Canada’s internet remains flat, despite challenges

Canada remains a world-leader in keeping our internet equal for all. Challenges to tilt the internet in favour of special interests come from at home and abroad. Last month, Canada’s telecomm regulator ruled that all online data be treated equally.

The ruling comes after Videotron, a music streaming company, offered their wireless service to subscribers at no charge for data used. This practice, called “zero-rating,” is violation of net neutrality because content would be biased in favour of their service. Subscribers to other music streaming services would pay more. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled the practice illegal.

In his ruling, the CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais suggested a less disingenuous tactic for Videotron:

“Rather than offering its subscribers selected content at different data-usage prices, Internet-service providers should be offering more data at lower prices,”

The ruling is a victory for the little-lobby-group-that-could, OpenMedia.ca (which I support financially).

“We just won again!,” they crowed in an email to me, “The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) just decided in favour of historic Net Neutrality rules that prevent Big Telecom from unfairly manipulating data caps to discriminate against certain apps and services.”

Michael Geist, professor of Internet and E-commerce Law, was equally enthused but more muted in his response:

Most notably, Canadian consumers and creators will benefit in the long term from the Net-neutrality policies.”

Canada’s firm support of net neutrality extends beyond a level playing field. Without it, giant telcomms could start to collect browsing habits of unsuspecting customers and sell them to advertisers for the purpose of targeting specific demographics.

The concept of a flat internet is vital to free expression and innovation. In an earlier column, I argued that net neutrality is fundamental to democracy:

Canadians must stand on guard for a free and democratic internet.”

Net neutrality in the U.S. has been tilting back and forth. In 2014, the U.S. appeals court ruled that the internet was not a “common carrier.” A common carrier is like a telephone line, simply a conduit to carry information. If telephones weren’t a common carrier, telephone companies could make it easier for businesses to access your phone than your friends and family.

The designation of common carrier is vital to net neutrality. Without that designation, internet service providers could effectively suppress content by making it more costly to view.

Sensibly, President Obama restored the designation of common carrier in 2015.

Now President Trump’s appointees to the U.S. telecomm regulator, called the FCC, intend to overturn net-neutrality in the U.S.

Canada faces a mixture of faux worry and resistance from the U.S.  A Trump-appointed advisor to the FCC, Roslyn Layton, said “My biggest concern for Canada is that you continue to add regulation that deters the incentive to invest,” Her fake concern for Canada not believable. Many big U.S. giants such as Netflix oppose the Trump initiatives because they don’t want their subscribers paying more than competitive video-streaming. They fear that U.S. telcomms will do what Videotron tried to do and tilt the internet in favour of their own services.

I have a feeling that Layton’s real concern is that U.S. tech start-ups will move to Canada where innovative technologies still have unbiased access to the internet.

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Stem cell centre coming to Kamloops?

My curiosity was sparked when I read that a stem cell centre was opening in Kamloops (Kamloops This Week, March 21, 2017).

So I went to the location of the centre at 470 Columbia St only to find a parking lot. Thinking that the address might be wrong, I searched the directory of the medical building next door and found that no stem cell centre was listed.

The Stem Cell Centers website lists Kamloops as the only one in Canada. Dr. Richard Brownlee is named as the surgeon with “more information coming soon.”

“Stem cell therapy,” says the website, “can help with orthopedic or pain management, ophthalmological conditions, cardiac or pulmonary conditions, neurological conditions, and auto-immune diseases, among many other conditions and disease that results in damaged tissue.”

One of the ophthalmological conditions they treat is macular degeneration. “If your vision is fading due to macular degeneration, you know it’s time to seek help. Our non-invasive Stem Cell Therapy treatment might be the solution for you.”

I wanted get Dr. Brownlee’s reaction to news that an unproven stem cell treatment had resulted in blindness according to the New England Journal of Medicine as reported in the Globe and Mail, March 20, 2017.

”This week, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) reported on three individuals who went blind after receiving an unproven stem cell treatment at a Florida clinic. The patients paid thousands of dollars for what they thought was a clinical trial on the use of stem cells to treat macular degeneration.”

The writer of the Globe and Mail article, Timothy Caulfield, Research Chair of the in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, doesn’t name the Florida clinic.

The Stem Cell Centers website refers optimistically to treatment for macular degeneration at a Florida clinic, although apparently not theirs since no Florida clinic appears on their list. It tells of how Doug Oliver suffered from macular degeneration before stem cells were extracted from his hip bone and injected them into his eyes. Almost immediately, Oliver’s eyesight started to improve. “I began weeping,” he said.

Caulfield encourages caution. “Health science gets a lot of attention in the popular press. People love hearing about breakthroughs, paradigm shifts and emerging cures. The problem is, these stories are almost always misleading.” “It can also help to legitimize the marketing of unproven therapies.”

Reports from the Stem Cell Centers’ own website are cautionary as well. It quotes an abstract from a study done by the Southern California College of Optometry on how “stem cells might ultimately be used to restore the entire visual pathway.”

The promise of stem cell research is phenomenal. Scientific American (Jan., 2017) reports that brains can be grown in a lab dish from stem cells taken from skin. These samples can be used to research brain disorders ranging from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s disease, and to explore why only some babies develop brain-shrinking microcephaly after exposure to the Zika virus.

However, Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, concludes that there are only a handful of clinical applications available and they are for skin and blood-related ailments.

Practice, it seems, has not yet matched the promise of stem cell research.

 

 

 

Books are vehicles of insight

If it seems odd that I would defend print media by using this digital media that you read on a screen, let me explain.

Conceptual Books

We might be reading less print media but we are not reading fewer words says Dr. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. “We are reading more than 100,000 words a day,” she told CBC’s Spark, “but it is fragmented; not the immersive, sustained, deep reading of our past”

According to Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message” and internet media are designed to be distracting through the interjection of various animations, popups and social media that create a “cognitive storm,” says Dr. Wolf. Kindle and other book readers are a bit better but not as good as the immersive media of a book.

Media on the internet involve an evolutionary mechanism of “what’s next.” It’s a state of mind that’s useful in scanning our environment for potential dangers and opportunities. In evolutionary terms, it’s useful to know when food becomes available or when a poisonous snake is on the path. But multitasking is not a good mental state for quiet contemplation.

Reading is not something we have evolved to do. We are not born to read, Dr. Wolf told TVO on YouTube. A child will naturally develop other skills like vision and speech but reading is an acquired skill in which mental circuits have to be reassigned from vision and language in order to read. It’s a window that opens to take us beyond what we were originally programmed to do.

Because reading is not innate, it requires effort to develop. Even then, there are complications. As the mother of a dyslexic child, Dr. Wolf is acutely aware that reading development of cannot be taken for granted. Parents have to expose children to books at an early age. By ages five to seven, mental circuits have been sufficiently integrated to develop an automatic system that accesses the deep reading process.

Slow, deep reading requires focus.

“The book is an amazing vehicle for the elicitation of our critical intellectual processes and our own, if you will, vehicle of insight,” Dr. Wolf says. “It’s an amazing invention because the book as we know it is something that we can turn to, and be completely by ourselves, and with nothing else be transported literally, emotionally, socially, intellectually, into the perspective of another.”

Writing is the opposite. In preparing this column I listened to a radio program, watched a video, and read online references. That these words on your screen have any meaning at all is a testimony to the power of the written word. If all goes well, the ideas will unfold as you read.

While these ideas may be thought-provoking, I have no illusions that this column requires deep concentration. The value of short articles such as this is to introduce ideas that can be explored at depth in books (which I don’t read enough of). From my own experience of reading online, I suspect that you are already looking for “what’s next.”

 

The future of smart radios

I imagine that the future of radio will combine traditional fm with the technology of smart phones.

I’m not talking about the distant future: the fm broadcast protocols already exist and most cell phones already have an fm radio chip, although you’d never know it. Chris Burns wonders why. In his article for SlashGear.com and he explains how you can find out if your phone has the chip:

“A whole bunch of smartphones out on the market today have FM radio capabilities – but their owners don’t know it. There’s no real good reason for this lack of knowledge save the lack of advertising on the part of phone makers. . . Today we’re listing the whole lot of phone devices that can run FM Radio right out the box.”

I first heard about the fm chip in cell phones last year on CBC Radio’s Spark. Barry Rooke explained how useful they could be. They could be used where no cell service exists and in an emergency when cell towers are down as in the wildfires of Fort McMurray in 2015.

Rooke is the executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association and he’s formed a consortium of broadcasters, including CBC, and radio listeners who would like to see the FM radio chip activated.

It doesn’t even have to be a smartphone to receive fm. A friend bought a simple cell phone in Mexico with the fm chip activated for $22 dollars, and that included free calls for eight days -no contract (it galls me how much more Canadians pay for cell phones, but that’s another column). You can hardly buy an fm radio alone for that amount.

The innovation that I imagine would be the use of graphics in smartphones. Some of the fm audio spectrum would be partitioned off for text and lo-res graphics. The text could include lyrics of the song being played and a picture of the artist, news, weather, sports, traffic, stock reports. In poor countries where the phone is more common than radios, it could include voting information, crop and commodity reports. Text and graphics could be saved for future reference.

The graphics would be stacked on the original signal with a subcarrier much in the way that left and right channels are now carried on regular fm as described in Wikipedia. The protocol already exists for car radios and would need to be adjusted for smartphones.

The best system would be a digital overhaul of the fm modulation signal. But that won’t happen because radio stations must be received by regular receivers as well as the new smart radios.

Broadcasters would never transmit a signal that can only be received by relatively few. That’s what happened when stereo radio was introduced. The new stereo signal had to be received by old mono radios as well as the new until the new technology was adopted.

The push for smart radios won’t come from cell phone service providers –they would prefer that you pay for data. It must come from broadcasters and listeners.

Local content on the new aether

Medieval scientists believed that radio waves were carried through a medium they called the aether. Seems sensible. If sound waves require a medium, why not radio waves? It turns out that radio doesn’t need a medium; a vacuum will do nicely.

radio

     radio waves

The internet is the new aether. The “network of networks” depends on wires and optical fibers to carry signals. The internet wouldn’t exist without it (Wifi is radio but it’s just a connection to the internet).

We straddle both worlds –ethereal radio waves surround us while the internet remains wired. If I put up an antenna, I can receive CFJC TV for free. I chose to pay Shaw cable to have the station delivered to my house.

The internet is as disruptive as early radio and TV was and its role is still being defined. Is the internet a broadcaster? If CFJC is a broadcaster and if I can receive the same station over the internet, it would seem like it.

Not so. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments from program producers that cable companies were broadcasters. The court agreed with cable companies that they were not.

It’s not trivial matter. If traditional TV stations are broadcasters and cable companies are, then the cost of production local shows and news has to be paid for by the TV stations –they receive nothing for the signals that cable carries.

It’s a problem in small cities like Kamloops because local news and programming is expensive to produce and ad revenue is not as high as large cities.

In the past, cable and satellite companies have grudgingly paid into temporary funds to support local programming but it’s a constant battle. This has left small markets scrambling to make ends meet.

Local news is vital. It not only informs the community it serves, reflects its values, and is vital in emergencies. Rick Arnish, Chair of the Small Market Independent Television Stations Coalition (SMITS), was a strong advocate of local TV before retiring. He also supported free over-the-air TV for people who can’t afford cable. He made that clear in his letter to the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission in 2015:

“Over 95% of the participants who posted comments on the topic of over-the-air television in the online consultation held during Phase 3 referred to the importance and value of the ability to receive television programs inexpensively over the air and opposed proposals to shut down transmitters. Canadians value local news, with a CRTC commissioned poll putting the number who consider it ‘important’ at 81%.”

Arnish also made clear that cable companies should share the cost of local TV if small stations are to survive.

“Moreover, all things being equal, with the phase out of LPIF [Local Programming Improvement Fund] now complete, the SMITS Coalition stations as a group will be in the red this broadcast year, given the loss of the $5.4 million contributed by LPIF last year.”

Before retiring last year, Arnish was Program Director at CFJC TV and General Manager of Broadcast Centre and later President of the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group.

The internet transmits the content from traditional sources without paying for its creation. Unlike the old aether which radiated local programming, the new aether sucks the life from local TV.

Merge CBC with Canada Post

 

The CBC and Canada Post are both in the business of delivering information, so why not bring them together into a single entity?

Canada Post/CBC

Canada Post/CBC

They are both crown corporations; they are both undergoing radical transitions to digital communication; and each has what the other could use.

Canada Post has 6,200 public and privately-operated offices across Canada. CBC has hundreds of TV and radio transmitters. Canada Post serves a larger area than any other country. CBC broadcasts to every corner of Canada in English, French and eight aboriginal languages.

The new entity, the Canadian Communication Corporation would not only consolidate the resources of the CBC and Canada Post, it would expand into the mobile wireless business to provide some needed competition.

Canadians now pay some of the highest cell phone prices for some of the worst service in the industrialized world, reports the Huffington Post (July 18. 2013). In a study of prices in 34 OECD countries, Canada is 25th for high priced wireless phones. We are dead last when it comes to the number of people owning a cell phone.

The former Conservative government tried without success to encourage more independent wireless carriers into the market. The CCC would sell phones at Canada Post outlets and use CBC transmission towers to carry the service. For example, a customer in Iqaluit, Nunavut, could pick up the phone at the post office and receive service from a cell transmitter mounted on the tower that broadcasts CBM-FM-3.

Canada’s North lags behind in internet access. Nunavut tourism advises “Internet service is limited in Nunavut and slower than elsewhere. Wi-Fi service is uncommon. Visitors to Nunavut should not plan to spend much time on the internet.”

Professor Dwayne Winseck of Carleton University lists other advantages of the CCC: “Blanket cities with open access, lighting up the vast stock of underused and unused municipal dark fibre (CCPA Monitor, July/August, 2016).” By “dark fibre,” he means optical fibre that is not being used to capacity. As I reported in my column Kamloops Community Network -a vision unfulfilled, (July 22, 2014), Kamloops has a lot of dark fibre, the legacy of bold plan of former city technology manager Frank Mayhood.

“Extend public Wi-Fi in cities across Canada,” adds Winseck, “and broadband access to underused and unserved people in rural, remote and poor urban areas.” Rural service is not a luxury; it’s a necessity in business and education. The mayor of Caledon, Ontario, says that some students have their parents drive to the parking lot of a public library just so they can upload homework assignments (National Post, November 23, 2015.

The Trudeau government will give $16 million to internet service providers in B.C. to provide better rural access. If it makes sense to provide give money to private providers, it makes even more sense to invest in the CCC.

While there is a scarcity of internet service in Canada, there is also a looming news crisis. The CCC could not only deliver the news, it could produce it through the CBC’s capacity.

The business model of news delivery is failing as we get news echoed from ever fewer sources. A newly configured public broadcaster could fill that vacuum.

Why you are safe on social media

When Virginia Champoux’s husband received a lung transplant, her social media usage jumped. “Facebook became her daily – often hourly – outlet for sharing the agonizing, surreal, and occasionally funny details of Jay’s struggle to survive,” writes Jonathan Kay in Walrus magazine (June, 2016).

FB privacy

She wrote about her husband’s struggle to live; the psychotic response to his medication; his penchant for ordering odd products online; his fight to digest solid foods. It seems there was nothing she wouldn’t share.

At first glance, Champoux seems to be a poster child for reckless social media. Not so. “I am meticulous in following certain rules. In general, my children are referred to by initials –never their full names. If I post pictures, they are only visible to my friends –never public. And I always ask other parents’ permission if I post a picture of their own children,” said the Montreal native.

More than that, she has carefully made Facebook lists which specify the breadth of her circles. Lists such as “Cancer” (only those who have suffered from it), “work,” “French” (some francophones are offended by her English posts), “close friends,” “B-list,” “D-list,” and the ultra elite “VVIP” list which is limited to the eight most important people in her life.

I was curious about what she shared publically on her Facebook site. So I looked her up (she was the only one listed). Sure enough, there are videos of Jay walking with a tree of IV bags and posts from the day of his death. I felt a bit voyeuristic but I wanted to see if Champoux had changed or deleted any of the posts since being featured in a national magazine. As far as I could tell, they were all there.

Not everyone would be so willing to share the most painful moments of their lives but that’s the point: for some grieving is private matter, for others it’s cathartic.

Privacy means “the right to be left alone.” That right has never been more challenged with the advent of technology and social media where the greatest volume personal thoughts are shared. It’s been a struggle. In 2011, Facebook was accused of deceiving users by leading us to believe that they were protecting our privacy while allowing access to our lives to third-party software developers.

Facebook responded by tightening security to allow as much or as little public access to your posts as you wish. The problem is that most people don’t use the privacy settings that Facebook provides –all the while complaining about loss of privacy.

Social media users have not kept up with the changes. Instead, they worry. According to a poll done in 2015, 64 per cent of Canadians are worried about how corporations treat their personal data. Of that group, only 13 per cent feel they have total control of their information.

Social media corporations respond to complaints because it’s in their best interest, Kay concludes. “The most remarkable aspect of this privacy revolution is that it is being powered primarily not by new laws, but by corporations acting in their own economic self-interest.”