The National Post has a story today on a research note written by Maher Yaghi, a telecom analyst, warning about the “regulatory risks” of the CRTC’s review of the wireless code. The article focuses on a single analyst, but there is a long tradition in Canada of the industry saying one thing to the regulator and another to the business community (see, for example, Bell’s position on investing in fibre networks) so the comments likely reflect industry concerns. What regulatory risks might arise from changes to the wireless code?
Yaghi cites two concerns that lay plain why the industry has been fighting potential changes. The issue is not, as some would have you believe, increased regulatory costs. Rather, the fear is that changes would create better informed consumers who would seek cheaper pricing and be freer to take advantage of marketplace competition.
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The release of the television ratings for the Super Bowl unsurprisingly sparked a wave of reports yesterday blaming the CRTC for a decline of viewers at CTV. The Hollywood Reporter claimed there was a ratings collapse, the National Post talked about a 39 percent drop, and Cartt.ca argued that the CRTC had failed Cancon with its decision. While CTV’s numbers may have dropped by 39 percent from the 2016 Super Bowl, that number on its own means as much as saying that Tom Brady’s quarterback rating dropped from his last Super Bowl appearance (it did).
When assessing the impact of the CRTC’s simultaneous substitution decision that opened the door to competing U.S. and Canadian feeds for the game (but not for the pre and post-game broadcasts), the far more important number is the Canadian audience for the U.S. feed. It tells the story of how many switched away from CTV to the newly available alternative. Although Bell indicated that this data is not available, that does not appear to be accurate. The Globe and Mail reports today that some Fox stations are measured in Canada, but that Numeris did not provide it with the numbers.
However, Richard Deitsch, the lead media reporter for Sports Illustrated, tweeted on Monday that the CTV feed drew 4.5 million viewers, while the U.S. Fox viewed garnered 803,000 in Canada. Deitsch’s source for the report was Sportnet’s John Shannon, a longstanding sports television producer, who discussed the issue on the Prime Time Sports program on Monday afternoon. The Fox number may involve some guesswork given that Numeris does not track all Fox affiliates in Canada, but I am reliably advised that its data showed low numbers for some U.S. affiliates, including the Buffalo Fox affiliate feed [update 2/9: new reports indicate that the Buffalo number may be in error, suggesting a higher number of Fox viewers in Canada that reported by Shannon/Deitsch. CTV still retained a majority of the Canadian audience].
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Canadian digital policy over the past decade has been marked by a “made-in-Canada” approach that ensures consistency with international law but reflects national values and norms. On a wide range issues – copyright rules, net neutrality, anti-spam legislation, and privacy protection among them – the federal government has carved out policies that are similar to those found elsewhere but with a more obvious emphasis on striking a balance that includes full consideration of the public interest.
My Globe and Mail opinion piece notes that as with many issues, the burning question for the Liberal government is whether the Canadian digital policy approach can survive the Donald Trump administration. Trade pressures are likely to present Canada with an enormous challenge in maintaining its traditional policy balancing act since the United States is already using tough talk to signal demands for change. This suggests that many Canadian policies will be up for negotiation, although there are some potential opportunities that reside outside of the trade talk spotlight.
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With the Super Bowl only a few weeks away, an unusual coalition comprised of the National Football League, Bell Media, Canadian advertisers, and an actors’ union have launched a full lobbying blitz aimed at overturning a 2015 ruling that will allow Canadians to view both the U.S. and Canadian feeds of the game. The change addresses longstanding frustration with Canadians’ inability to view U.S. commercials during the Super Bowl, since simultaneous substitution policies dating back to the 1970s allow Canadian broadcasters to block U.S. signals and substitute their own feed and commercials.
My Globe and Mail opinion piece notes that the fight to block the U.S. feed has led to some unlikely arguments. CRTC critics who typically call on the regulator to get out of the way are now calling on it to impose the simultaneous substitution rules. Meanwhile, in an odd role reversal, the NFL is emphasizing the Canadian culture benefits of blocking its U.S. broadcast and ACTRA, which issued a press release calling the Super Bowl ruling balanced and protective of the public interest when it was first unveiled, is going to bat for Canadian coverage of a U.S. sporting event.
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The CRTC released its much anticipated Talk Broadband ruling yesterday, declaring Internet access a universal service objective, shifting the local voice service subsidy to the Internet, and setting much-improved speed targets of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload. The decision sparked a wide range of responses: Open Media labelled the decision historic, but business analysts largely shrugged, calling it “immaterial” and “neutral” for the telecom carriers. How to reconcile the competing perspectives?
From a big picture perspective, those that have advocated for a forward-looking Canadian digital policy that places universal Internet connectivity as the foundation have good reason to be pleased. The CRTC’s recognition of Internet access as a basic service is an important development that is long overdue. While critics downplayed the importance of the formal recognition for years, updating Canadian policy to include access to broadband Internet services provides an important signal to the market and the basis for further regulatory and policy steps if needed.
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