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Canada’s Wireless Wars: Bell Media Exec’s Memo to News Directors

Since reports in mid-June that Verizon might be poised to enter the Canadian wireless and mobile phone market, Bell, Rogers and Telus have fought tooth-and-nail against that happening. That opposition, as this post shows, not only includes the full-on public relations assault, but a series of emails from Bell Media President Kevin Crull calling on the telecom and media giant’s news directors to cover a report favourable to the incumbents’ main arguments as well. 

Key elements of this summer’s wireless wars are well-known: Telus has launched a lawsuit against elements of the Government’s wireless policy that prevent the incumbents from acquiring Wind, Mobilicity and Public. Rogers, Bell and Telus have held private meetings with Industry Minister James Moore to plead their case that the Conservative Government’s wireless policy is chock-a-block full of loopholes that give unfair advantages to foreign telecom giants such as Verizon at the expense of Bell, Rogers and Telus — and Canadians. Full page adverts taken out by the incumbents are appearing daily in newspapers across the country in a bid to convince Canadians of the same points. 

BCE CEO George Cope penned an open “Letter to Canadians“; BCE Director Anthony Fell excoriated the Harper Government for its supposedly unfair wireless policy; the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star have editorialized in support of the big three telcos’ position as well; the Canadian Council of Chief Executives took the unusual step to write the Prime Minister in order to do the same. The Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union, the largest union representing telecommunications workers in the country, is also singing from the same page as the big three on this issue. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) — the industry association that represents the collective interests of Bell, Rogers and Telus — has been selectively plucking evidence about cheaper wireless rates in Canada relative to the U.S. while distracting attention from the fact that, relative to the rest of the worldprices for nearly all cell phone service plans in Canada and the U.S. are high. 

So far, however, these tactics appear to have backfired. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Industry Minister James Moore have lambasted the companies’ campaign as dishonest, while pledging to stay the course. The Conservative Party has launched a website to counter the incumbents’ public relations campaign and trumpet the Government’s position. Views opposing the incumbents’ position have also been getting some play as well (see here and here). Canadians also appear open to the idea of a new player such as Verizon entering the market (here). 

While there is certainly room for debate, by and large, Harper, Moore and the incumbents’ critics are correct, and Canadians’ sentiment in the right place. The rules the incumbents are grousing about are neither new, novel, nor filled with loopholes. For well-over a decade the consensus in international circles has been that the more competition in wireless, the merrier. The policy at home has taken some time to catch up with this reality, but the rules now being cast as unfair have been the cornerstones of the Conservative government’s wireless policy since 2007.

The only real differences are that Canada embraced these ideas late in the game relative to others, no doubt due to the incumbent’s intransigence, while foreign ownership rules continue to be far more restrictive in Canada despite last year’s decision by the Government to relax them “for companies that have less than a 10 percent share of the telecommunications market”.  The basic ingredients of the international consensus are straight-forward, although everywhere their introduction has been fiercely contested by incumbents bent on maintaining their dominant market positions:  spectrum set-asides for new entrants, reduced foreign ownership restrictions, network tower sharing agreements and open interconnection rules.

To get a glimpse of the vintage of these basic principles and rules, take a look, for example, at the OECD’s Communication Outlook from 1999 (p. 28), and every volume since then, or the authoritative collection of chapters in William Melody’s edited Telecoms Reform from 1997. I will write more about the finer points of wireless policy in the near future. The point that I want to stress for now, however, is that the big three’s scorched earth approach on this issue is leading to other interests and important principles being thrown under the bus.

Some employees at Rogers and Bell, for instance, report being brow-beaten by managers to email a form letter in support of the companies to the government. More troubling, and a point that has not yet seen the light of day, is a chain of emails originating from Kevin Crull, the President of Bell Media — the largest media enterprise and one of the largest news organizations in the country — calling on news execs and journalists across CTV, CTV2 and local TV channels and radio stations across the country to cover a study that suggests that the state of wireless in Canada is not as bad as its critics claim. A copy of the emails, with the names of non-executives removed, can be found here.

The emails begin by setting out a couple of definitional issues and then distill the two key talking points to be covered: (1) that cellphone rates in Canada have fallen in recent years and (2) that they are generally cheaper than in the US. By the end, the message is clear: “Kevin Crull our President wants us to give this report some coverage….” and “Kevin is asking if this report can get some coverage today on Talk Radio. National news is covering for TV”.

By the time the chain of emails is done, a veritable whose who of BCE’s executive suite have been brought into the loop:  Wendy Freeman, President CTV NEWS; Richard Gray (Head of News, CTV2); Ian Lurie (COO Astral Radio); Kevin Bell (General Manager/Sales Manager CTV Vancouver Island/C-Fax and KOOL FM); Eric Proksch, (VP and GM for Bell Media Radio); Charles Benoit (Astral); Chris Gordon, (President of Radio and Local TV news); Mirko Bibic (Executive VP and Chief  Legal and Regulatory Officer).

Perhaps this is not all that surprising. The stakes are high, given estimated wireless revenues of over $20 billion in 2012. Moreover, with the combined market capitalization of Bell, Rogers and Telus tumbling by roughly $8.4 billion (from $85 billion to $76.6 billion) between June 17 when Steven Chase and Rita Trichur at the Globe and Mail first broached the possibility of Verizon entering the Canadian wireless industry and yesterday, August 26th, the companies are doing whatever it takes to preserve their entrenched dominance of the Canadian wireless market and the bloated market capitalization levels that go along with a cozy oligopoly.

While it is understandable, perhaps, that BCE would deploy its journalistic resources to protect its place within the wireless oligopoly, this is not good for journalism or Canadians. It casts a cloud over the independence of CTV national news as well as news programs across the CTV2 network and Bell Media’s local tv and radio stations across the country. While we know of this particular instance, how many other directives from on high have been sent over not just this issue, but other ones in which Bell sees its interests at stake?

Ultimately, the problem is this: with revenues from wireless, wiredline, Internet, IPTV, cable/satellite services at BCE in 2012 of $17.4 billion, nearly eight times its $2.4 billion in revenues from TV and radio, news is a minor cog in BCE’s corporate machinery. Journalism, in other words, is subservient to the company’s attempts to prop up the value of the ‘transmission’ and technology side of its business.

Perhaps the fact that journalists and the news divisions of such TMI conglomerates will be deployed to protect dominant market positions and capitalization might not be all that surprising, but it should still be concerning to journalists and the rest of us who need them to offer views of the world unvarnished by their corporate overlords. That the execs at BCE and Bell Media news divisions went so cheerily along with Crull’s memo serves neither journalism nor the public well.

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Coders of the World Unite? LulzSec Hits Military-Information-Media-Entertainment (MIME) Complex

At the peak of their notariety, the self-styled hactivist group, Lulzsec, declared today that it was winding down its efforts.

The group of largely unknown maruaders had defaced, defiled and otherwise disabled websites and ‘network operations’ of a number of high profile targets: Sony Pictures Entertainment, Disney, EMI, the U.S. Congress, US Navy, the CIA’s public website and other targets in the defense industries such as Lockheed Martin.

It is this ensemble of state-media and entertainment companies-telecoms-military firms that the theorist James DerDerian calls the Military-Information-Media Entertainment, or MIME complex. These are the entities that LulzSec has had in their targets, unhappy with journalistic coverage of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, outraged that people can’t remix big media content at will, and convinced that murky links across the MIME complex undermine open flows of information.

I can’t claim to know a ton about this MIME stuff, but regularly read those who do. The Open Network Initiative at UT led up by Ron Diebert in cooperation with others at SecDev in Ottawa. James DeDerian, as I said, is also very good.

The basic point that they make is that it is is useful to pay attention to the intersection of networked media technologies, entertainment and security. That’s exactly what LulzSec has accomplished; forced us to pay attention to these things, if nothing else.

Their logo is way cool — a Digital Robber Baron who looks suspiciously like his rapacious 19th century counterparts such as the reviled Jay Gould.

LulzSec’s Manifesto declaring the end of their activities is a combination of Karl Marx retuned for the digital age and “Jack Ass”. Here’s what they had to say:

For the past 50 days we’ve been disrupting and exposing corporations, governments, often the general population itself, and quite possibly everything in between, just because we could. All to selflessly entertain others – vanity, fame, recognition, all of these things are shadowed by our desire for that which we all love. The raw, uninterrupted, chaotic thrill of entertainment and anarchy. It’s what we all crave, even the seemingly lifeless politicians and emotionless, middle-aged self-titled failures. You are not failures. You have not blown away. You can get what you want and you are worth having it, believe in yourself.

While we are responsible for everything that The Lulz Boat is, we are not tied to this identity permanently. Behind this jolly visage of rainbows and top hats, we are people. People with a preference for music, a preference for food; we have varying taste in clothes and television, we are just like you. Even Hitler and Osama Bin Laden had these unique variations and style, and isn’t that interesting to know? The mediocre painter turned supervillain liked cats more than we did.

Again, behind the mask, behind the insanity and mayhem, we truly believe in the AntiSec movement. We believe in it so strongly that we brought it back, much to the dismay of those looking for more anarchic lulz. We hope, wish, even beg, that the movement manifests itself into a revolution that can continue on without us. The support we’ve gathered for it in such a short space of time is truly overwhelming, and not to mention humbling. Please don’t stop. Together, united, we can stomp down our common oppressors and imbue ourselves with the power and freedom we deserve.

So with those last thoughts, it’s time to say bon voyage. Our planned 50 day cruise has expired, and we must now sail into the distance, leaving behind – we hope – inspiration, fear, denial, happiness, approval, disapproval, mockery, embarrassment, thoughtfulness, jealousy, hate, even love. If anything, we hope we had a microscopic impact on someone, somewhere. Anywhere.

Thank you for sailing with us. The breeze is fresh and the sun is setting, so now we head for the horizon.

Let it flow…

Lulz Security – our crew of six wishes you a happy 2011, and a shout-out to all of our battlefleet members and supporters across the globe.

So, is this what a call to the ‘coders of the world to unite looks like’? Is it Karl Marx’s new cybertariate rising up to throw of the shackles of digitization and the incessant ‘tribal drumbeat’ of an always connected, always on people? A world in which the amount of necessary labour time becomes longer and longer and the walls separating ‘work’ from ‘play’ and ‘eros’ (Marcuse) are completely intertwined. Is this why high flying people send pics of their penises to people they don’t even know, compounding their own stupidity by ‘broadcasting’ their message to all rather than sending it just to one?

Servers have been taken down over the last several days by law enforcement in not just the US but in many places and a 19yr old Brit arrested. LulszSec’s manifesto suggests that (1) the ‘network’ is in place to continue the operations and (2) the operations are just because the examples of complicity involving the MIME the come at the expense of civil liberties, democracies and open media and entertainment continue to pile up.

This past week, Comcast, ATT and Verizon have come closer to taking of using control over their networks to help the media and entertainment industries preserve their own ‘business models’. The National Security Agency works hand-in-glove with Google, Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, etc. to protect Lockheed Martin and other ‘critically important Defense Infrastructure’ companies.

As long as the MIME continues to pose severe threats to open information flows, civil rights and democracy, groups like LulzSec will step into the breach. And whether we love or loathe them, they will raise our attention and draw it to some fundamental points.

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