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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.

The Harper Majority, Telecoms Foreign Ownership and Canada as Digital Free Media Haven

Canadians are all a tizzy about what the Harper majority might mean across a whole range of things. There’s a panopoly of issues within the communication and media realm that might be up for quick action: foreign ownership rules, the re-tabling of copyright legislation, the potential regulation of Online Video Providers (OVPs), and the possibility to turn back the tide that his now transforming the Internet in Canada into a pay-per model governed by the incumbent’s ‘business models’, bandwidth caps and UBB.

For now, I want to focus on the first issue: the telecoms foreign ownership rules and the potential that any changes taken in that regard might be harnessed to a bigger project, namely turning Canada in a digital, ‘free media haven’ governed by the highest standards of the networked free press possible (see here and here, as well).

A version of what follows was published in my column for the online version of the Globe & Mail today, so here I will expand on a few of the issues and add a few links, as I usually do.

The Conservatives are well-known for wanting to liberalize the current rules. Academics and consultants such as Michael Geist and Mark Goldberg have also called for greater foreign investment in Canadian telecoms. Most banking analysts feel the same way.

Konrad von Finckenstein, CRTC chief, is also in favour, but frets about how to deal with the slew of integrated telecom-media behemoths that he has recently blessed: Bell Media, Roger Media, Quebecor, Cogeco, Shaw, (but not Telus). In other words, how to open the gates for more foreign investment in telecoms but not broadcasting?

Those in favour of changing the existing rules believe that doing so could usher in more investment in network development, more competition, less bandwidth throttling and far greater consumer choice. The current incumbents who dominate the telecoms, media and Internet markets in Canada would, so many appear to believe, be forced to compete head-on with the big global players – AT&T, France Telecom, T-Mobile, Japan’s NTT, China Telecom – for customers.

The goals are laudable, but are they realistic?

Some suggest that movement on the issue will be slow because the Tories do not have a clear strategy to deal with it. Yet, the Government has had several options on the table since 2006:

  • 1. removing all foreign investment limits;
  • 2. raising the limits from the current twenty percent to just under half;
  • 3. permitting foreign investment only in new companies that have less than 10 percent market share.

The only strategy the Government doesn’t have is keeping the status quo. Expect change soon.

The Government’s Cabinet Directive in 2006 instructing the CRTC to rely on market forces to the maximum extent feasible also tips its hand. Indeed, the Government tried to do an end run around the law through another Cabinet Directive overturning the CRTC’s decision to reject Globalive’s (Wind Mobile) bid to become a new wireless player on the grounds that it was not Canadian owned and controlled, as the Telecommunications Act (sec. 16) demands.

A Federal Court in February stopped that effort in its tracks. At least a formal change to the Telecommunications Act’s foreign ownership rules would have the virtue of bringing the law into conformity with the facts on the ground, i.e. Wind Mobile is up and running.

Even if we assume that allowing greater foreign ownership is a good thing, and I will offer a few more reasons below as to why it could be, many pesky issues remain. For example, what if the Government decides to just go with option #1: Allowing greater access to foreign capital markets for new comers?

The intended beneficiaries, of course, are Wind Mobile, Mobilicity and Public Mobile, but would it also apply to Quebecor, a company that is a newcomer to wireless but well-entrenched across the rest of the media? Somehow that doesn’t seem right.

That raises the larger issue about how to disentangle telecoms from broadcasting? The fact that telecoms and broadcasting are becoming more intertwined is becoming clearer by the day as Netflix gains a stronger footing in Canada and as Google and Apple appear routinely before the CRTC and Parliamentary Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage.

Indeed, when the Americans negotiated the NAFTA and WTO deals they anticipated that digitization would soon dissolve the boundaries between telecoms and broadcasting and bring the ‘cultural industries’ within the reach of the ‘global trade regime’ as a result of ‘technological forces’. MIT scholar Ithiel de Sola Pool argued much the same thing in his 1983 classic, Technologies of Freedom, many years earlier.

Yet we also need to ask if loosening the rules will lead to the outcomes that so many expect? AOL, AT&T and PSiNet were important players in telecoms and the Internet in this country during the dot.com era, but where are they now?

They have long since retreated, collapsed or gone bankrupt. The point being that this is not the rah-rah days of globalization in the late 1990s, but one when foreign investment in telecoms is at a low ebb.

Just as the “old” AT&T was retreating from Canada, it was also selling off a slew of networks across Latin America in the mid-2000s – mostly to Mexico-based TelMex. The trend continues.

Just last month, Deutsche Telekom sold its T-Mobile wireless operator in the U.S. to the resurrected ‘new’ AT&T. Pundits can believe all they want that AT&T, France Telecoms, Deutsche Telekom, NTT, and so on are lining up to enter Canada, but evidence suggests otherwise.

The lesson from T-Mobile is that foreign capital investment is hunkering down rather than trying to conquer the world. As two World Investment Reports from UNCTAD in 2008 and 2010 observe foreign investment and cross-border mergers & acquisitions in telecoms have fallen considerably from their late-1990s peak throughout the decade, and have yet to recover, especially after the ‘crisis of 2008’.

The sale of T-Mobile also reveals that even the massive U.S. wireless market is unable to sustain robust competition. Three players dominate the U.S. wireless market: AT&T, Verizon and a smaller Sprint/Nextel.

In other words, foreign ownership is no sure-shot solution for concentrated telecom, media and Internet markets. In fact, the World Bank’s message since the early 1990s, amongst others, is that foreign capital investment in telecoms only delivers the good when it is properly regulated and used to launch new rivals, rather than to acquire incumbents (i.e. ‘greenfield investment’).

None of this is to say that we should avoid more foreign investment in telecoms. In fact, the history of telecoms in Canada has been bound up with foreign capital since the first telegraph lines linked Toronto to Buffalo and New York in 1846 and the trans-Atlantic cables created a vast Euro-American space of capital, markets, migration and information with Canada at the hub in the 1860s and 1870s.

Today, greater foreign investment could not only be used to increase the availability and use of broadband telecom and Internet services and foster more competition, but as a stepping stone to far-reaching efforts to transform Canada into an open ‘digital media haven’.

New rules would provide an incentive for greater foreign investment, while our cool climate could entice Amazon, Google, Rackspace, Microsoft and others to build their massive ‘data warehouses’ on Canadian soil because it is cheaper to run these energy hungry facilities here than in the United States. Our stronger protections for personal information could put vast stores of data beyond the reach of the U.S. Patriot Act and keep the ‘domain name snatching’ operations of Homeland Security at bay.

Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic Member of Parliament, has similarly proposed to make her country a haven for “digital free speech” – similar to what the Cayman Islands is for banking, but with the higher purpose of advancing human rights, democracy and freedom of expression. Seen from this angle, relaxing foreign ownership rules in Canada could serve as the cornerstone of efforts to foster an open telecom, media and Internet system governed by the highest standards of a networked free press in the world (also see here).

For that to happen, however, the new majority Harper Government will have to embrace openness, freedom of speech and democracy just as firmly as it now has its hands on the levers of the state.

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