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Posts Tagged ‘Network Neutrality’

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.

Dream Bıg: Some Modest Reforms for the Telecom-Medıa-Internet (TMI) Industries in Canada

I’m taking a break for a few weeks, but before here ıs a slightly extended versıon of my column ,ın te Globe and Mail yesterday.

It’s time to step back for a bit from trying to explain, first, that the telecom-media-Internet (TMI) industries in Canada are concentrated, second that they are poorly regulated and, lastly, that this is problematic, not from the perspective of utopian ideals, but of a digital free press in a liberal capitalist democracy like ours.

 

When I come back I’ll write about other things, I promise (maybe). Before I leave, though, a few thoughts for your consideration.

 

We live in what Ron Diebert and Rohan Rohozinski of the Citizen’s Lab at the University of Toronto call a ‘constitutive moment’. This means that actions taken now will help lock in the structure, look and feel of the digital, networked mediaspace for years ahead.

 

Three matters are coming to a head as they wind their way through the CRTC and body politic:

 

  • The CRTC will decide the fate of the pay-per model of the Internet (UBB and bandwidth caps) (starting at CRTC hearings July 11) imposed by the ‘big six’ ISPs on Canadians while they were sleepwalking until all hell broke lose last January when the incumbents got regulatory approval to pin their hated pay-per model on the independent ISPs that serve the five percent of Internet users not served by the incumbents.
  • We will see if the CRTC has the wisdom and courage to pick the right tools to effectively deal with vertical integration and concentration across the TMI sectors as a whole.
  • a CRTC “fact finding inquiry” will examine whether online video distributors such as Netflix, YouTube, AppleTV and so on will be freely accessible in Canada or regulated like broadcasters.

 

By my estimation, each hearing involves about a hundred submissions of thirty or so pages each. That’s nearly 10,000 pages. It would be great if you could keep up to speed on these matters while I’m away by bumbling your way through the “truly primitive” website of the CRTC, as Cardozo Law School Professor Susan Crawford refers to it.

 

But who has the time and resources to do this? The incumbents and their well-heeled lobbyists, that’s who! I am on sabbatical, but still exhausted tracking this stuff day after day.

 

Others such as the Public Interest Advocacy Centre also take part in these processes as much as they can. For PIAC it’s a real problem, because late in the game it just learned that the CRTC’s fast-tracked “fact finding” expedition on new media isn’t a real hearing, so no funding for them.

 

The rabble-rousing group, Open Media, is marshalling its resources for this week’s UBB Hearings. Rightly so, since it put the issue of the pay per Internet model on the public radar to begin with. They are boycotting the OTT ‘fact finding’ mission, though, because their resources are stretched thin and to protest the fact that the CRTC buckled to vested interests’ pleadings to have the proceeding advanced from 2014 to now, even though similar examinations occurred just two years ago.

 

Google and Apple also scolded the CRTC for allowing matters to get all bungled up in a kind of regulatory trench warfare. The CBC and NFB want to deliver their content to as many people, anywhere, anytime and across as many platforms and devices as possible, as well, not new regulations. Mirko Bibic, Bell’s regulatory front man, called this idea “preposterous” at the vertical integration hearings two weeks ago.

 

This battle over the future of media is not the result of new industrial arrangements, digitization, or newfangled economic theory, but endemic to situations where those who control the medium also control the messages (content).

 

In the 1900s, for example, the Canadian Pacific Telegraph Co. and Great Northwestern Telegraph Co. (the latter owned by the New York-based goliath, Western Union) had exclusive distribution rights for the Associated Press news wire service in Canada. To fortify their dominant position in the lucrative telegraph business against smaller rivals (e.g. the Dominion Telegraph Co in Canada and Postal Telegraph Co. in the US), the Canadian Pacific Tel. Co. and Great Northwestern Tel. Co. gave away the AP’s news service to the dominant daily newspaper in each town across the country for free.

 

AP’s service was so cheap because instead of paying the cost for the news service and the telegraph charges for delivering it, the companies only charged for the ‘transmission costs’. This was a boon to established members of the press and AP and a useful tool for the companies’ own efforts to stitch up their lock on the telegraph business. It was also a menace to network competition, rival news services and a diverse press.

 

Any rival news service that tried to enter the market was at a disadvantage because its subscribers had to pay the ‘transmission costs’ plus the cost of the news service. When the Winnipeg-based Western Associated Press set up a news service in 1907, it found its opportunities blocked because there was no way its subscribers could afford to pay two costs — transmission and for the news service — and stay in business, while AP’s new service was given away free to competitors.

 

Leveraging control over the wires, the telegraph companies choked the messages flowing through them. As one muckraking journalist, W. F. Maclean, wrote in the Toronto World,

 

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

 

The matter was brought to a head by one of the first regulatory bodies in Canada, the Board of Railway Commissioners in 1910. Canadian Pacific Tel. Co. came out swinging, arguing that the BRC had no authority over news services or to compel them to separate the costs of the news service from their transmission costs.

 

The BRC didn’t wilt for a moment but shot-back that the law compelled it to insure that rates were ”just and reasonable”. Unless transmission rates were separate, explicit and equitable, “telegraph companies could put out of business every newsgathering agency that dared to enter the field of competition with them”, it declared matter-of-factly.

 

The regulator had all the authority in the world it needed to break up the ‘double headed news monopoly’, and it did.

 

To be sure, the modalities of communication have changed tremendously since and we now live in an age when information is plentiful, not scarce. Yet, as Tim Wu’s Master Switch, and the mounting evidence before us attests, the basic logic of leveraging content and networks to confer advantages on one’s own services whilst driving others into submission, if not out of business altogether, is alive and well.

 

Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, New Zealand and many others are dealing with their own contemporary experiences of networks being used to trample competition and diminish the range of voices and expression available. Australia created the National Broadband Company in 2009 with $43 billion in funding to spur competition and open networks, for instance.

 

We have the publicly-owned and financed CANARIE with its ultra fast networks serving hospitals, schools, universities and researchers across the country. However, its modest funding ($30 million/year, roughly), uncertainty about funding levels after March 2012, and its executives’ squeamish view of how little they should compete with the incumbent commercial providers all limit CANARIE’s ability to offer much by way of an alternative network.

 

In Belgium and Britain, respectively, Belgacom and British Telecom have been forced to give more generous access to their facilities to speed the development of next generation networks. The level of functional separation adopted in the UK is unmatched elsewhere and depended heavily a strong regulator to force it upon a kicking and screaming BT in 2006. It has already led to more telecoms competition, broadband Internet services with greater speeds and capabilities, and lower prices relative to most countries, including Canada.

 

As an academic, I can dream big, but between my dreams and reality, there is a middle ground represented by measures that the FCC and Department of Justice in the U.S. put in place when they approved Comcast’s take-over of NBC-Universal earlier this year. In return for their blessing, Comcast must meet four fairly tough demands:

 

  • its television and film content must be available to Internet competitors and online video distributors (OVDs), a new category designed to cover Netflix, Hulu, AppleTV, etc.;
  • adopt open Internet principles generally;
  • “offer broadband services to low-income Americans at reduced monthly prices;
  • provide high-speed broadband to schools, libraries and underserved communities, among other benefits”.

 

These are practical measures that the CRTC could implement. It is a middle of the road choice, not a radical one. It does force the market to deliver a minimum level of social justice, but first and foremost it tries to foster a digital free press fit for a liberal capitalist democracy, rather than striving for abstract utopian ideals or bowing to the status quo.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 3 and the endgame was coming clearly into view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Bill C-51 turn ISPS into Internet Gatekeepers?

My most recent column for the online technology section of Globe &Mail came out Tuesday. It is available here.

The article builds on some recent posts that I have done considering the mounting pressures being put on Internet Service Providers to act more like gatekeepers rather than gateways to the Internet. Four such forces, I suggest, are pushing in this direction:

  • a strong push from the ‘copryight’ industries, especially the music industries, to make ISPs and search engines extensions of the copyright enforcement regime. This has become especially strong since 2008, when the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) turned to such measures more forcefully, while backing off somewhat from Digital Rights Management (DRM) (see page 3 of the IFPI’s Digital Music Report, 2008);
  • the near universal adoption of usage based billing and bandwidth caps by Canada’s ‘big six’ ISPs — Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor, Telus and Cogeco — and now the mid-sized Atlantic region player, Bragg/Eastlink (although with some recent significant developments from Shaw).
  • the fact that all of the major ISPs, except Telus, are vertically integrated and appear to be using usage based billing and bandwidth caps as a kind of ‘television business protection plan’ for their interests in the television industry.
  • and finally, the focus of yesterday’s column in the Globe and Mail, the push from national security and law enforcement agencies to build in increasing monitoring and surveillance capacities into their networks, and to conduct ‘warrantless searches’ if proposed new legislation is passed.
A fuller treatment of the issues covered in Tuesday’s column can be found in my earlier post here, and another that places things in a larger, global context here.

Shaw’s ‘New New’ Internet Pricing Regime — Raising the Bar?

Whew, I’m just coming back from blogosphere, and sheesh can things sometimes get tough out there. I’ve been thinking the last few days about an idea based on these forays into blogs, columns for newspapers, and stuff like that: Blogoslama, or what happens when the trolls of cyberspace get nasty.

That’s the title I have for people like Know Your Facts, RightTruth, TheFactCorrector, TheCorrectOpinion, SeektheTruth and, well, you get the picture, that run around blustering and puffing up their chest in umbrage over something or other that you’ve wrote.

Now don’t get me wrong, and sometimes these strange combinations yield fruit. I enjoy the to and fro of online conversations and generally think highly of them, for reasons that I’ve attributed in previous posts to scholars like Yochai Benkler, Nancy Baym, and others who see these activities of valuable forms of ‘sociality’ and public communication.

I also like the interesting characters like Strunk&White and UseYourSpellCheck who politely remind people how important a tidy sentence is to a civil conversation. And there’s others like Grumpy Scientist, TvWorker, and Old Green who speak wisely, although maybe somewhat slower than others in these sometimes rough and tumble places do. Amidst these different voices are some that really make you think, and sometimes to do a rethink.

Sometimes, though, I must admit, I can feel my skin growing thicker. In some wierd way, the old ‘blender theory of truth’ espoused by great liberals is alive and well. This is the theory that if we throw enough ideas into the mix, the truth, or at least the possibility of understanding, will rise to the top. Some say the Internet, and the blogosphere in particular, functions as a giant ‘echo chamber’, hardening opinions and throwing a monkey-wrench in the ‘blender theory of understanding’. In broad brush terms, I disagree.

So there I was just checking in on my recent contribution to The Mark, a piece that takes a blog entry I did on May 27th about cable media conglomerate Shaw’s new Internet pricing polices. A reworked, shorter and much polished version of that appeared this week as “We”ll Lift Your Internet Cap — If you Buy Our Cable TV” on The Mark. Between now and then, little did I know, Shaw had replaced its first new plan with a new, new one — each a ‘better response’ to ‘public consultation’ than the one before.

The story was a response to Shaw’s announcement last month that it would be doubling the bandwidth of its High Speed Internet services, while maintaining the same price and speeds for these services. Even more importantly, it announced that it would be offering two new tiers of High Speed Internet Services that offered even higher speeds and more voluminous bandwidth caps, up to 1TB in some cases and in others no caps at all. Shaw made a big deal of this, splashing about the news that it had made these ‘radical’ changes in light of recently held consultations with its subscribers.

This is and was a pretty big deal, especially in Canada where the user-centric and open Internet has been transformed step by step into a pay model where bandwidth caps are nearly universal and costs out of line with relevant global comparative standards. We have been drifting steadily toward the pay per Internet model, with Usage Based Billing and Bandwidth Caps leading the way.  I am opposed generally and strongly to the direction of events.

One fly in the ointment, however, with the big splashy announcement was that the you can only get the high end Internet capabilities by purchasing one of two of Shaw’s television services . . . as they become available over the next 16 months.
As a quote from Shaw’s official site stated: “These broadband packages will come bundled with TV and will roll out in two phases.”

In other words, this was ‘tied selling’, which is a big problem with vertically integrated media conglomerates. It also looked like a Business Protection Plan for Shaws vast television interests, from cables, to DTH satellite service, the Global network and a vast stable of television and radio broadcast stations.  And in this regard, Shaw is symptomatic of a broader problem in Canada: the extent that such integrated media conglomerates continue to roam the earth. Elsewhere, such beasts are generally on the wane, although Comcast’s acquisition of NBC earlier this year is an important exception.

Otherwise, in the US, media behemoths such as AOL Time Warner and ATT fell apart (although Comcast NBC is making a comeback), Vivendi in Europe exploded, and the story is similar from one country to the next. The main point for here, though, is that Shaw appeared to be merely tinkering generously with the ‘pay-per Internet’ model and then using it to defend other elements of its media stable. I was also circumspect of its claims about all of this coming from the good graces of the company after a series of consultations with subscribers. I think it had more to do with the intent politics of the Internet that have been at a steady and high boil for at least the past six months — a kind of late realization of the gravity of the stakes at hand, after years of slumber.

Anyway, to make a long story short, as soon as you start talking about concentrations of corporate power and the Internet being bent to private interests, people get their backs up, and in cyberspace, where anonymity is the lubricant of choice, they let you have it

Know Your Facts, who I introduced to you above, blasted me, stating that I should, umm, in his very own words, “No your facts before you write a objective review”. I don’t think that I ever claimed to be objective, but I do claim to be thorough and honest and good with the evidence at hand and that I produce, interpret and put in context. But before I could talk to KYF about the production and interpretation of facts, and how that renders notions of ‘objectivity’ problematic, he wound up and smacked me, FULL CAPS ON.

High Speed Internet services from Shaw are available from Shaw. He sent me a link that went to a Shaw page that required me to tell them where I lived so that Emma, or whatever their silly ‘agent’ is called, could tell me what’s on offer. It was a dead-end.

But I was wondering, had I made a mistake, lost the plot? Was it true, as WordUp said (slinking into the saloon), that by just referring to the ‘big 5’ other media behemoths alongside Shaw that I had blinded myself to reality?

Umm, no. I checked again. And again. The document I was relying on was still there. It clearly said everything I said above. Here it is again for your reference.

But then Craig arrived. Craig, you see, is from Shaw. He seems like a nice guy. He posted something to The Mark, in the comments section under my article. Everything now makes sense.

Shaw changed its pricing again on June 6th. The source I had been relying on had been superceded. The new page is here.

The improvements are considerable and I am glad that Shaw has seen fit to go further than the initial scheme announced to much fanfare.  There are still some quibbles that one might gnaw on, but the broad principle that access to the highest end Internet capabilities should not be tied to a subscription to any of Shaw’s television services.

To be sure, Shaw has raised the bar and it is to be applauded for doing so.  If it can just get rid of the bandwidth caps altogether and make sure pricing is in line with relevant global comparisons, then, at least when it comes to Shaw, we will be able to rest at ease.

Yet, one thing that also is crucial to this is that the bar set by Shaw should also become the minimum baseline standard adopted by the rest of the ‘big 5’: Bell, Rogers, Quebecor, Telus and Cogeco. Moreover, and to repeat from an earlier post, these must not be seen as a diversion from the central issues that remain core to the upcoming CRTC hearings on vertical integration and UBB.

Ooops, I did it again. Did that screw it all up for you?

About the Other Day: Lawful Access and ISPs in Canada

The other day I pounded away madly on the keyboard about global internet regulation. I was perturbed by the preliminary ‘e-G8’ meetings convened by President Sarkozy that seemed mostly designed to push a regulated Internet on the basis of bringing order to a disorderly and criminal Internet. It was a bad idea I said.

Here, though, I want to speak about the push for similar measures in Canada. As I see things, an open network is caught in the cross-hairs of several forces at the present moment:

  • first, we have the well-known issues of UBB and bandwidth caps that are transforming the open and user-centric Internet into the pay-per Internet;
  • second, we have the copyright industries pushing for ISPs and search engines to become extensions of the copyright enforcement regime;
  • third, each of the ‘big six’ ISP’s ‘acceptable use policies’ contain extensive measures that constrain what people can and cannot do with their Internet connections;
  • fourth, proposals in the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act (Bill C-51) introduced in the last Parliament and set to be reintroduced with the new Government’s omnibus crime bill sometime soon aim to retool communication networks in Canada for greater surveillance capabilities and to make it mandatory for telecoms providers, ISPs and search engines to disclose subscriber information, including name, address, IP address, and email address law enforcement official without court oversight.

This post focuses on the latter initiative, and what is known as ‘lawful access’. As with the rhetoric mobilized by Sarkozy, underpinning the push for greater surveillance power and easier access to records of Internet users is the idea that the Internet is disorderly and unruly place.

Yet, we must remember that in Canada, the Criminal Code already covers the Internet and crimes in real space are also crimes in cyberspace, notably child pornography, ‘hate crimes’, and obscenity. In other words, the Internet is not the wild west without the rule of law in place.

The Government wants to, it says, simply update and ‘modernize’ the existing arrangements with the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act (Bill C-51), a move which they say is long overdue because the existing laws were put into place when there was no such thing as the Internet. The Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Centre (CIPPIC) offers a good historical review of the current bill and its predecessors here.

In some ways, the Government claim is true. Public communication networks have always been intertwined with the interest and operations of the nation-State. That was as true for Roman roads and Venetian canals in the past, as it has been for the telegraph, postal and other media networks that have evolved up until today.

From emergency 911 services, spectrum grants to police and firefighters, and the Defense Early Warning (DEW) line in Northern Canada during the Cold War (and lucrative development ground for what eventually would become Nortel, before it crashed and burned on the embers of dot.com stupidity), the state and communications providers often work hand in glove. Silicon Valley North, as some in Kanata like to say, ain’t next to Ottawa (and the DND, or CSIS, or the Communication Security Establishment) for nothing.

In the past, some heterodox media political economists such as Dallas Smythe and William Melody complained that building networks to high-end national security, military, law enforcement and business needs created gold plated networks that were effectively subsidized by the general telephone subscribers.

Yet, just because there is nothing new in telecoms companies being deeply involved in matters of the state and law, this does not mean that there is not a lot that is new in the Government’s proposed legislation.

The new legislation:

  • is not based on compelling arguments that it will deal better with crimes in cyberspace — child pornography, ‘hate crimes’, and obscenity –than the Criminal Code, without unduly stifling the free of expression in network media spaces.
  • would require telecoms providers, ISPs and search engines to adopt expensive ‘network upgrades’ that expand their capacity to collect and retain ‘general contact data’ for all of their subscribers and even for specific contents of our online communications.
  • to disclose this information to law enforcement and national security agencies upon request.
  • to do so without a court-authorized warrant.

A few journalists and bloggers have issued alarmist calls that the new legislation would effectively outlaw anonymity and certain kinds of hyper-linking. I don’t think so.  Michael Geist and the legislative review of the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act done by the Library of Parliament show convincingly enough that that’s not likely to happen.

It will, however, implement several new measures that will skirt, or bypass existing practices: no court orders, wide-scale implementation of news surveillance technologies, and procedures that have left all of Canada’s provincial Privacy Commissioners and others strongly opposed to the Conservative’s proposed new law.

One virtue of the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act (Bill C-51) is that it will bring out into the open and formalize in law a set of ‘voluntary’ practices that are already used to combat ‘cybercrimes’, but currently conduced behind closed doors.

Project Cleanfeed, for instance, involves ISPs working hand-in-hand with police to identify and block problematic URLs, mostly for the purposes of blocking access to child pornography and to facilitate investigations of such activities. The RCMP works hand-in-hand with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the United States and thirty some odd similar agencies worldwide to disable access to ‘illegal websites’, so-called ‘domain name seizures’. The new law would match up with the facts on the grounds as they’ve already been established by ‘the State’.

The problem, however, is enrolling telecoms providers, ISPs and search engines in such processes to begin with. Up until now, ISPs act in tandem with the police through secret lists, no CRTC oversight, no court orders, etc. in Project Cleanfeed. Formalizing the requirement that they continue to take on this role, and to do so at the beck and call of national security agencies and cops rather than a court authorized warrant, takes a very bad route to a potentially good thing. Legalizing ‘rough justice’ and a murky role for ISPs does not sound like a good idea to me.

As I said earlier, telecoms companies have always had to build their networks equipped for national security and law enforcement purposes, and to comply with court orders when they are presented with them. That should continue to be the case today, with more candour and conformity to the concerns of privacy raised by, among others, all of the Provincial privacy commissioners pointed to above.

Basic rule in all of these cases, and regardless of whether it is the state or market interests that are bending basic networks and functionalities (i.e. search, storage, surveillance, etc.) to their purposes, is that gateways (telecom networks and ISPs) should never be gatekeepers. The goal should be to minimize rather than to maximize surveillance and ‘gatekeeper’ powers.

The idea of badly authorized and murky intelligence operations running roughshod on the public Internet is not a dystopian and remote fantasy. Over three quarters of U.S. military communications runs on the public netowrk. All submarine cables landing on U.S. shores must be equipped with electronic surveillance capabilities built to the specs of the U.S. state. Aspects of the common carrier/network neutrality obligations for telecoms and ISP providers in the U.S. were traded off in 2005 in return for major telecoms providers upgrading their networks in line with the asserted needs of a ‘post 9/11 world’.

Under the guise of the ‘global war or terrorism’, all of the major US telecoms and ISPs — AT&T, Verizon, SBC, Sprint, etc. (except, to its credit, Qwest) turned over these capabilities to the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on telephone, email and Internet communications between people in the US and elsewhere in the world. Again, while the objectives may have been legit, the operation skirted the existing laws and the courts found such activities illegal and claims that President Bush had unbound ‘wartime powers’ unjustified as New York Times’ reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtenblau revealed in December 2005 — albeit, after the New York Times had sat on the article for a year.

Congress rewrote the law in 2008 to bring the law into line with the facts that the Bush Regime had established on the ground. The new law also gave AT&T, et. al. retroactive and future immunity from prosecution when dealing with similar requests. A Second Circuit Court of Appeal in New York put the issues back into play recently when it reinstated a lawsuit by human rights groups, journalists, media organizations, labour unions and others who argue that Internet and telecoms surveillance violates their rights to privacy and freedom of expression (See here for a fuller treatment of the issues).

I am concerned that, from the general drift of things in the Investigative Powers for the 21st Century Act, as well as the lessons from the past decade in the U.S. and the choir of voices coming from the G8 last week about the need to ‘civilize’ cyberspace, point in the wrong direction: a more tightly regulated, closed and murky Internet. Basic standards of judicial oversight are removed and capacities expanded. There are pressing issues at hand, but they need to be handled with dexterity rather than the iron-fist of the national security state.

Just for fun, let me point to just one alternative way of doing things: the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a drive to adopt the most open and freedom of the press and communication-friendly environment in the world. Here’s a Youtube video outlining some of its ideas and ideals. Imagine. .

Global Internet Regulation: Tightening the Screws?

Last week in the run-up to the G8 leaders meeting in France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened a conference among prominent media and Internet types. The goal: how to ‘civilize’ the Internet.

As Sarkozy said,

The internet is the new frontier, a territory to conquer. But it cannot be a Wild West. It cannot be a lawless place, where people are allowed to pillage artistic works with no limits.

And you know what, he’s right. The Internet should not be a lawless frontier disconnected from the real world, and it is not. It is already deeply shaped by the same legal, political, economic and social forces that govern our actions daily.

That said, the crux of the approach being advocated by Sarkozy, and perhaps to come out in a communique at the end of the G8 meetings, is that Internet Service Providers, search engines and others are being ‘deputized’ to act on behalf of law enforcement officials and vested interests in the entertainment and ‘copyright industries’ (see the New York Times story as well). That is, they are being turned into adjuncts of both the state and vested interests to deal with matters that are, some more than others, sordid ones indeed: child pornography, money laundering, counterfeit goods and software and, of course (and in some instances) large-scale enabling of copyright infringement.

Of course, I’m the last to stand in support of child porn, money laundering, industrial scale piracy, and so forth. However, I am opposed to the full-court press that is now coming from three directions that aim to turn ISPs and search engines from being ‘gateways’ to the Internet to ‘gatekeepers’.

First, and largely since 2008, ISPs have come under a full-court press by the Recording Industry Association of America and the International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI) to adopt a notice and take-down procedure. In this situation, once notified of allegations of copyright infringements, ISPs would block Internet users access to such content and, in some cases, cut off repeat offenders. Search engines would essentially make such content disappear by turning up a blank when suspect sites were queried.

The problem with this is already well-known: the gap between what is allegedly an infringement and what the law in each country actually determines to be so is big indeed. What typically happens is that private contractors using automated ‘notice and take-down’ systems take a shotgun approach, capturing much that is on the side of right in the process.

People caught in the cross-hairs have a steep hill to climb to prove their innocence. That is wrong because it turns presumptions of innocence on their head. Here’s a link to the Electronic Frontier Foundations “Takedown Hall of Shame” to get a sense of how overly-broad notices also curtail freedom of expression.

Second, Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies began to go out of favour in the last few years, but as they were being abandoned, after 2008 the RIAA and its international counterparts were signing new memoranda of understanding with ISPs that enrolled the latter in the effort to combat piracy. The RIAA and IFPI have also pushed hard for national laws to accomplish the same ends. In other words, the RIAA is using technology, States and Markets to accomplish its goal of clamping down on content.

Sarkozy and the French Government were early and enthusiastic endorsers of such efforts and the three strikes law in France is considered by most to be particularly draconian. The IFPI has also chalked up several wins for such measures in other countries as well, including Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan and the UK, among a few others (see pp. 25-27).

Now, however, and at least in Britain such measures are under severe challenge in the courts by way of initiatives launched by two of Britain’s biggest ISPs, BT and TalkTalk, and in the court of public opinion, where they are losing badly. Yet, just as such measures come under severe criticism and challenge in some countries, they are being expanded in others.
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Shaws’ New High Speed Internet Regime: Iron Fist vs the Velvet Glove

Shaw announced plans to implement a new regime for its Internet Access services this week. There is much in the announcement to be commended, and much still to rail against.

First, the much welcomed headline news is that Shaw’s new plans basically double the bandwidth caps for its Lite and High Speed services, while the caps for the Extreme service will be increased from a 100 GB cap to 250. The prices and the speed for each service will remain the same. Nice start!

Second, Shaw is promising much needed investment in broadband networks over the next year and a half and to convert all of its television channels to digital. As the company notes,

In making this move we will triple the capacity of our network, freeing up space for more Internet, HD and On Demand programming.

Third, the new pricing regime makes available some of the fastest and most generous high-speed Internet services in North America. It will most certainly, as Michael Geist, Peter Novak and others have noted, put pressure on the rest of the ‘big 5 ISPs’ – Bell, Rogers, Quebecor, Telus and Cogeco – to fall in line.

Shaw’s new bandwidth caps will be between two (vs Rogers) and five (Bell) times as great as those of the other dominant ISPs, as the following table illustrates.

The commitment to invest heavily in a “major upgrade of our network”, and to convert all its channels to digital, in order triple the capabilities of its networks is good news.  It would seem to bring Shaw closer into line with global trends (and ahead of standards in most of the United States).

The emphasis on network upgrades dovetails with ‘hierarchy of priorities’ set by the CRTC in its Network Neutrality decision too, or as it prefers to call it, the Internet Traffic Management Practices decision. Regardless of terminology, the basic idea is that Network Investment is the preferred method to deal with any congestion that exists. Shaw’s proposal appears to be in line with that idea.

If it acts as a spur for greater investment by the other major telecom and ISP providers, all the better, but we should not hold our breath. Their feet will have to be held to the fire.

Iron Fist Replaced by the Velvet Glove?

But now for the odious bits of Shaw’s intended course of action.

First, the highest speed services with the most generous bandwidth caps, or no caps at all, are only available bundled with either of Shaw’s Legacy TV or its Personal TV model. And these services will also only become available over the next 18 months as its networks are upgraded.

The bundled, highest performance Internet offerings offer speeds of between 50 and 250 Mbps and genereous bandwidth caps of between 250 GB per month and a voluminous 1 Terrabit (TB), as well. The caps are removed altogether in some cases. This is a good thing and appears to bring Shaw’s offerings closer into line with ‘global best practices’.

But tying the highest-performance Internet service to its ‘legacy’ television services is a blatantly protectionist bid — a first line of defense for Shaw’s Global television network, massive cable and satellite distribution system, and big suite of cable and satellite television channels. Enrolling you in its Internet services enrolls you unwittingly into the Shaw Business Projection Plan for all these other services. Your tail wagging its corporate dog.

The fact that Shaw is able to leverage control over its networks to influence the channels of communication flowing through them is not surprising. It is a problem as old as Roman Roads and Venetian Canals. It is a problem of the first order, for all that, and to be resisted now as much as in the past.

In 1910, the long lost precursor to the CRTC, the Board of Railway Commissioners came to a conclusion that would be startling if it happened today. As the BRC found in the ‘double-headed telegraph news monopoly’ case, Cdn Pacific Telegraph Co. and Great North Western Telegraph Co (the latter under ownership control of Western Union) had exclusive distribution rights for Associated Press news services in Canada. Cdn Pacific Telegraph was charging its

. . . subscribers for the commodity, viz., the news, delivered at a flat rate; . . . while in the case of rivals [Western Asssociated Press] the payment . . . was for the transmission, and not the commodity. . . . [T]elegraph companies could put out of business every newsgathering agency that dared to enter the field of competition with them” (BRC, 1910, pp. 274-275).

The bundling of ‘connectivity’ and ‘content’, as Shaw does in its new plans under one corporate umbrella is one of the biggest problems with vertical integration. Always has been, always will be.

Theoretically, the CRTC can do something about this after its upcoming vertical integration hearings next month. It can be taken for granted, however, that Hell will freeze over before anyone seriously considers divestiture of Canada’s big 5 integrated telecom-media behemoths — Shaw/Global (Corus), Bell/CTV, Rogers/CityTv, Quebecor (TVA), Cogeco (Radio).

The government could set up a competitor entity, the Canadian National Broadband Co (CNBC), just like the Australians. That’s not likely to happen either, the price tag of $40 plus billion being only one among many economic and ideological deterrents.

The CRTC should give serious consideration to imposing ‘functional separation’ requirements on the big 5; it would be a good compromise. Not to hot, not too cold — the Goldilocks solution to vexed Internet policy issues.

Just to be churlish, we can also note that Shaw’s plan to convert analog tv channels to digital ones is not a bright, new idea. It is long overdue and coincides with the mandatory switch over to digital broadcasting for the rest of the broadcasting system in August 2011. Shaw’s acceptable use policies are also just as abhorent as they have always been, setting out

  • restrictions on what people can and cannot do with their Internet connections.
  • broad assertions of its authority to act on behalf of copyright claims a
  • its right to make ‘editorial judgments’ about all kinds of content hosted on and moving through its pipes.
  • and to own user created content.

Shaw has moved the ball forward and we should not only hope, but push to have at least the minimum bar it has set met by the remaining ‘big five’ ISPs in Canada that control access to roughly 95 percent of Canadian subscribers: Bell, Rogers, Quebecor, Telus and Cogeco.

The advances so far did not come from the good graces of Shaw. They came from an extraordinary confluence of pressure that has been put on Shaw and all of Canada’s ISPs with greater and greater intensity over the past four to five years.

The three most significant pressures shaping the flow of events are probably:

  • Open Media and the massive public that it helped to mobilize;
  • the ‘tweet’ in the night by then Industry Minister Tony Clement scolding the CRTC for its UBB decision in January of this year and the upcoming hearings to be held by the CRTC this July into the matter which have ensued partially as a result;
  • and crucially, the pressure from investment bankers, who saw mounting public anger and the threat of regulation as a potential danger to Shaw and the others’ bottom line and their ability to raise capital.

Ultimately, while we should appreciate what Shaw’s announcement has put on the table, this should not divert our attention from the fact that much remains. Nor should it give Shaw a free pass when it comes to the CRTC’s upcoming hearings on vertical integration.

“The Death of the Music Industry” in Canada and other Copyright Myths

The following is my column for the Globe and Mail today, with the addition of a few links here and there. I am fully alert to the fact that this is a very, very touchy subject, not least because musicians and artists are at the centre of the debate, but have been, other than a few megastars, the least to benefit financially from either conditions in the past, or those that prevail today.

Those interested in the topic might find my previous two posts of interests in this regard: the first one looks at the ‘methods’ involved in assessing the state of the music industry. It ends with the crucial proviso that we can collect “all the evidence in the world but still be morally stupid because you’ve thrown the artists and musicians amongst us under the bus”. In other words, this is not just about fun and games, but real people trying to make a real living.

That said, however, I am skeptical of the claims typically made on behalf the ‘music industry’, and equally circumspect that the interests of musicians are interchangeable with those of ‘the suits’ in the business. For those who want to hear something similar from somebody ‘inside the biz’, and who really knows his stuff, look at Bob Lefsetz’s newsletter.

Thanks to Bob, I’m listening to two great bands right now: Fleet Foxes and Mumford & Sons. It’s all about the music, being good, nay great, at what you do, and crucially the fans, those who adore your stuff and rave about you to others.

The second of these two posts sets out the idea that the music industry was in many fundamental ways the offspring of rivalry between the telegraph giant Western Union and then snarly upstart Bell Telephone Company in the late-1870s and 1880s. If rivalry between ‘network technologies’ gave birth to the music industry in the late-19th century, I think it is unlikely that ‘network technologies’ like the Internet and P2P are going to lead to their demise in the 21st century. History, in short, may be a useful and sturdy guide for thinking through the issues now in front of us.

Now, I’ll turn to the slightly revised/extended version of my column from today.

For more than a decade, the music industry in Canada, and globally, has been cast as being in dire straits — a portent of things to come for all media in the ‘digital age’, unless copyright laws are updated soon to combat illegal downloading.

The notoriety of file-sharing networks from Napster in the late-1990s, to Pirate Bay and the meting out of stiff punishment to Limewire is legendary. New sites emerge as swiftly as old ones are prosecuted out of business, fueling perceptions that the music industry is under siege.

Many claim this will only get worse as broadband Internet becomes a taken-for-granted fixture of everyday life. Copyright legislation has been proposed three times since 2005 by Conservative and Liberal governments alike.

Last year’s effort, The Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-32), died when the election was called. It’ll be back. The Conservative’s election manifesto said it would be.

The Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA), backed by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI), argues that legislation delayed is justice denied. While Parliament dithers, they say, musicians and the music industry are getting slaughtered.

According to the IFPI, “overall music sales fell by around 30 per cent between 2004 and 2009” worldwide. The trend in Canada appears even worse, with “recorded music sales” plunging to a third of what they were in 2004, as the following figure shows.

‘Recorded Music Industry’ Revenues in Canada, 1998 – 2010

Source: Statistics Canada; PriceWaterhouseCooper.

But stop the music. What if this image of a beleaguered music industry is badly flawed?

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Canada in the Minority on Vertical Integration, UBB

My second column for the online edition of the Globe and Mail, was just published tonight. 

The article picks up on recent trends with respect to media and Internet concentration in Canada and which came to head last week as Bell, Shaw, Quebecor, Rogers, Netflix, the Canadian Media Production Association, Open Media and hundreds of others filed documents detailing the stance they will take at crucial CRTC hearings on vertical integration and Usage-Based Billing in June and July.

This entry repeats the story with a few additional links and two additional figures to fill out the picture presented in the Globe and Mail version: the first illustrates the growth of the ‘network media economy’ over the past quarter of a century and the second shows concentration trends across eight segments of the media, telecoms and Internet industries between 1984 and 2008.

At stake in the upcoming hearings is control over a set of industries – what I call the ‘network media industries’ – that have grown immensely from $42.3 billion in revenue to nearly $74 billion between 1996 and 2009 (adjusted for inflation), as the following figure shows:

Figure 1: The Growth of the Network Media Economy in Canada, 1984-2009*

Also at stake is whether the ‘business models’ of the dominant telecom and media giants or the open and decentralized principles of the Internet and digital media will set the course of development in the decades ahead.

Lastly, the issues are also fundamentally about media concentration, a hotly contested subject that is as important as it has ever been, but one that is usually compromised by a lack of evidence. Consequently, fiery debates typically take place in a vacuum and closely track ideology rather than evidence.

To take one example, the existence of 500 ISPs suggests a highly competitive market. CRTC data, however, point in the opposite direction, with the ‘old’ telephone or cable providers serving 95% of subscribers and the ‘big six’ alone accounting for three quarters of the market: Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Telus, Quebecor, Cogeco.

My own data shows that concentration climbed sharply between 1996 and 2004, and has stayed remarkably flat ever since, with over two-thirds of Internet access revenues going to the ‘big six’. While not quite as high as the CRTC’s figures, the upshot is still a few players competing in oligopolistic markets.

The problem with the CRTC’s data is three-fold: it focuses only on the top four or five players. It is presented inconsistently from one year to the next. It relies on information that it refuses to disclose. Last year, I filed several Access to Information requests to obtain this data, but was refused each step of the way.

I did so as the lead Canadian participant on the International Media Concentration Research Project – a project led by Eli Noam, a renowned Professor of Economics and Finance, and media expert, at Columbia University. The project includes more than forty researchers from across the political spectrum who are systematically collecting data for every sector of the telecom, media and Internet industries since 1984.

So, what does the evidence for Canada show?

First, that each sector of the media is concentrated by standard measures. Second, that patterns follow a U-shape, with concentration falling in the 1980s, rising sharply from the mid-1990s until peaking in the early 2000s, and staying relatively flat since then. Third, that concentration is high by global standards and more than twice as high than in the US. The trends are shown in the figure below:

Figure 2: Media, Telecom and Internet Concentration, 1984-2008 (Concentration Ratios)

These trends have been encouraged for several reasons. First, there can be no doubt that the Internet has vastly expanded the range of expression available, but this reality often overshadows the fact that several core aspects of the Internet are prone to concentration (e.g. ISPs, search, social networking sites, etc.) and that the biggest players now control an ever-expanding stable of outlets.

Formal rules on media concentration were adopted for the first time in 2008 by the CRTC and this is a far cry better than none at all. However, by using the same criteria used to regulate banking and granting frequent exceptions, the rules are weak and detached from the values of free speech and democracy.

Second, there is too much deference to claims that the traditional media are ‘in crisis’. Such claims are generally false (see here).

In fact, ‘old media’ such as television have grown impressively and new media markets have been a boon for established players. The vast majority (95%) of Internet access revenue ($6.5 billion), for instance, goes straight to the incumbents’ bottom-line.

Companies that have crashed and burned, notably Canwest, were actually profitable. However, saddled with debt, it could not weather the short-term decline in revenues caused by the global financial crisis and forced into bankruptcy in 2009-2010.

Third, the myth that Canada’s small media market requires big players with deep pockets further underpins consolidation. However, Canada has the eighth largest network media economy in the world, after France and Italy and just ahead of South Korea and Spain.

Independent ISPs, tv channel owners (the Weather Channel), online video providers (Netflix) and others have consistently claimed that the big players use their dominant positions to crush competition. The CRTC, despite its own analysis, however, has failed to deal with media concentration head-on. The Harper Government’s directives to rely on “market forces to the maximum extent feasible” have further disarmed the regulator.

These issues will no doubt come to a head during the vertical integration and Usage-Based Billing hearings. Yet, there is every reason to be skeptical about what can be accomplished given that this is a classic case of “bolting the barn door after the horse has already left the stable”. Industry Minister Tony Clement’s recent declaration that vertical integration is the way of the future further reinforces the perception.

This is not the way of the future, however, but of a discredited past. In the U.S., for instance, the fully integrated multimedia conglomerate has become the exception (e.g. Comcast/NBC-Universal) after the disastrous AOL Time Warner merger, the break-up of Viacom-CBS, and collapse of the ‘old’ AT&T. Indeed, the reign of sprawling media conglomerates is in retreat in almost every other developed capitalist democracy.

With events in Canada running counter to trends elsewhere, it is time to think about breaking-up Bell/CTV, Shaw/Global (Corus), Rogers/City-TV and Quebecor/TVA (Sun TV) into two separate parts: network infrastructure and content services. This is called ‘structural separation’ and under this scenario these entities would become wholesalers of network facilities and retailers of their own content and services.

They would sell access to their networks to other content providers and ISPs on equal terms. This would give them an incentive to increase revenues by intensifying the use of their networks by others instead of by prioritizing services and content they own. Over a century of experience teaches a simple rule: when allowed to combine network ownership with the content delivered over them, incumbents will always confer advantages on themselves that they deny to others.

Steps to address this reality are already in place in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Sweden. There may be circumstances in Canada that require unique adaptations of the separations principle. However, only by hiving off control over the medium (networks) from control over the message (content) will innovation, competition, free speech and an open network media ecology trump the incumbents’ vested interests and dogma.

Telus Hearing Angels?

The other day I posted that Telus stands apart from the other dominant integrated telecom and media giants in Canada — Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor and Cogeco — on several grounds.

First, that while it has Usage Based Billing and bandwidth caps on the books, it has yet to implement them — although it has just announced plans to do so. If it does, it will be in the same league as the rest of the incumbents. Until then, there is still a chance that it will back down.

Second, unlike the other ‘big 5’, it is not a fully-integrated media conglomerate. It does not own broadcasting or other major ‘content’ services.

Third, it is opposed to vertical integration because companies that own the ‘medium’ and the ‘message’ lock up content in ways that are anti-competitive and against open networks. It is already encountering the difficulties that that entails in its attempts to gain programs for its IPTV, mobile tv services, etc.

Today, Telus filed documents for the upcoming CRTC hearings on vertical integration outlining that opposition. It is worthwhile to read. Here’s a link and another.

The following quote from Telus press release announcing its position gets to the thrust of its position:

“The unprecedented concentration of market power in the broadcasting sector created by the common ownership of programming services and distribution platforms requires regulatory safeguards to protect consumers . . . . The potential for abuse of market power is real and the risk to consumers is significant. Without proper regulatory safeguards consumers could soon be facing increased costs and reduced choice in their TV viewing options.” Michael Hennessy, senior vice-president Regulatory and Government Affairs at TELUS.

To be sure, unless it renounces plans for UBB, bandwidth caps and to stop throttling P2P services and OVP (online video providers), Telus is certainly nowhere being on the side of the Angels. However, it has gone part way down the right path, and in so doing, broken ranks with the others who simply see the Internet as a threat and merely an adjunct to their ‘business models’ when useful.

Conservative Election Platform and the “Nothing New” Digital Economy Policy

The Conservatives released their election platform this morning. The news with respect to those looking for something with respect to broadband Internet development and digital media policy?  Nothing new.

For those looking to see some shift in policy direction that might increase broadband Internet development, greater competition and anything else that has led to the uproar over Usage Based Billing, bandwidth caps and the pay-per Internet model, the document offers little.  No measures are offered to foster greater competition, such as setting aside spectrum for new wireless entrants, encouraging greater foreign ownership, or regulatory reforms so that the CRTC can better address problems of media, telecoms and Internet concentration. Instead, it is business as usual: the maximum reliance on market forces possible.

Nothing new is on the table with respect to broadband Internet development, although existing commitments of spending $225 million over the next five years to help fund the extension of such capabilities to 200,000 rural and remote households are maintained (see page 65).

The Quebec Government’s budget, in contrast, adopted last month announced spending of $900 million between now and 2020 to extend broadband Internet to all Quebecers and, in particular, the 290,000 households in Quebec alone theat currently do not have access to broadband Internet capabilities. In other words, the Conservative platform not only lowballs broadband development relative to, say, Australia, Britain, France, Finland, Korea, Japan and the U.S., it pales in comparison to actions taken by one province: Quebec.

No commitments are made to anything that looks like Network Neutrality, either.

In terms of copyright and digital media policy, nothing new here either, except a promise that a majority Conservative Government will reintroduce and pass quickly the Copyright Modernization Act that died when the election was called. That Act, as others have pointed out, has some very important beneficial qualities, such as formalizing fair use provisions and allowing individuals to create copies of digital content for their personal use across various platforms, i.e. computers, digital music players, tv, and computers.

The Copyright Modernization Act, however, has two fatal flaws: (1) provisions requiring ISPs to function as copyright cops and (2) the outlawing of attempts to undo digital locks that tie media content to specific devices.

Requiring ISPs to function as digital cops is a problem because it puts them on the slippery slope of playing the role of gatekeeper in the digital media environment. Preventing people’s attempts to undo digital locks is also problematic because it prevents people from using the freedom to make personal copies of digital content for their own purposes across different devices/platforms. In other words, digital locks and the content industries’ ability to lock content to specific devices trumps users’ rights to enjoy media content they have legally acquired across whatever platforms they choose to use.

With respect to a few other matters central to cultural policy, the election platform holds the line. For one, the CBC is not mentioned at all, thus sparing it from what some see as a Government hostile to the public broadcaster. This could be a good thing in the face of persistent worries that the Conservatives have a hidden ‘scorched earth’ approach to the CBC and all things cultural policy.

The Canadian Media Fund and Canadian Periodical Fund are also mentioned, without either new commitments made or drastic cutbacks. Thus, rather than slashing the CBC and gutting programs and funding mechanisms designed to foster the development of media content, the Conservatives appear set to maintain the status quo.

All-in-all, the Conservative election platform lays out an underwhelming approach in light of the magnitude of issues in front of us. Despite grandstanding by both PM Harper and Industry Minister Clement in the face of the massive uproar over the January 25 UBB decision by the CRTC, nothing at all is offered that suggests relief or that such considerations are central to the Conservative’s digital media policy. That, in turn, seems to be more rhetoric than substance, a mantra invoked in the hope that some of the pixie dust associated with digital media can transform Conservatives into hipsters. That is definitely not the case.

Two Open Broadband Internet Proposals vs the Pay-per Internet Model

Two new research papers released in the past week add insight into the Usage-Based Billing (UBB) debate in Canada, or what I have been calling the evolution of the pay-per Internet model. The papers are by Michael Geist, the University of Ottawa law professor, and by Bill St. Arnaud, the Chief Research Officer for CANARIE for 15 years (until 2010) and a telecoms engineer. Geist’s paper can be found here, while St. Arnaud’s paper is here.

Both papers were commissioned by Netflix, in light of the fact that developments in Canada are sucking it and others such as Google, Apple, and so forth deeper and deeper into digital media policy issues. All are becoming fixtures in CRTC proceedings. Both papers bear one significant subtle influence of this sponsorship (as I will discuss briefly below), but other than that provide extremely valuable help wading through the technological, economic and regulatory issues surrounding the UBB debates.

Geist and St. Arnaud are both convinced that the CRTC’s plan to revisit it’s January 25th UBB decision that ignited the firestorm over the pay-per Internet model in Canada is far from sufficient. As Geist indicates, a whole series of decisions over the past few years will have to be revisited and the regulator and policy-makers are going to have to deal head-on with the fact that underlying these problems is a heavily concentrated market for Internet access in Canada. I feel similarly, and have laid out the ‘long march’ to the pay-per Internet model in an earlier post.

Playing on earlier decisions regarding the incumbent telecom and cable companies use of technical measures to ‘throttle’ different types of Internet uses that they argue put excessive strain on their networks — the so-called Internet Traffic Management Practices — Geist’s first proposal is for a series of what he brands IBUMPs (Internet Billing Usage Management Practices). The basic gist of which is to make the incumbents’ billing practices for Internet services easy to understand and reasonable when it comes to so-called excess usage charges.

His second set of proposals aim to promote greater competition in the Internet access market. This includes allowing more foreign competitors to enter Canada.

It also involves allowing smaller ISPS and Content Distribution Networks (see below) more scope to interconnect with the incumbents’ networks much deeper in the network and closer to subscribers’ homes (especially the cable companies, who have dragged their heels on this matter for more than a decade). Finally, it means cultivating a greater role for alternative Internet access providers, from city-owned networks, to cooperatively run ISPS, as well as expanding the role of provincial and federal broadband development programs.

As an interesting aside, the Liberal Party’s platform announced on April 2nd as part of the current federal election campaign effectively doubled the commitment that the Liberals would put into expanding broadband networks in remote and rural areas compared to the modest $225 million announced by the Conservatives in 2009. The Quebec Government went even further in the 2011-12 budget passed in March, where it announced that it will invest around $900 million in bringing very high speed Internet access to all Quebecois (see here at pages E.93-96; also see St. Arnaud).

It did not specify the exact capacities of the network, but its references to similar plans in Australia, France, Finland and the US suggest that the bar is high, probably around 100 MBps. Neither the Liberal Party’s election platform nor even the much more ambitious Quebec Government’s scheme are equivalent to or the same as Australia’s National Broadband Company initiative, and nor should they be.

However, they do underscore (1) the under-development of broadband Internet in Canada, (2) the lack of competition offered by the current market, and (c) a willingness to rely on a variety of providers, from the traditional incumbents, to municipalities and provincial governments to improve on the situation at hand. They also suggest that Geist’s proposals, far from pie-in-the-sky, are grounded and with some real, even if tentative support in some crucial quarters.

Bill St. Arnaud’s paper also offers much food for thought and complements Geist’s paper very well. He makes three key points.

First, the massive growth of video online is not necessarily causing congestion. Huh?  How could this be, with clear evidence that the growth of video traffic has been stupendous, ranging from 50 to 100 percent per year and with continued high rates of growth expected in the next few years ahead?

This is because sources responsible for this massive increase are increasingly turning to Content Distribution Networks that, basically, bypass the public Internet and deliver their content as close to their subscribers as possible. These so-called Content Distribution Networks are not only being deployed by outfits such as Netflix, but other large Internet content and service providers, from Amazon, to Google and Facebook. The basic point is that they take traffic off the network for much of the distance a message has to travel.

Second, to the extent that congestion is a problem, this is an outcome of decisions made by the incumbent telecom and cable companies about how to apportion the capacity of their network. As Geist quips in his paper, the ‘chicken roasting channel’ recently introduced by Rogers, for instance, is just so much bandwidth allocated to that ‘service’ rather than to the Internet.

Third, and this is where I think St. Arnaud has an amazingly powerful and clear point, the incumbent telecom and cable companies — the ‘big six’, as I have called them: Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Videotron and Cogeco — appear to have no problem with congestion when it comes to launching their own video content services delivered over the internet, e.g. CTV.ca, globaltv.ca, TVA.ca, etc. Congestion is only caused by other providers’ video services.

Lurking in the background of all this is that we’ve seen this all before. A few years ago, P2P/file-sharing and music downloading sites were the culprit; now the target is online video services. The cable companies have been especially remiss in dragging their feet for a dozen years or more on allowing independent ISPs to access their distribution infrastructure. Despite being required to do so before the turn-of-the-century, the cable cos have thrown one obstacle after another in the path of ISPs requiring last mile access through cable facilities to gain access to subscribers.

All said and done, Geist and St. Arnaud’s paper respectively do a great service. They are timely interventions that help us understand the issues at hand and, if successful, they may help to frame the debates that take place at the hearings that the CRTC has scheduled to revisit the UBB decision in June.

However, we should not hold our breadth on that, and in that regard these papers do a real good job at holding the regulator’s feet to the fire (see my earlier post on this point). The CRTC has a very broad remit to regulate in these matters, as the Telecommunications Act (1993) (sec. 27 (5)) makes clear, but has chosen to draw the proverbial camel through the eye of the needle. With the magnitude of the issues at stake, this is unacceptable.

However, I also think that both papers need to go even further in at least four ways. First, both papers make claims about the highly concentrated state of the telecom, cable and Internet access markets in Canada, but offer little to no data to illustrate and support these claims. Good quality data is now available on these points and they should use it.

Second, both papers focus on the UBB issue, or what in regulatory parlance is now called an economic measure for managing congestion on the Internet. However, the CRTC’s Internet Traffic Management Practices decision (2008) sets out a hierarchy of preferences for dealing with such problems when they can be shown to exist: (1) network investment, (2) economic measures such as UBB, and (3) technological measures, aka throttling.

Neither paper says much, if anything, about the top priority: network investment. Why? At between 15-18 percent of revenues, current levels of investment in their networks by the big six is low by historical and global comparative standards (although in line with similarly low levels in the U.S.). And this despite the fact that the Internet represents a massive new source of revenue ($6.5 billion in 2010).

Third, neither paper pushes as hard as they might on how the use of UBB and the allocation of network capabilities by the incumbents to their own services may constitute a form of “unjust discrimination”. The issue is not totally ignored by any means, but I think it could be pushed further and that doing so is important not just to the question of whether or not we’re going to be stuck with a highly concentrated Internet market and the pay-per Internet model in Canada, but concentration across the whole sweep of the network media ecology, from traditional media to the Internet.  Let me explain. I’ll conclude by returning to my fourth point.

Insofar that these papers deal with ‘unjust discrimination’ they seem to have in mind section 27 of the Telecommunications Act that specifically outlaws such practices. It is a good victory to be had, if it can be had. And the CRTC has, as I stated above, much discretion in how it goes about making such determinations. To the extent that it has chosen to blinker itself is a problem of the first order.

However, it may be possible to go even further and look to the next clause of the Telecommunications Act, section 28, that specifically makes the issue of discriminating between video services, or broadcasting as such things were known when the act was written nearly 20 years ago, a matter of potential concern. Indeed, the CRTC has enormous authority under this section to deal with the issue of discrimination while meeting other objectives of the Broadcasting Act.

Herein, however, may lay the rub, given that both of the papers being discussed here were funded by Netflix, and the last thing that it and other services like it (read: Google, Apple, etc.) want is to be defined as broadcasting services, which could happen if we were to assign the ‘online video distributor’ label on them like the FCC and Dept of Justice did recently in the US in relation to the Comcast/NBC merger.

I, too, am very leery about slapping the label of broadcaster on such entities because of all that would mean with respect to CanCon rules and the like. The CRTC has always indicated that it believes that it has the authority to regulate online video distributors under the Broadcasting Act (see its seminal 1999 new media decision here), but up to now has not seen Internet television services as being significant enough and too experimental to actually do so.

The question of whether ISPs could also be brought under the purview of broadcasting regulations so that, just like cable and Direct-to-Home satellite providers, they too could be required to contribute to funding and displaying CanCon has also been hotly contested. That route seemed to be foreclosed by a Federal Court of Appeal decision in 2010, but that too has now been appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Now, the incumbents en masse are pushing hard to have OVDs like Netflix, Apple and Google regulated as broadcasters just like their own broadcasting-related services. The irony here is that for Netflix to push its case on UBB as hard as possible, adding some water to its wine by accepting some such designation could go a very long way to putting a stop to the discriminatory practices that are now hobbling its access to Canadian subscribers.

While this is far beyond the scope of what I can say here, perhaps a new designation along the OVD line devised in the US might be imported into Canada for just such purposes. That would mean distinct treatment from broadcast television in general, but also some obligations to open up their services to Canadian media creators.

It might also allow a much more forceful push against the anti-discrimination rules of not just one section of the Telecommunications Act, but both sections 27 and 28. Done right, this need not ‘trap’ new players like Netflix in the maw of outmoded aspects of the Broadcasting Act. Instead, it could potentially help to usher in an entirely new media model where all of the bits and pieces that make up the traditional media model are disassembled and reassembled anew in light of the realities of the digital network media industries in the 21st century.

And finally to return to my fourth critique of the Geist and St. Arnaud papers. Both papers target the upcoming UBB decision. This is great, but I think it might be helpful to try and kill two birds with one stone by putting another potentially even more important upcoming regulatory review in their sights: namely, the CRTC’s hearings scheduled for June 2011 on vertical integration.

The ‘vertical integration’ hearings were scheduled late last year but given added impetus when the CRTC approved Bell’s acquisition of CTV last month. The idea of holding such hearings reflects the fact that Canada now also has the dubious honour of standing alone in the extent to which fully-integrated media conglomerates have become the norm. In the U.S., the fully integrated media conglomerate has become the exception (e.g. Comcast/NBC-Universal) after the disastrous AOL Time Warner merger and is pretty much in retreat in almost every other developed capitalist democracy.

There is indeed every reason to be very skeptical about these hearings given that they are a classic case of “bolting the barn door after the horse has already left the stable”. However, given that the use of UBB is completely tangled up with the crucial question of whether or not the “big six” media conglomerates in Canada — Bell, Shaw, Videotron, Rogers, Shaw, Telus (the latter to a lesser extent) — are using the pay-per Internet model to disadvantage competitors and to protect their own traditional television services, as well as their recently-minted internet video services, we must keep our eyes on the full range of big issues before us.

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