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

Cancon redux: Canada’s TV “system” battles the Internet

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“Somebody called me a protectionist this week. I’ve been called far worse, but the term rankled because I had not argued that Canadian television should be protected from foreign competition.”

Kate Taylor, Jan 18: A contemporary argument for Canadian content

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The ball’s in somebody’s court and needs to be lobbed back.

Let’s start with who or what is protectionist. The only such reference I made was to  the policy regime we’ve had in Canada since the 1970s:

“Bell and Rogers (plus Shaw and QMI) have made fabulous amounts of money thanks to the vast protectionist apparatus they’ve enjoyed for decades.”

While life may be tougher now, it would be hard to argue that our broadcasters aren’t still benefitting from protectionism: foreign ownership restrictions, simultaneous substitution and restriction of US satellite signals to the approved list are three current examples. Simsub is also a good example of a policy designed to help our TV business rather than TV viewers, who hate it – as in, where are the Super Bowl ads? Continue reading

Now playing at the CRTC: your precarious future on the Internet (2)

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In this post, I follow up on my comments about the first day of the CRTC’s hearing to review its framework for wholesale services in the telecom industry. Since the most significant sector to be affected is Canada’s residential broadband service, I’m summarizing evidence here that was compiled recently by the Open Technology Institute (OTI) that compares broadband in 24 cities in Europe, East Asia and the US, along with Toronto. This evidence is consistent with findings from other international studies. It shows Toronto lags far behind the broadband leaders in available speeds; in the penetration of fiberoptic platforms; in symmetric connectivity (uplink bandwidth matches downlink bandwidth); and, most seriously from a social policy perspective, in the high prices Torontonians are forced to pay. I take this evidence as a strong argument in favor of maintaining and extending the regulatory regime that ensures open access to networks for smaller, competitive ISPs – including not just legacy platforms like DSL, but also emerging fiber platforms. Unless the CRTC includes these next-generation platforms, Canada will fall even further behind in its long slide into slow and expensive broadband connectivity.

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“We are now ready to take our place as the most technologically advanced nation on the planet.” –Stephen Harper, Digital Canada 150, April 2014

Last month the Open Technology Institute released the third in a series of annual studies of broadband speeds and prices in 24 cities in the US, East Asia and Europe, plus Toronto (originally 22 cities). I wrote about OTI’s first report back in November 2012 (CRTC’s 2nd pro-consumer decree: 4 reasons not to celebrate); and I had comments a year later about the second report (Broadband data for Toronto: more bad news and getting worse). Continue reading

Now playing at the CRTC: your precarious future on the Internet

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If the Competition Bureau is too short of “facts” on Canadian broadband to advise regulation, as it told the CRTC, here’s a start (source: Open Technology Institute).

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THIS week’s CRTC hearing, launched in October 2013, will cover the changing market in Canada for wholesale wireline telecommunications services, including Internet access. The Commission is hearing arguments as to whether any of its existing policies on wireline services should be eliminated or updated. The biggest bone of contention will involve the treatment of fiberoptic delivery platforms. New entrant ISPs want the Commission to guarantee wholesale access to these next-generation platforms. Deciding in their favor would be an important barometer of the health of Canadian broadband, but that goal is far from a sure thing. Meanwhile, recent data on broadband in 24 cities around the globe, compiled by the Open Technology Institute (OTI), shows once again how terrible the prices and speeds are here in Toronto.

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In my previous post on Barack Obama’s stunning pronouncement on open Internet policy, I misrepresented what the CRTC is up to these days. I claimed the CRTC is fiddling over the fate of broadcast television with few signs it’s prepared to address the much more important problems of broadband availability, high prices, slow speeds and unaccountable service.”

Not exactly. First, the CRTC recently finished a proceeding on the wholesale market for mobile wireless services. Second, this week features the hearings phase of a proceeding launched in the fall of 2013 that tackles many of the same policy problems on the wireline side. While the scope is all wholesale telecomm services, what really counts here is the Internet access market.

Thanks to the usual tumultuous changes in technology, markets and business models, the Commission has set itself an obscure but potentially far-reaching task (Telecom Notice of Consultation CRTC 2013-551, pdf uploaded here):

“The Commission initiates a proceeding to review the regulatory status of wholesale services and their associated policies, including the wholesale services framework, wholesale service pricing, and the appropriateness of mandating new wholesale services, including fibre-to-the-premises facilities. The purpose of wholesale services is to facilitate competition in retail markets to provide Canadians with increased choice.”

Why the CRTC regulates wholesale Internet access

It may not be clear as to why wholesale services should exist to make retail markets competitive. (Ironically, one of the least convincing arguments made by the incumbents during the wholesale wireless proceeding was that the wholesale arrangements they make with the smaller carriers like Wind have no effect on the health of the retail market for wireless.) Continue reading

Barack Obama for Prime Minister

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As net neutrality boils over, Obama calls for much tighter regulation of Internet access

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If you care about the Internet and don’t care to see it co-opted and controlled by gatekeepers like Bell and Rogers, President Obama is your man. Yesterday he made a speech from the White House that has electrified the nation (theirs, not ours). He has called not merely for proactive regulation from the FCC to protect the open Internet. He has explicitly called on the agency to invoke Title II, that part of the Communications Act of 1934 intended to regulate common carriers like phone companies. Obama wants the regulator to treat the Internet like what it has become: a utility-like lifeline, not just an add-on to cable-TV service. 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

Net neutrality now as momentous as Janet Jackson’s nipple (2)

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Happy updates (July 25)

1) Ms Marsha. One of the best illustrations of the political clout wielded by the incumbent US broadband providers lies in their ability to kill any attempt at the creation of muni broadband networks. Twenty states have passed laws banning public-sector broadband alternatives, encouraged by the industry lobbies and those who might be harmed by competition, like poor, struggling Comcast. As I note in the 2nd para below, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee is one of the great congressional champions of this free-market exercise. She is more determined than ever to ensure nobody in her own state or any state ever gets better, more affordable service. Such is her reputation that in a comment posted to a story in Ars yesterday, a reader added this apology:

A bit off topic: As a Tennessee state resident, I’d like to personally apologize to the rest of the country, hell the world maybe for that matter, for Marsha Blackburn. Another fine example of what you can buy of [sic] you are a corporation with enough money to line the right pockets.

On the upside, Brodkin’s story is entitled “FCC gets its chance to overturn state limits on broadband competition” – reporting on a petition to the FCC from a community-owned electric utility to overturn the state law barring it from providing fiber-based Internet access – in Chattanooga (Tennessee!).

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2) Transparency enforcement. And in other good news related to policing the ISPs, the FCC on Wednesday issued an Enforcement Advisory that holds two surprises. The FCC will fine any broadband provider that intentionally misleads its customers; and the rule behind this notice is one of the few survivors of the DC Circuit appeal by Verizon that vacated most of the 2010 Open Internet Order. The advisory begins thusly:

Providers of broadband Internet access services must disclose accurate information about their service offerings and make this information accessible to the public. This requirement, known as the Open Internet Transparency Rule, has been in full force and effect since 2011. The Transparency Rule ensures that consumers have access to information that helps them make informed choices about the broadband Internet access services they buy, so that consumers are not misled or surprised by the quality or cost of the services they actually receive.

I’ve uploaded the pdf here.

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How about we blame the Republicans instead? (cont’d)

As I was saying in the previous post, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler should not be getting the rap for the open Internet NPRM issued in May. Especially not for his alleged determination to push through paid prioritization, since a) Wheeler has plainly disavowed it, and b) the Notice spends far more time analyzing other issues I see as a greater threat, like the utter lack of transparency or accountability in what broadband providers sell to the public. And picking this fight with paid prioritization is going to do nothing for the pro-Internet movement in the US or elsewhere (NPRM pdf here).

rep.-blackburn-2Instead, say I, opponents of the big-business, anti-consumer school of thought should pay more attention to what the black hats are saying – who, for convenience, we’ll call “Republicans.” These guys include a broad swath of personalities, from the FCC’s two Republican Commissioners, to the incumbents like Verizon that want no regulation and lots of “flexibility,” to my favorite right-wing curmudgeon, Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee congresswoman who has succeded in getting a bill passed to call a halt to all that outrageous muni broadband that competes with Comcast, TWC et al. They have main three arguments, all of them pure sophistry, but great headline-grabbers. Continue reading

Net neutrality now as momentous as Janet Jackson’s nipple (1)

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Setting the bar for public participation in regulatory affairs

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  • Janet Jackson’s nipple: 1.4 million comments
  • Net neutrality: 1.1 million comments (est)

Realists like Farhad Manjoo at the NY Times have called it “the most important sleep-inducing topic around.” So imagine the surprise when, again last week, public interest in network neutrality hit a crescendo of comments so momentous that it crashed the FCC’s wobbly server setup. That leaves the arcane techno-regulatory idea a mere 300,000 comments behind the flood prompted by the Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction – dubbed Nipplegate – during the Superbowl half-time proceedings on February 1, 2004.

Timberlake yanks off Jackson’s bra and her nipple is exposed for 9/16 of a second. She’s treated like a whore and cancels appearances, while Timberlake keeps his endorsements and wins awards. “Nipplegate” makes the Guiness Book of Records in 2006 as the most-searched term in Internet history. The FCC attempts to levy a fine of $550,000 on CBS, and pursues its case for seven years. In 2011, the Supreme Court elects not to hear the FCC’s appeal, for the second time. Interest is so intense that Nipplegate prompts some guys to create a site for uploading cool videos, which becomes YouTube. Continue reading