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Dead Horses and Internet Policy: the CRTC’s Usage-Based Billing and Vertical Integration Decisions as Lost Opportunities

I wanted to write you a short blog post, but I postponed and pondered, and so wrote a long one instead (with apologies to Mark Twain).

Some things fundamentally constitute the media landscape, and the CRTC’s vertical integration and Usage Based Billing (UBB) decisions in the last two months are two such instances. In each case, the bar was set low and delivered a wee bit of something for everyone, the decisive affect being to disrupt vested telecom, broadcasting and Internet players (often one and the same thing) and the status quo as little as possible.

It took me this long to fully appreciate that the key is not to understand what these decisions did, but rather what they did not do. Lesson number one when reading regulation: never trim your sails to the low bar set by CRTC and vested stake-holders.

Lesson two: don’t get lost in the underbrush of techno-economic mumbo jumbo that inevitably serves in these situations to shroud the interests and stakes involved in mystery, and to bash any meaningful whole into an indiscriminate heap of technical details without context or sense of the big sweep of things.

The vertical integration deal could have been about many things, but was mainly about whether or not the big four — Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Quebecor (QMI) – would be able lock down access to broadcast content for the 3rd and 4th screens (that’s fancy cyber-talk for the Internet and smart wireless portable devices). The big four argued that they should be able to leverage control over their own content and platforms for competitive advantage however they see fit. This is the way of the world, the Schumpeterian clash of goliaths versus goliaths that drives capitalism forward, they said.

The CRTC said no, or at least not entirely, and this is a good thing because it means that Telus, MTSAllstream, SaskTel and Wind, for example, can buy access to programming from CTV, Global, City, TVA and the more than 120 other TV channels the big four conglomerates own between them. Control over content – sports content especially – cannot be used by the vertically integrated telecom-media-Internet (TMI) behemoths to squash competition with Telus, Sasktel, Wind, Public, Mobilicity, said the CRTC. This was and is a good thing.

The CRTC also put an end to block-booking arrangements where channels were sold in bundles to carriers, called for greater choice in pricing for consumers, and let the big four keep exclusive rights for content they produce specifically for the 3rd or 4th screens. In contrast, Hollywood was forced to abandon block-booking of films in theatres in 1948. The end of block-booking was brought to the Canadian television universe by the CRTC sixty-three years later. Something for everyone, you could say.

Sorry if I am not impressed. Power is not about who wins and loses, and scattered compromises, but how the issues are framed, and by whom, and the ideological buy-in needed to get there. The vertically-integration ruling is mainly a compromise to a clash among the incumbent telecom and broadcasting titans, with the CRTC shoring up faulty markets for bandwidth, content rights and access to audiences. This is systems maintaining not disrupting regulation.

It is okay as far it goes, but the CRTC dealt with trans-media concentration with the weakest tools at its disposal, other than doing nothing at all. Independent tv and film producers, as well as media unions concerned about declining conditions of work within the consolidated Canadian media industries came away empty handed.

Fundamental principles within the Telecommunications Act (1993) (secs. 27, 28 and 36) that require network and content providers to be treated equally and in a non-discriminatory fashion are ignored. The possibility that rival OVDs — Netflix, YouTube, Apple – might be given access to networks and platforms on terms equivalent to those that Bell, Rogers, Shaw and QMI give to their own online video services is not even broached. The possibility that people might have a “freedom to connect” that supersedes the Netcos’ right to manage their networks as they see fit is unthinkable from within the CRTC’s constipated view of the world.

Michael Geist, however, thought that such issues might be taken up in the UBB decision. They were not.

The UBB decision sets the record for making a molehill out of a mountain. While it stresses the principle of equality between telephone and cable companies, it has precious little to say about equality between them, on the one side, and rival ISPs and OVDs, on the other. For most people, it is a change that will likely come and go without much notice (see below).

The ruling recognizes the fast growth in online video use, but does little to insure that bandwidth is available at levels and prices consistent with current and projected growth. It is in many ways cultural policy by stealth insofar that universal bandwidth caps reinforce the incumbent telecom and broadcasting companies’ – Bell/CTV, Shaw/Global, Rogers/City, QMI/TVA – custodianship over the “integrity of the Canadian broadcasting system”, discouraging the use of rival OVDs such as Netflix along the way.

Interestingly, the only one standing outside this corporate media love-fest is the CBC, the most innovative of all of Canada’s broadcasters when it comes to podcasts, streaming video, the use of BitTorrent, and so on.

Canadians are the world’s most extensive online video users, so these are important issues. The following chart illustrates that “real-time entertainment” (TV, YouTube, Porn) now accounts for the biggest proportion of Internet traffic for significant periods of the day. Downplaying the vital significance of this issue, as the CRTC’s UBB decision does (and the vertical integration hearing before it), is irresponsible, if not deliberately deceptive.

To be sure, Shaw and Telus have raised their bandwidth caps over the past six months, and Bell has reigned in its use of P2P throttling, all of which recognize, at least in part, the steep growth in online video. More importantly, though, these changes may be the most important outcome of the political firestorm unleashed since last January when Canadians discovered that they had been dragooned into a pay-per model of the Internet over the last five years.

The lesson? Want change? Don’t go to the regulator; go to the streets, like OpenMedia did, with half-a-million people in tow.

The CRTC’s assumptions about bandwidth use as the basis of the two pricing models adopted by its UBB ruling – the existing flat rate model and new ‘capacity-based model – appear to be far less then more capacious limits recently put in place at Shaw and Telus, and behind global best practices further yet.

They are wildly out of synch with the illustration above created by the deep-packet inspection equipment maker Sandvine, too. When Sandvine talks about the appropriateness of using price and bandwidth caps to “discipline users”, it imagines a scenario where users have 200GB caps per month for peak use, and unlimited use thereafter (see p. 5). Putting aside the unsavoury language of using technology and prices to discipline how people use the Internet, these numbers are multiple times higher than the 40-60 GB per month that the CRTC’s UBB decision seems to assume.

Other than in the most abstract of ways, there are no real world examples of how Canadians use the Internet or how online video distributors (OVDs) such as Apple, Netflix and Youtube might be affected by the CRTC’s UBB decision. Yet, the UBB decision is cultural policy, even if it refuses to identify itself as such, protecting incumbent telecom and broadcasting players, on the one hand, stifling people’s everyday cultural production and consumption in the online, network media ecology, on the other.

The CRTC obscures questions about online media use by casting the remit of the UBB proceedings in resolutely narrow terms and shrouded in a thicket of dense language that only a technocrat can appreciate. Its headline achievement is the wholly uninspiring creation of a wholesale pricing framework based on the existing flat rate model for any Netco that wants it (Shaw, SaskTel, Telus)  and a new “capacity-based model” for those who asked for it (Bell, Rogers, QMI, Cogeco, MTSAllstream).

The two options and the ability to buy bandwidth in 100 Mbps blocks will give independent ISPs more flexibility in terms of how they package and price their services. For 94 percent of Internet users, however, the decision will have little impact.

They will continue to be saddled with the pay-per Internet model and bandwidth caps that Bell began foisting on them in late-2006, with other incumbents following in its footsteps ever since. The decision not only leaves this model intact, but girds it.

With increased flexibility, some indy-ISPs will be able to offer stripped-down services to low-end Internet users at cheaper prices. While 1.5 Mbps Internet service no longer serves as a target for Internet development anywhere, a cynic might say that this so-called flexibility at least adds to the chances that there will be an el cheapo Internet option for the poorest among us.

The CRTC doesn’t want to talk about how its decisions fit into questions of accessibility and usabililty, however. Be that as it may, there is a large broadband Internet access divide in Canada, and it is a class divide.

Household Internet use closely tracks income, as the chart below shows, with those at the top of the income scale (98%) nearly twice as likely to use the Internet from home as those at the bottom (52%). Or to put this another way, between one-fifth and one-half of households on the first three rungs of the income ladder do not have Internet access. Only the wealthiest in the top twenty percent have near universal access.

Source: 2010 Canadian Internet Use Survey, Business Special Surveys and Technology Statistics Division, Statistics Canada.

Some argue that the importance of the Internet to all aspects of our lives means that we should expand our understanding of communication rights to include “freedom of expression, freedom of connection” via the Internet. The CRTC and those who it regulates would undoubtedly see any such talk as heresy.

On a less prosaic level, there will be pricing and packages galore under the new wholesale pricing regime; probably to the point of confusion. While it is conceivable that some low-end Internet users may benefit, for mid-range, high-speed Internet services prices will likely rise 25 percent relative to comparable services now.

Indy ISPs will also be under more pressure to manage their subscribers’ use and to push high bandwidth real-time entertainment video use into off peak hours. This pressure will become more intense over time as online video use continues to explode. Daytime soaps or early a.m. World of Warcraft, anyone?

Overall, prices for Internet services for all users in Canada will continue to be high relative to relevant global standards. Whereas the tendency in countries that we’d probably like to emulate is for bandwidth to increase steeply and prices to fall gently, in Canada, bandwidth availability and prices are both going up, with some companies (Telus and Shaw) seeming to do a better job than most.

Canada will continue to retain the dubious distinction of being among just three advanced capitalist democracies – Australia, Iceland and New Zealand – where bandwidth caps are low and near universal in coverage. In 2010, by contrast, twenty other OECD countries had no data caps at all. Elsewhere, bandwidth caps were one option among several. In Spain, just two of twelve broadband providers surveyed used bandwidth caps, for example (OECD, 2011, p. 275).

At the heart of the UBB decision is the CRTC’s stubborn insistence that Internet access is sufficiently competitive, despite the fact that 94% of users obtain access from the dominant incumbent telephone or cable companies in their city. This stance is decisive because its sets the foundation upon which everything else turns (for the state of media and Internet concentration in Canada, see here).

Because of this position, the new rules do not give maximum, unbundled access to bandwidth and other essential elements that rival ISPs need to serve their subscribers over the incumbents ‘last mile’ links, but the minimal level possible whilst still giving access to network facilities at all. The highly restricted form of network access given to independent ISPs is based on a concept invented out of whole cloth three years ago by the CRTC itself: i.e. “non-essential, conditional mandated access” facilities. There’s no such thing anywhere else in the scholarly literature or the real world, as far as I know.

Under such fairy-tale conditions, concentration disappears and the CRTC ignores the potential to use the much stricter “essential facilities” guideless, let alone functional or structural separation, to foster more competition and more open networks. While these measures are growing in appeal in Europe and have been adopted in Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK (OECD, 2011, pp. 11-44; Benkler, 2010, p. 159), there is little trace of them in either the vertical integration or UBB proceedings.

Under the “essential facilities” guidelines, rival ISPs would be able to acquire access to bandwidth and last mile connections on terms that are equal to those that incumbents’ offer to their own ISPs. The CRTC could also demand much higher levels of information disclosure from the incumbents and use a more transparent process to set the wholesale rates that ISPs will have to pay as a result.

Crucially, the CRTC could cap the wholesale prices that the dominant players charge at “cost + 15 percent”. Instead, the CRTC’s ‘sufficient competition’ standard set rates on the basis of “the individual large cable and telephone companies’ costs to provide the service plus a reasonable markup” (p. 2).

What those costs are, and whether they are reasonable, we’ll never know, because nobody but the CRTC and the incumbents have access to the underlying data used and just what measure of reasonable is used. Indeed, the whole process is erected atop a murky foundation of minimal data disclosure and transparency. This is Internet Policy making in the dark.

The result is a fairy-tale world of the CRTC’s making where dominant market power disappears and wholesale rates appear to be more fiction than anything based on a scrupulous reading of the facts. Bandwidth apparently is cheap and plentiful in Manitoba and more expensive in territories served by Shaw and Telus, while scarce and very expensive in the rest of Canada.

Capacity-Based Model Capacity Rate/100 Mbps Access Rate
MTS Allstream $281 $23.08 (32 Mbps)
Rogers $1,251 $21.00 (25 Mbps)
QMI (Videotron) $1,890 $23.77 (30 Mbps)
Bell $2,213 $25.00 (25 Mbps)
Cogego $2,695 $24.98 (30 Mbs)
Flat-Rate Model Monthly Access Rate/Subscriber
Shaw $21.25 (25 Mbps)
Telus $39.51 (25 Mbps)
Sasktel $53.49 (25 Mbps)
Bell Alliant $30.27 (15 Mbps)

The CRTC attempts to explain away the eight-fold disparity between Bell and MTSAllstream’s prices in a footnote buried in the appendix at the back of the decision by pointing to the simple architecture of the latter’s network relative to Bell’s. I doubt this adequately explains the chasm, but even if it did, then I say give us simple architectures rather than complex TMI conglomerate structures, please.

Still, Bell’s senior vice-president for regulatory and government affairs, Mirko Bibic and QMI’s CEO-hands-on owner Pierre Karl Peladeau have groused about how the CRTC forces them to give discounted rates to rivals. This is simply not true. The wholesale prices set are rate caps not an artificially low floor.

For Bell and QMI (as well as Cogeco), the interesting things is that, left pretty much to their own devices, they put forward prices that look ridiculous relative to those offered by MTSAllstream and Rogers, as well as those who did not ask for the capacity-based rates at all (e.g. Shaw, Telus, SaskTel, Aliant).

Some have suggested that perhaps the CRTC was being shrewd after all, and may have heisted Bell, QMI and Cogeco on their own petard. With Konrad von Finckenstein on his way out the door in January, the idea of a last parting shot at those whose gaming of the regulatory process seems to know no bounds has some appeal.

If this is a game, however, it is too clever by half. Key tools in the regulatory and Internet policy toolkit have been left laying fallow and there is not a mention of common carriage or network neutrality to be found in the UBB ruling, although if there was ever a home for such bedrock principles, this is it. Instead, there are only references to Cabinet Directives and select passages cherry-picked from the objectives of the Telecommunications Act to the effect that the CRTC is to rely on market forces to the maximum extent possible. On this, the UBB and vertical integration rulings are one.

It is not that there were no other options being kicked about in these two rulings. Over the past year, many have emerged with alternative, realistic views of how things could be. It was not just OpenMedia and 500,000 petition signers that blasted the do-over of the user-centric, open Internet into a provider-controlled pay-per Internet model, but many smart people who tossed their ideas into the ring: a former Director General of Telecommunications Policy at Industry Canada (Len St. Aubin), the ex-Chief Knowledge Officer at Canarie (Bill St. Arnaud), popular writers (Peter Nowak), University of Ottawa Canada Research Chair in Law and E-Commerce, Michael Geist, Jean-Francois Mezei (Vaxination Informatique) and respected scholars (David Ellis, Catherine Middleton), make up just a small number of those who offered us much to think about with respect to the issues at hand.

These people did not all read from the same hymn sheet. What they did offer, though, was a set of bright ideas and realistic visions that only seem beyond the pale by the dim lights of what passes as Internet policy and regulation in this country.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source:

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

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?

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 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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