Dialing for digital dollars: inside the Cancon sausage factory

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A little sympathy for Mélanie Joly, please.

melanie-jolyImagine if your job was to save the purveyors of Canadian content from the ravishes of American cultural imperialists, cord-cutters, cord-shavers, cord-nevers, millennials in general, digerati, incumbent ISPs, Reed Hastings, VPN developers, Jeff Bezos, Chicken Little, Hulu, cloud computing vendors, Henny Penny and Reed Hastings. It’s harder than it looks.

Contrary to popular belief, Ms Joly is doing exactly what the Minister of Canadian Heritage should be doing these days: looking for money to put into the pockets of Canada’s network content providers so they can make bigger and better Webisodes for the digital age. Yet her ideas for accomplishing this daunting task have drawn vociferous criticism. Many criticisms have focused on issues outside the Minister’s mandate and are based on little appreciation of how things actually work in her department.

So let’s head on over to the sausage factory where the sausage mandarins have been cooking up our Cancon policy for the last half-century.

We’ll start with Minister Joly’s least popular trial balloon: slapping an “Internet tax” on everyone’s ISP bill. My friends at OpenMedia have been pointing out with alarm that such a tax would only serve to raise the price of Internet access, when Canadians already pay high prices for mediocre service (you can sign their petition here).

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OpenMedia: Joly’s tax would make us as bad as Hungary

Could there be anything worse than this tax “on the Internet”? Yes! A tax on Netflix, an idea that just won’t die, thanks to Joly’s alleged plan to bring the streaming giant “into the system” – Ottawa code for we’re gonna tax the daylights outta Netflix.  Continue reading

Rogers loses a sub: a study in price gouging & lousy service

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The point of this street-level story is to show how Canada’s broadband oligopoly works in practice, especially the incumbents’ freedom to collect economic rents as ISPs – i.e. charge prices they would never get away with in a competitive market.

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Rogers drives a furious customer into the waiting arms of TekSavvy

I’ve known Jacky and Jimmy* for many years (*not their real names). They’re a happy, successful couple raising a terrific teenage daughter. But after months of terrible service as Rogers subscribers, they were anything but happy. In due course I got a phone call from Jimmy, who was beside himself, wanting to be rescued from their ISP hell. And btw, would I still recommend TekSavvy? Continue reading

The Netflix boogeyman and a 21st-century role for the CRTC

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“Though some intervenors think this proceeding is all about Netflix, it’s not.” –Corie Wright of Netflix

“If the Commission fails to act swiftly after this proceeding, a service such as Netflix will become … one of the largest broadcasters in this country in the near future.” –Pierre Dion, CEO, Quebecor

“Canadian consumers can rest assured that our government will continue to stand up for them. We will not allow any moves to impose new regulations and taxes on Internet video that would create a Netflix and YouTube tax.” –Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage

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The thesis: Netflix has handed the CRTC a new lease on life

CRTC ordered Netflix to share its highly sensitive Canadian customer data. Netflix demurred (“stonewalled” by some accounts). The Commission has responded by making Netflix disappear from the history books, expunging its official testimony. Does that mean, as we read recently, that “It’s over, CRTC, Netflix and globalization have won”? Continue reading

Pick-and-pay, Netflix and the CRTC’s TV policy review (1)

7111-mayfair-car-1dCar detailing – Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London W1 – Aug 2013

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tv-flag-4Memo to the CRTC: Even if pick-and-pay were to be implemented, it will never on its own advance consumer welfare by lowering costs or expanding choice, thanks to the market stranglehold enjoyed by Canada’s vertically integrated congomerates (VICs). When Chairman Blais kicks off the so-called “conversation” on TV policy this Thursday (Oct 24), he’ll face a daunting task: having to promise real change in the face of a) legislation that’s two decades out of date (which the Tories are not going to fix); and b) a heavily concentrated industry determined to preserve its bounteous status quo (which the Tories are also never going to fix). The best indicator of a meaningful review won’t be whether TV subscribers can simply pick and pay from among Canadian services at BDU prices not disciplined by either competition or regulation.

The real barometer of any new TV policy and its success or failure will be whether subscribers can choose services freely from outside the regulated broadcasting system – especially non-Canadian services delivered online, like Netflix, and do so without being subject to anti-consumer punishments like price-gouging through data caps. Netflix is a good marker to watch because it has conquered the OTT space and continues to grow in popularity; and because if the big broadcasting groups see any threat from a new policy framework, the first words out of their mouths will be, tax Netflix! If the CRTC continues to allow the VICs to brandish undue preference in our vertically-integrated media universe, then we’ll know the TV policy review has been a failure.

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ballon_fire-1Trial balloons and red herrings

So the Harper government wants to help consumers. As the Speech from the Throne indicated, that help would allegedly embrace TV subscribers, who might some day be allowed to select which television channels they want to pay for, rather than being forced to pay for bundles. As Greg O’Brien at Cartt.ca pointed out, the timing is a little weird: “Who’d a thunk the first submission to the CRTC’s television policy review would come straight from the federal government.” Continue reading

Must-carry TV: putting viewers last in the US and Canada (1)

57_Channels_(And_Nothin'_On)Highlights The CRTC is moving ahead with its must-carry decisions for 22 niche TV channels on the basis of whether they are of “exceptional” importance to Canadian culture (public hearing begins April 23). Canadian TV subscribers will be forced to pay for all of the services that succeed, without any regard for their viewing preferences. This approach suits the old media guard perfectly, because it guarantees a revenue stream even for channels few people are watching. While American consumers are being subjected to the same abuse, their TV world is being revolutionized from two directions. 

First, OVD upstarts like Netflix are demolishing the idea that broadcasters should control viewing. Netflix is enhancing viewer choice by e.g. posting an entire season’s episodes all at once, in some cases of shows it has financed. Second, a backlash is under way in the US against the market power that limits choice and picks consumers’ pockets. Even US pay-TV distributors are fighting program providers that bundle their popular fare with channels nobody wants. Meanwhile, Canada is clinging to an outmoded cultural ideology that will bring about exactly the opposite of the intended effect, by chasing viewers out of the regulated broadcasting system and into the waiting arms of Netflix, YouTube and the Pirate Bay.

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The absurdity of force-fed bundling: follow the money

Before I get to the CRTC’s must-carry proceeding, I want to touch on the debate raging in the US over whether TV subscribers have a right to “à la carte” service – the ability to choose only the channels they want from their service provider, as opposed to being obliged to take bundles of channels they don’t want but have to pay for anyway. Channel bundling is the subject of an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in late February, entitled “New Attack on TV Bundles” (here, pay wall). Continue reading