Broadband speeding up, broadcast TV slowing down?

sam-knows-map

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This morning brought news that the CRTC has launched a national broadband measurement initiative using the SamKnows platform (“The global leaders in broadband measurement“). The announcement comes hard on the heels of Michael Geist’s Tuesday post entitled Missing the Target: Why Does Canada Still Lack a Coherent Broadband Goal? Ironically, after his well taken lament, the Commission suddenly seems ready to answer Michael’s question – though not in the way some of us might like.

“The CRTC is recruiting up to 6,200 Canadians to help measure the Internet services provided by the participating ISPs. Volunteers will receive a device, called a “Whitebox”, that they will connect to their modem or router. The Whitebox will periodically measure broadband performance, testing a number of parameters associated with the broadband Internet connection, including download and upload speeds.”

On this Commission page, the visitor is offered some details, including how to sign up. In a discussion with some other folks today, there was agreement that the Commission is going to have to work hard to attract mainstreamers who have no technical background. To do so, the project team is going to have to take a more didactic approach, and give up self-congratulatory marketing lingo like a “world-class communication system.”

If it’s good enough for the FCC…

My initial reaction was, this is fine but what took so long? Some of us have been suggesting for years that the CRTC needs to devote more resources to research of this kind – as opposed to the Commission’s love affair with populist online forums.

While better late than never, this broadband measurement idea wasn’t cooked up last week. An excellent model to be emulated has been in operation under the auspices of the FCC. Not only does it use the very same SamKnows testbed, but it was also implemented five years ago almost to the day – which happens to predate by a year the CRTC’s announcement of its long-term 5 Mbps target for Canadian broadband. 

There’s another FCC angle to this story concerning research. The evidence the CRTC needs to do sound policymaking about the Internet covers two kinds of data: measured behaviors, like speed, as in SamKnows; and the kinds of random-probability consumer surveys needed to gauge how Canadians are thinking and feeling about life online. 

The FCC does both kinds of research. And here’s the plot twist. It was a 2010 FCC survey that helped sell the idea of the US measurement testbed. That survey unearthed a shocking finding: 80% of the survey respondents had no idea what speeds they were paying their ISP for. 

I see no reason to believe that Canadians are any more sophisticated about their access service – not going by what I see constantly in the classroom with my Comm Studies majors, who have no clue what service they’re getting, what their caps are or even how much they’re paying. If the CRTC knew just how ill-equipped Canadians are to deal with the big Internet issues, it might consider launching a Code of Conduct for ISPs (something I suggested last week), rather than devote so many resources to broadcast TV and its financial and cultural travails.

Whatever comes out of the CRTC’s collaboration with SamKnows, I sure hope we get much more ambitious targets – along the lines of the new FCC definition of broadband as a service running at 25 Mbps or more. Even if we do get that improvement, it will be a necessary but far from sufficient condition for “world-class” broadband. Here are three other issues the Commission is going to have to face up to sometime…

Access. First, the Commission and the rest of the government have got to stop measuring career success in terms of how much coverage the nation has got – as in the “availability” of broadband. You may have a drop-wire right in your backyard, but if you have no disposable income, or you see no reason to be online, then that drop is not “available” to you in any meaningful sense. That’s why 20% of Canadians seem not to have adopted broadband, though we don’t know for sure because Ottawa has no data to offer on adoption beyond 2012.

Latency. The Commission seems reluctant to bite off anything more than “speed,” even though broadband performance depends heavily on other variables, especially latency (The time it takes a packet to travel between two hosts or nodes on a network, in milliseconds, equivalent to the “ping” test you see on speedtest.net and other platforms.) A network connection can have very high bandwidth (measured in bits per second), yet perform poorly because of high latency. The graph below shows, based on actual measures by Ookla (of speedtest.net fame) that in 2011 Canada had almost the worst weighted latency score in the developed world.

fcc-latency

Data caps. We discussed caps in class yesterday. The group was astonished to hear a) Canada is unusual in the OECD for allowing caps; b) caps are not cost-based and the markup can go from about 5 cents to as high as $5; and c) the CRTC sanctioned the use of caps in 2009 to help the poor beleaguered incumbent ISPs deal with congestion. Canada will never have “world-class” broadband unless and until we kill the caps.

Broadcasting vs broadband?

When I referred above to devoting resources to broadcast TV and its travails, I’m making the not-so-subtle assumption that regulating TV is in fact stealing resources and attention from broadband, even though TV is now a sunset industry. Naturally, not everyone agrees. Long-time audience researcher Barry Kiefl argues in his unpublished paper for the Rebooting conference that the best Canadian viewing data – which are never made public – show that tuning to linear TV is not shrinking and TV is not losing significant audience to OTT services like Netflix.

But it’s hard to see how TV can be doing that well in this country when all the news from the US is saying the opposite. In a piece this week in Variety – TV Power Shifts From Network Biz to Content Ownership – TV Managing Editor Cynthia Littleton says ad-supported network TV is on the ropes, in favor of a model that sees program providers owning their content rather than “renting” it. If Variety has got this even half right, then Canadian linear TV is in trouble.

Our whole system has been based for decades on the high-margin resale of popular US programs, proceeds from which are diverted by regulatory fiat into underwriting Canadian production. It’s hard to see how that model can be sustained in an industry where owning content becomes the key to success. 

I’ll be curious to hear from conference attendees tomorrow whether anyone agrees that our continuing treatment of broadcast TV as a national treasure is hurting chances of improving our broadband infrastructure, and with it, raising consciousness among mainstream onliners.

D.E.