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.

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.