goals to identify:  the CRTC itself often indicates that its decisions are aimed at increasing programming choices and affordability.  As far as providing consumer access to broadcasting hearings, this is also something the CRTC has tried to do especially under Konrad’s direction, when benefits monies were diverted for this purpose. 

If there is one thing I find disappointing about the letter, it is the failure of the government to say anything about the importance of Canadian content.  Fostering the development of Canadian content and encouraging its accessibility were clearly amongst the original intentions of the legislators and lie at the heart of the legislation, as the Supreme Court of Canada has recently suggested.  This letter can’t change that and indeed it suggests the Commission should be mindful of the original intent.   

In sum, while this sort of letter is unusual it does not to my mind constrain the CRTC in any material way and provides additional context for the Commission to consider.  In any event, I’m not sure there is much of a remedy if the CRTC fails to take any steps in these directions.  The government can’t issue a policy direction to apply to past policy decisions (though it could issue a direction to influence decisions on a forward looking basis) and on the broadcasting side Cabinet appeals are limited to decisions to issue, amend or renew broadcasting licences only.  The scope of Cabinet appeals is broader on the telecom side, and I think this type of ministerial communication is definitely preferable to tweeting what the Cabinet is likely to do on appeal, before the CRTC has taken a decision, as we have seen in the past.  And in any event, there is already a Policy Direction in place, and the letter does nothing but confirm this.

Anonymous former senior bureaucrat:

I have also heard from several communications law experts. The consensus view is that the letter walks a fine line — likely inappropriate but not illegal. In the so-called “arm’s length” relationship, the length of the arm has never been fixed — but in this interaction it appears to be very short. 

With respect to telecoms, the letter references the Policy Direction which is public and in force, so that’s a wash.

For broadcasting, the letter, combined with the Section 15 Order, is certainly relevant to anyone participating in the CRTC’s consultation on the future of television. Unlike the S.15 Order, the letter cannot in any way be considered binding on the Commission or the Chair. However, the letter gives the appearance of constraining the CRTC’s discretion because, ultimately, the government could intervene by way of a formal policy direction if the CRTC’s outcome were contrary to the views expressed by the Minister. So arguably this is setting policy by stealth — without the government having to take on the responsibility and suffer the onerous public and parliamentary process of issuing a formal policy direction as set out in the Broadcasting Act. In this context, the letter’s release under access to information may be way of managing expectations of interested parties — especially those with a vested interest in the status quo.

When the current Broadcasting Act was being debated in Parliament, the main criticism of the proposed Governor-in-Council power to issue policy directions was precisely this outcome — that the mere existence of the power would so change the relationship between the CRTC and the government of the day that the government would be able to get away with telling the CRTC what it wants without having recourse to the process set out in the Act. This outcome, it was feared, would undermine the independence of the regulator much more significantly than any actual use of the power as set out in law. Since the Act was passed in 1991, this letter is the first documented instance of this criticism and concern having been borne out.  

Clearly, Moore’s letter to Blais raises fundamental issues about the independence of the CRTC. While views differ over the appropriateness of the letter, nobody thinks the ‘mandate letter’ is business as usual. 

One thing that emerges from these responses is the sense that regulators have been blind-sided by already high-levels of intervention in the CRTC’s affairs. This was notably the case when then Industry Minister Tony Clement announced, by all things, a tweet that the CRTC’s Usage-Based Billing decision in 2010 would be overturned if the Commission did not go back to the drawing board on its own accord. Duly warned, von Finckenstein ordered the CRTC staff back to the drawing board; a more palatable wholesale bandwidth access rate followed the next year.   

Rather than continuing to be blind-sided, it’s not surprising that those closest to the fray – von Finckenstein and Scott, notably – think that giving the government even more powers to issue ‘mandate letters’ might offer greater clarity. Indeed, with a mandate letter in hand all might be clear and no one would be sent back to the drawing board by tweets issued in the middle of the night.

That is understandable, but I have my doubts. Anonymous, it appears, who I can assure is no stranger to these matters, is not so sure either.

I worry that grafting more powers on the extensive ones the government already has will only further eliminate whatever independence the Commission still retains.

Regardless of which of these views is correct, one thing is clear: ‘mandate letters’ are not ‘business-as-usual’. Things need to change, but just how remains up for grabs. Until they do, however, the independence so essential to the CRTC’s legitimacy and, the public’s trust in it, will remain on shaky ground, and for good reason.    

KeyWords: Bell and Astral Discover the Public Interest

In March, media, telecom and internet policy wonks across Canada busily poured over Bell and Astral’s revised application asking the CRTC to approve Bell’s renewed bid to acquire Astral Media.

Along with a few graduate students at the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University, I pored through the voluminous application by Bell and Astral — about 75 documents in all that you can find here. And in painstaking detail, we assembled evidence on the state of competition and concentration in broadcast tv, pay and specialty tv, radio and across the network media in English- and French-speaking areas of the country as a whole. Working right to the wire, our evidence was filed with the CRTC moments before the deadline on April 5 (see here).

I won’t repeat our findings and evidence here, but instead will point to something else that I found very interesting as we read through the cornerstone of Bell and Astral’s application: a 74 page Supplementary Brief that crystallizes their main arguments for why their proposed combination ought to be approved by the CRTC.

As those among you who have been paying attention, the proposed transaction is different than the one put forward last year. Gone, for instance, is some of the high-flying rhetoric.

Now in the foreground is Bell and Astral’s claim that the sale of several of Astral’s marquee Pay and Specialty TV channels to Shaw (Corus) (e.g. the bilingual Teletoon/Télétoon, Teletoon Retro and Cartoon Network (Canada), Télétoon Rétro, Historia and Séries+), and the divestiture of several others (e.g. Family Channel, Disney XD, Disney Jr. (English)) as well as ten radio stations in a handful of cities across Canada (Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa), ought to alleviate any worries that the CRTC might have about this deal. Indeed, the dispersal of these assets, they argue, should mitigate worries about excess media concentration or the possibility that acquiring Astral will confer undue advantages to Bell for its own integrated sweep of services that stretch from broadcasting to telecoms and the internet.

The public record is chok-a-blok full of what parties across the country thought about that issue, and Bell’s claims, but for here I want to highlight something else that struck me as particularly interesting about the revived bid: the extent to which it is peppered with references to the keywords of the public interest, citizens, consumers, culture and even democracy.

Strategically, this makes sense because last October when the CRTC denied Bell Astral 1.0 (news releasefull decision), it did so not just on the grounds of excess media concentration and concerns about vertical integration that had not been satisfactorily addressed, but because it failed to meet the Commission’s standards of the public interest. Moreover, the CRTC’s announcement of its hearings into the revived proposal in May made it clear that similar concerns would once again be front and centre in the Commission’s deliberations.

Obviously, if the public interest was a big concern then, it would have to be given emphasis in the Bell Astral 2.0 application, and it is.

To look into this question further, using key word/phrase searches, I looked for evidence of how these ideas fare in Bell and Astral’s new application compared with last year’s application as well as their most recent annual reports (see here and here).

Table 1, below, shows what I found.

Key Word Search
Word/Phrase Bell Astral 2.0 Supp. Brief Bell 1.0 Supp. Brief BCE AnnRpt 2012 Astral Ann Rpt 2012
Public Interest 21 (on 15pp) 1 3 (2pp) 0
Consumers 80  (35 pp) 4 30 (2OPP) 2 (2pp)
Citizen 19 (17 pp.) 0 0 0
Cultur* 17 (12 pp) 0 0 1
Democra* 3 (3pp) 0 0 0

Sources: See below.

As the table shows, Bell’s first application referred to the public interest just once and to consumers four times and to citizens, culture and democracy not at all.  In the new and improved version of Bell Astral 2.0, we find references to:

  • the public interest 21 times on 15 pages,
  • to consumers 80 times on 35 pages,
  • citizens 19 times on 17 pages,
  • culture 17 times on 12 pages,
  • and to democracy 3 times on 3 pages.

Bell and Astral’s embrace of the public interest and similar terms in their new application is clear, but whether or not this embodies a genuine corporate cultural conversion or just an opportunistic gambit designed to win CRTC approval and the more general battle for hearts and minds surrounding Bell Astral 2.0 remains to be seen. We can be sure of one thing, however, and that is that the CRTC’s forthcoming decision will turn a great deal on this difficult concept. Whether or not the Commission will have found BCE and Astral’s invocations of the public interest convincing or not, we’ll have to wait and see.

Sources:

BCE & Astral (2013). Supplementary Brief. Filed for Notice of hearing, Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2013-106 <https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B3WCF51KmyImME5hVEpfak9EekU/edit&gt;; BCE Inc. (1 May 2012). Bell Application 2012-0516-2, Appendix 1, Supplemental brief. Filed for Notice of hearing, Broadcasting Notice of Consultation CRTC 2012-370.  <https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TVgld3nyT4IWoI5LElzE_yP1ILzokJMQKXgLFXo8eu0/edit?usp=sharing&gt;; BCE (2013), Annual Report 2012. <http://www.bce.ca/assets/investors/AR-2012/BCE_2012_AnnualReport_accessible.pdf&gt;; Astral (2012). Annual Information Form. http://www.astral.com/assets/094b7718a2994611a5667677b91f3321_AIF-YE-2012—2012-11-29—FINAL.pdf

Methodenstreit: A Reply to a Question from Greg O’Brien @ Cartt.ca about Media Concentration Research Methods

I have changed this post since putting it up last Wednesday (May 23, 2013). I have not done so substantively. Indeed, I have left all the data and main claims as they were.

What I have done, however, is remove some of the snark at the top and the bottom that I directed at Greg O’Brien at the outset. It’s unnecessary, and as a few colleagues, friends and others with my interests close to heart have kindly suggested, we need more civility in the internets, not less (see Blayne Haggard’s thoughts here).

Btw, the picture in Blayne’s post of a guy pounding away at a keyboard struck a chord; Kristina, my wife, will nod disapprovingly for sure; and its effect would be even greater still if you put five more words at the end of the word bubble: “about telecom, media, internet concentration”. I’ll think about that.

The revised version follows. A link to the original is here.

Last Friday afternoon, just as I was settling in for the first long holiday weekend, Greg O’Brien, sent me an email asking about media concentration research methods. Greg is the founding publisher and lead writer over at Cartt.ca — an industry trade paper that serves the telecom, media and internet industries here in Canada. The question is an important one and so I began to sketch out a reply.

I was advised, however, that it would be best to wait. The final replies to the Bell Astral hearings had yet to be submitted and, thus, addressing questions of methodology directly bearing on the hearings in public was out of bounds until the proceedings closed. No need to tip your hat to others about what you’re thinking. It was another in a long string of moments when my ‘academic’ persona tugged hard to break free of the short leash imposed on experts appearing before the CRTC.

The advice I got was superb. My advisors were dead right and I was wrong. While my inclination is always to just reply immediately and as fulsomely as I can, that is not always the smartest thing to do. Ask any journalists who knows me, or anybody for that matter, and they will tell you that I always freely share my ideas and don’t play coy.[1]

The advice I received was right. Bell was poking around in the same spot that O’Brien was and raised the same question that O’Brien does about the HHI thresholds used by “consumer groups” (they don’t refer to me or the consumer groups by name, nor do they speak of public interest groups) (See Bell Final Reply, page 2).

The core of his original email is below. My reply follows.

Date:       Fri, 17 May 2013 12:11:23 -0400

From:    “Greg O’Brien” <greg.obrien@cartt.ca>   Block Address

To:          “Dwayne Winseck'” <dwayne_winseck@carleton.ca>

Subject:   Research question

Hi Dwayne,

I just wanted to point out an issue I came across about the research on media concentration that is part of PIAC’s presentation to the Commission on Bell/Astral and a big part of the CMCRP, too. I did a little digging into Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI), to figure out what it was and came across some info below that it looks like, from the links, the HHI index itself was changed or updated back in 2010 by the Federal Trade Commission and US Department of Justice.

Your research paper says the HHI and the thresholds of media concentration fall into three levels:

HHI < 1000 = Un-concentrated

HHI > 1000 but < 1,800 = Moderately Concentrated

HHI > 1,800 = Highly Concentrated

However, these links here, here and here seem to show that back in 2010, those HHI thresholds were altered so that:

HHI < 1500 = Unconcentrated

HHI > 1500 but < 2,500 = Moderately Concentrated

HHI > 2,500 = Highly Concentrated

That puts the HHI scores for many of the media mentioned in your report in the moderate or low range, I think.

To be honest with you, this is a bit too deep in the regulatory research weeds for a story in Cartt.ca. But I was wondering if you could explain the difference to me? Am I missing something? If not, does the research need to be altered/updated? Please let me know if I am wrong, or if we use different numbers for Canada.

Thanks,

Greg

My Response

Hi Greg,

Thanks for your inquiry.

Before I begin, please let me ask you to address specific questions about methodology or data to me since it was me that was hired to prepare evidence and write a brief in support of the public interest and consumer advocacy groups’ intervention opposing Bell’s revised bid to take-over Astral. My response is done solely in my capacity as a scholar and director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research (CMCR) project.

I wanted to send you my response earlier but was advised that it best to wait until the Bell Astral proceedings closed. Turns out, Bell was poking around in the same spot you were (see Bell Final Reply, page 2).

Let me also say, though, too, I was a bit hesitant about replying to you on account of the fact that the only other time you’ve spoken about my data, method or research at all was when you tweeted one of Bell’s allegations about my CBC revenue data at the very end of the reply phase for Bell Astral 1.0. That you tweeted about it then without asking me first about my views, and that your question now falls again at the very end of the reply phase, feels funny to me and I don’t quite like it. 

However, let me put that aside and try to answer your question because it is a good question.

I am aware of the new U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines. David Ellis, who you also know, sent them to me earlier in the year. Please ask him about that.

Guidelines do change from time to time. While the U.S. replaced the revised 1997 version guidelines in 2010, there are a couple of reasons why they have not seeped into the scholarly literature and my research methodology specifically.

For one, when guidelines change academics will always take time to decide if the changes adopted are suitable to the field we’ve been working in. There has been a long-standing argument amongst scholars that the DOJ’s existing guidelines were already inappropriate for communication and that a ‘weightier’ test was required because of the freight communications media carry with respect to free speech, the free press, privacy, democracy, their role as public spaces vital to citizenship, many non-market attributes and other such concerns. I share such concerns (also see Eli Noam and C. Edwin Baker on this point; or Compaine and Goldstein for opposing points of view).

Second, the International Media Concentration Research (IMCR), of which I am a part, and which is, as you know, led by one of the world’s foremost experts in this area, Professor of Finance and Economics, Eli Noam at Columbia University (New York), set sail in 2008. Changing course midstream and with the larger debates just referred to still hanging in the air would have been unwise. The fact that the project has forty or so scholars studying long-term media concentration trends in as many countries around the world also suggests that you don’t change things just because things in the U.S. change. 

Of course, we must take heed of what the U.S. does, but it does not determine things everywhere else. Historical and international comparative references, amongst other things, are crucial too. You might also ask Professor Noam as well why the project stuck with the existing standards rather than change to the new ones midstream?

In short, one doesn’t jump from a set of standards over which there is already a lot of debate to looser ones without a great deal of thought. That said, one should not cling to outmoded ways of thinking either, and so I have been looking carefully at the new guidelines with an open mind.

Indeed, I brought the new DOJ/FTC guidelines with me to Montreal two weeks ago and was reading them in the run-up to and during Bell Astral 2.0.  As you will see on page 19, the guidelines not only set the thresholds at the higher levels you recite, but tell us what constitutes significant consolidation by pointing to the degree of change, i.e. transactions that move the dial 100 or more points in markets that are already modestly to highly concentrated.

Here’s what the new guidelines say with respect to transactions in:

Moderately Concentrated Markets: Mergers resulting in moderately concentrated markets that involve an increase in the HHI of more than 100 points potentially raise significant competitive concerns and often warrant scrutiny.

Highly Concentrated Markets: Mergers resulting in highly concentrated markets that involve an increase in the HHI of between 100 points and 200 points potentially raise significant competitive concerns and often warrant scrutiny. Mergers resulting in highly concentrated markets that involve an increase in the HHI of more than 200 points will be presumed to be likely to enhance market power (emphasis added, p. 19).

The chart below created on the basis of 2012 revenue data shows that, contrary to what you say in your email, none of the sectors implicated by the Bell Astral deal are at the low end of the new guidelines, except radio – as I never fail to mention.

More importantly, the Bell Astral transaction will move several sectors from moderately to highly concentrated status even by the looser standards of the new guidelines, i.e. an HHI score above 2,500, as the chart below illustrates. These sectors are:

  • English-language Specialty and Pay TV (2525.2);
  • French-language Specialty and Pay TV (4085.1);
  • total Specialty and Pay TV (2512);
  • the total French TV sector is already above 2,500 but would be pushed further to 2801.7.

It is also important to point out that the Competition Bureau in Canada does not use the HHI to set fixed benchmarks but rather to help it “to observe the relative change in concentration before and after a merger” (emphasis added, p. 19, fn 31). The Bureau does, however, state that when the four-firm concentration ratio (CR4) passes 65% it may step in to examine whether a merger “would likely . . . enhance market power, and thereby . . . lessen competition substantially” (p. 19, fn 31). You can look at the data in the chart below and reach your own conclusions on this point.

In addition, in terms of relative change, as the DOJ guidelines quoted above state, a transaction that moves the dial in moderately or highly concentrated markets by more than 100 – 200 points will “potentially raise significant competitive concerns and . . . be presumed to be likely to enhance market power” (emphasis added, p. 19). Based on the 2012 data shown in the chart that follows immediately below, here is a list of sectors implicated by Bell’s proposed take-over of Astral that would move the dial between 200 and 1200 points (change in HHI noted in parentheses):

  • English-language Specialty and Pay TV (+416 points);
  • French-language Specialty and Pay TV (+1215.1 points);
  • total Specialty and Pay TV (+608.5 points);
  • English-language Total TV (+236 points);
  • French-language TV (+207.5 points);
  • Total TV (+298 points);
  • French language vertical integration between BDUs and broadcasters (+361 points).

Changes in Concentration Levels: Before and After Bell Astral, 2012 Revenues 

2012 Revenues

Bell Mrkt Share Before

After

CR4 Before

CR4 After

HHI Before

HHI After

CR4 2008

HHI 2008

Conv TV        
ENG

30.7

30.9

90.7

90.9

2337.2

2347.2

96.1

2724.9

FR

0

0

95.1

95.1

4403.4

4403.4

94.5

4005.7

ENG + FR

22.6

22.8

82.9

83

2287.9

2293.5

86

2367.4

Spec & Pay TV

 

 

 

ENG

28

33.8

83.1

84.5

2109.2

2525.2

73.2

1543

FR

27.1

59.2

97.9

97.7

2870

4085.1

87

2755.1

ENG + FR

27.9

38

81.5

83.8

1925.7

2534.2

71.9

1451.7

Total TV

 

 

 

 

ENG

29.2

32.5

81.9

86.2

1891.2

2127.2

77

1762.2

FR

11.1

24.4

91.7

92.9

2594.2

2801.7

85.2

2389

ENG + FR

25.4

30.8

76.8

83.3

1691.5

1989.5

70.9

1486.7

Radio

 

 

 

 

ENG

9.8

21.9

51.6

59.6

822.6

1014.4

56.5

970.8

FR

0

27

84.1

84.1

2406.6

2406.6

90.1

2704.9

ENG + FR

7.9

23.2

53.4

62

825.3

1127.3

60

1047.2

VI & Network Media (2011)

 

 

 

 

ENG

31.3

31.8

83.2

84.2

1984.4

2014.9

N/A

N/A

FR

35.2

40.1

71.8

76.7

1872.1

2233.1

N/A

N/A

Also take note of the big changes not just by the standards of regulatory authorities but those of the recent historical past as well, i.e. since 2008, and notably for pay and specialty tv, total tv and radio.

As you can see, Greg, if this was purely an issue of methods and numbers, the CRTC should be very busy. And it is. This is why the Bell Astral 2.0 deal has received the critical attention it deserves, by the Commission and by people such as myself.

Finally, as I am sure you will have noted, I have updated and made the CMCR’s analysis of the 2012 data available on our website. I have the French- and English-language market 2012 data that corresponds to each of the sectors that we released the other day (radio, broadcast TV, specialty and pay TV, total TV), and for vertical integration between BDUs and broadcasting in both English- and French-language markets as well as for Canada

I really would be delighted to share all of our data sets with you under appropriate circumstances once the CRTC completes its deliberations on the current transaction. Doing this kind of research is not easy. There is much judgment involved and reams of data to be managed. I would like to trust that your question comes from a good place but I’m also acutely sensitive to the fact that there are many who toss barbs at researchers and, especially, critical ones, all the time. It really needs to stop, and if a full prof with tenure and a good salary can’t stand up to such attacks, who will? 

Ultimately, I always aim to improve my work and what I put out under the auspices of the CMCR. If you ever see anything in need of improvement, correction, qualification, etc., please let me know and I will, as is our standard practice, fix things while publicly acknowledging any errors we have made and your role in setting things aright.

Best wishes,

Dwayne

[1] To put a more scholarly spin on it, questions about research methods are difficult and often boring, but they can be really helpful when they clarify how we know what we know. They tend to be open ended (and wordy, too) which leads in many unforseen directions. German philosophers originally called such activities “methodenstreit”, or “methods dispute”, hence the title to this post. The notion of methods disputes is now common across philosophy and the social sciences and yes, that includes economics (see here and here).

Netflix and Canadian TV: Menace or Messiah?

We hear a lot about Netflix, and we hear it often, by both those who love and loathe it. It has become a fixture on the Canadian media scene in a very short time.

Indeed, there has been much gnashing of teeth since Netflix’s inception in this country in 2010, including the tightening up of bandwidth caps, inquiries by the CRTC, as well as the constant invocation of the streaming video on demand service (SVOD) in regulatory proceedings, from the CRTC’s 91h hearings just last week and no doubt in the one that it is set to start next week for Bell and Astral’s proposed amalgamation.

With roughly 1.6 million subscribers at the end of last year (IHS Screen Digest), it’s revenues can be estimated to have been about $134.3 million in 2012. This is a sizeable amount for sure, but where does it fit within the existing $7.5 billion industry (not counting the carriage and distribution side of the biz)?

So, the question for our post today: Netflix, menace or Messiah?

Netflix’s estimated 1.6 million subcribers, no doubt lean toward the latter view, even if they have to endure deliberately downgraded quality (i.e. no HD) to ensure they don’t blow their monthly bandwith caps and a slimmer catalogue to choose from. Even those in the TV biz regularly tell investors that they don’t expect any short- to mid-term harm, while the long-run is still anybody’s guess. 

However, look further and read the pages of leading newspapers in this country (take this piece by Andrew Coyne from the National Post just two days ago for starters), and Netflix is often cast as ushering in the death of “old TV” and as the spearhead of a much bigger ‘video revolution’ that is poised to bring Canada’s big four vertically integrated media goliaths to their knees: Quebecor, Rogers, Bell and Shaw.

The long list of new content acquisition deals, and charts showing internet traffic attributable to Netflix going through the roof (here and here), all seem to have a point, and who knows, maybe all of the kerfuffle is on the mark. I don’t want to offer anything definitive on the point other than to say that, me, I’m skeptical.

However, what I do want to know is something a bit more systematic about where things stand. And so as I’m won’t to do, I’ve encouraged my students to have a look at things and recently, one of them, Patrick Foley, did a real bang up job putting together the following chart showing Netflix’s content acquisition and development.

I’ve added to the table here and there and then developed some commentary of my own afterwards, but I think it’s good to, first, take a deep breadth and take stock of what kinds of content deals that Netflix has and hasn’t done. Otherwise, I’m afraid that a compendium of disparate press releases will add up to the impression that there are barbarians at the gate and unless we do something fast, they’re gonna tear the place apart – that “place” being the “Canadian television system” as we know it.

So here we go, a selection of Netflix’s content acquisition and development deals over the past few years.

Netflix’s Content Acquisition and Development Deals

Year Library Content
Starz 2008 2008  5 yr. deal. $30 million per year. Access to 2,500 titles, including “classic films” such as “Scarface” and “Beetlejuice”
NBC Universal 2010 Renewed contract for 5 additional years, worth $1 billion. Rights to titles from Paramount, MGM, and Lionsgate studios. Also acquires rights to old and new episodes of ”SNL,” “30 Rock”, “The Office,” and other popular shows. Can offer SVOD (streaming video on demand) 90 days after airing on Pay TV.
CBS Corp. 2011 4 yr. “Pay- as-you-go” deal with The CW Network (jointly owned by CBS and Time Warner) 700 hours of old CW programming and rights to new episodes. Older shows like “Cheers” can now be streamed. So too for newer ones, e.g. “Gossip Girl” and “Vampire Diaries”
Time Warner 2013 “Pay-as-you-go” deal between Netflix Turner Broadcasting & Warner Bros (TW subsidiaries) ($100s millions). New and old Warner Bros content produced for TV (i.e. shows already aired on ABC, NBC, FOX, HBO, Cartoon Network, TNT, etc.), including “666 Park Avenue” “Revolution”
Disney 2012 $200-$300 Annually Classic Disney titles and access to newly released Disney movies for 3 years (7 months after theatre release). Latter came its way after Disney’s contract with Starz ended. Classics like ”Pocahontas”, ”Alice in Wonderland” and LucasFilms productions available for internet streaming.Beginning in 2016 Netflix can exclusively stream films from Pixar, Marvel, DisneyNature, and Disney Animation Studios.
Starz 2013 Netflix did not renew contract Netflix loses rights to 2,500 “classic films” such as “Scarface” and “Beetlejuice”
2012 Arrested Development Former Fox TV series revived. May be prequel to movie.
Media Rights Capital 2011/12 – 2013 House of Cards Adaptation of previous BBC miniseries of same name. First TV series to premier on Netflix, beginning Feb. 1, 2013.
Viacom / Dreamworks 2013 Turbo F.A.S.T. (Kids animation series)  Original animated series based on forthcoming Dreamworks’ movie, Turbo.

Sources: Edwards (2012). Bloomberg; PR Newswire 2012; Kang (201). Washington Post. Villarrea. (2013). LATimes. Gruenwedel (2013). Home Media Magazine.

There’s much to be said about the above list of activities. Instead of writing another of my trademark long, long posts, however, let me distill a few points that I think are the most important.

Characteristics of Netflix deals:

  1. Acquire old, classic, established libraries of content.
  2. Acquire rights to air new episodes from ongoing TV series, and newly produced movies, after time delay.
  3. Youth/kid/teen oriented content is really important.
  4. ‘Old TV’ is the main ingredient of ‘new TV’, with established TV series revived and remade into new ones (Arrested Development; House of Cards) and forthcoming movies become TV series before they even hit the box office (Turbo F.A.S.T).  In other words, original content is derivative of existing content.

Make Peace Not War: or how the Traditional US (but not Canadian) TV and Film companies learned to live with Netflix

  1. Netflix breathes new life into classic/old content.
  2. It opens a new distribution window: ‘streaming video on demand’: SVOD, slotted into the pre-existing, window-based Hollywood model that staggers the release of movies between regions and across time.  Hollywood always learns to, at least eventually, embrace these new windows, even if late in the game, as my professor Janet Wasko taught us many years ago. Why? Because they are new markets, sources of revenue, that’s why (see here for latest evidence of growth of new windows relative to box office.).
  3. Netflix is complementary because Netflix subscribers tend to watch more TV rather than less, as the MediaTechnologyMonitor studies have repeatedly shown. As the most recent MTM study says, for instance, “Netflix customers are not so-called cord cutters. . . . In fact, Netflix users were found to be more likely than other consumers to shell out for a premium TV package, even while paying $8 a month for the streaming service”. UK communication and media regulator, Ofcom (see p. 3), has come to similar conclusions (also see here with respect to UK).
  4. Netflix may increase “packaged-media sales” (DVDs, DVD box sets, etc.) and cable VOD by sizeable amounts (15-30%), some Time Warner execs have claimed, although some of the scholarly literature I have read seems less convinced.
  5. Adds foreign films that lack North American theatrical release (thanks Patrick).
  6. Enables time-shifting and space-shifting via Microsoft’s Xbox 360, the Nintendo Wii, Sony’s PS3, Blu-ray disc players, and internet-based video players like Apple devices (again, thanks Patrick).
  7. And some stalwarts of the ‘traditional mediacos’ have a position on Netflix’s Board of Directors alongside internet and tech companies and that affords them at least a small lever of influence and control: e.g. Ann Mather (Walt Disney, Pixar, Google, MGM, Village Roadshow Pictures), Leslie Kilgore (Amazon, LinkedIn), Jay Hoak (Technology Crossover Ventures) A. G. Battle (Ask Jeeves, Expedia), Reed Hastings (Netflix, Facebook, Microsoft) (Netflix, 2012).

Why Canada’s Vertically-Integrated Players Continue to Hate Netflix:

  1. Must compete with Netflix over rights to new distribution window vs. treating them as an inexpensive bolt on to the existing suite of rights they acquire.
  2. They don’t have much original content of their own so must compete even more with Netflix.
  3. Netflix seems to give media workers more creative autonomy in their work and a bigger slice of the pie and more say afterwards.
  4. The creation of a new window – SVOD – increases pressure to compress ‘old windows’, especially VOD – a lucrative cash cow for existing BDUs’ specialty and pay TV services that continue to rake in operating profits in the mid- to high-20% range (see p. 1).
  5. Netflix enables time-shifting and space-shifting on other company’s devices —  Microsoft’s Xbox 360, the Nintendo Wii, Sony’s PS3, Blu-ray disc players, Apple, etc. – rather than their own.
  6. Finally, Canadian media execs seem to loathe Netflix because they have no position of influence or control at Netflix, or anything like it.

Does this mean that nothing’s changing? Absolutely not! Television and how it is made, circulated, controlled and consumed is changing dramatically.

Fast disappearing is the old scheduled model of tv programming punched out by vertically-integrated tv cos modelled on the Fordist approach to car production (ownership of everything from inputs to manufacturing and dealerships), with highly unionized workforces and subsidized consumption brought to you courtesy of advertisers and government funding.

And what’s coming online? Hold your breath, folks, but it just may be the the centuries’ old  ‘publishing model’. In this model, TV execs function as commissioning editors signing contracts and royalty cheques with creative talent. Most media work becomes more and more precarious, less unionized and less well paid. Disappearing are the “old days” when union bosses negotiated long-term contracts for media workers with durable media jobs and clear roles and back are the really old old days when everybody had to fend for themselves.

In addition, in the publishing model, as with books, people pay for what they get while the ratio of advertising and government subsidies to public service media steadily declines. Audiences’ preferences become more closely aligned with what they pay for as a result, but the gap between the media rich and media poor expands.

Think catalogues of movie and TV program titles, not a linear scheduled flow of appointment viewing. Long live TV, while everything changes.

So, Netflix, Menace or Messiah? You be the judge.

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