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    Government to Mandate "Pick-and-Pay" Pricing Option for Television Services

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    Tuesday October 15, 2013
    The government's Speech from the Throne is set for this Wednesday with a "consumer first" agenda reportedly a focal point of the upcoming legislative agenda. Industry Minister James Moore discussed the speech over the weekend, pointing to a range of targets including wireless competition, wireless roaming fees, and the bundling of television channels that forces millions of consumers to purchase channels they do not want. Moore says that the government will require cable and satellite providers to offer a pick-and-pay option to consumers, though it is not clear which legislative tool they will use to do so. I wrote about the forthcoming throne speech last month, pointing to pick-and-pay services as a potential policy reform.

    I also wrote about the benefits of a pick-and-pay system last year, arguing that the "broadcast community has long resisted a market-oriented approach that would allow consumers to exercise real choice in their cable and satellite packages, instead demanding a corporate welfare regulatory framework that guarantees big profits and mediocre programming." This is particularly true of Bell Media, Canada's largest media company that has been among the most vocal in opposing consumer choice. In a hearing before the CRTC that focused on consumer choice, Bell said that "we are dreadfully fearful of a penetration decline that would wipe out revenues that are necessary to support the obligations of these services." It reiterated its opposition when asked directly, claiming "there will be a potentially dramatic penetration drop, and hence volume drop and hence revenue drop, as repackaging moves along the continuum to, you know, set packaging all the way to standalone."


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    How Canada Can Put Digital Consumers First

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    Wednesday September 25, 2013
    Reports over the past week have indicated that the government plans to unveil a "consumer first" agenda for its upcoming Speech from the Throne. The speech, which will set out the federal legislative and policy agenda for the next two years, is widely viewed as the unofficial start of the 2015 election campaign. 

    My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes there is little doubt that the battle over wireless pricing, which hit a fever pitch over the summer in a very public fight between Industry Minister James Moore and the incumbent telecom companies, will figure prominently in any consumer agenda. The government is convinced that it has a winner on its hands - consumer frustration with Canada’s high wireless prices suggests that they’re right - and will continue to emphasize policies geared toward increasing competition.

    Yet a consumer first agenda should involve more than just taking on the telcos on spectrum (or the airlines over their pricing practices). A digital consumer first agenda should prioritize several other issues that have similar potential to strike a chord with Canadians across the country.  At the heart of those digital issues are two ongoing consumer concerns: pricing and protections.


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    How the Government Can Put Digital Consumers First

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    Tuesday September 24, 2013
    Appeared in the Toronto Star on September 21, 2013 as How Ottawa Can Put Digital Consumers First

    Reports over the past week have indicated that the government plans to unveil a "consumer first" agenda for its upcoming Speech from the Throne. The speech, which will set out the federal legislative and policy agenda for the next two years, is widely viewed as the unofficial start of the 2015 election campaign. 

    There is little doubt that the battle over wireless pricing, which hit a fever pitch over the summer in a very public fight between Industry Minister James Moore and the incumbent telecom companies, will figure prominently in any consumer agenda. The government is convinced that it has a winner on its hands - consumer frustration with Canada’s high wireless prices suggests that they’re right - and will continue to emphasize policies geared toward increasing competition.

    Yet a consumer first agenda should involve more than just taking on the telcos on spectrum (or the airlines over their pricing practices). A digital consumer first agenda should prioritize several other issues that have similar potential to strike a chord with Canadians across the country.  At the heart of those digital issues are two ongoing consumer concerns: pricing and protections.

    On the pricing front, monthly wireless bills are only part of the high price Canadians pay for communications services. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has embarked on a review of wireless roaming fees, which studies have found rank among the highest in the world.

    Broadband Internet services would also benefit from a more aggressive, consumer-first regulatory approach. The government previously objected to usage-based billing schemes, but its emphasis on facilitating competition through independent providers has encountered resistance in recent months. For example, some customers of TekSavvy, a large Ontario-based independent ISP, have been stuck for days without service as Rogers has been slow to address problems that arise from its network.

    Inflexible and costly television packages should also come under closer scrutiny. The history of broadcast distribution through cable and satellite providers is one in which consumer interests were largely ignored. A consumer first approach would increase choice by opening the market to greater competition (eliminating foreign investment restrictions would be a start), mandating the availability of pick-and-pay services so that consumers could shift away from large bundles of channels they don’t want, and requiring providers to offer broadband Internet services without television packages, so that consumers can "cut the cable cord" if they so desire.

    Lower wireless, Internet, and cable bills would be a welcome change, but Canadians also need better digital protections against online harms. The long-delayed anti-spam law, which provides safeguards against spam and spyware, should be brought into effect by finalizing the necessary regulations. The law has been delayed by intense corporate lobbying, however, it enjoys strong support from consumer groups and was passed by Parliament in 2010.

    Consumers similarly require better privacy protections since Canadian private sector privacy legislation is now woefully outdated. Reforms arising out of hearings on the law that date back to 2006 died with the prorogation earlier this month, leaving Canadian consumers with a law that no longer meets international standards. Putting consumers first should mean that businesses are obligated to disclose security breaches and face tough penalties for violations of the law.

    Canadian consumers would also benefit from protections against misuse of intellectual property rights. That includes safeguards against patent trolls that threaten small businesses and increase consumer costs as well as provisions to ensure that thousands of Canadians do not get caught up in questionable lawsuits over copyright claims that seem primarily designed to pressure them into expensive settlements.

    A consumer first agenda is long overdue in the digital environment, where the interests of individual Canadians have often been forgotten. The next Speech from the Throne offers the chance to change course by promoting policies that result in fairer pricing and stronger online protections.  

    Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.
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    CRTC Ruling a Small Step Toward Broadcast Overhaul

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    Thursday August 15, 2013
    Coverage of last week's Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruling on mandatory carriage of a couple of dozen channels may have focused on the future of the Sun News Network (no mandatory carriage that would have guaranteed payment from all cable and satellite subscribers) and the monthly cost of cable and satellite bills (a very small increase since virtually all new proposals were rejected), but the decision really represents a small step toward a complete overhaul of Canadian broadcasting regulation that is likely to unfold over the next ten years.

    The Commission will hold a further hearing on how to treat news channels, telegraphing that it plans to adopt a must-carry approach so that all Canadians can subscribe to the news channels of their choice. Yet the entire process harkened back to a different world, when space on the television dial was scarce, access to Canadian content scarcer still, and consumer choice for broadcast content largely unknown.

    The reality of the current environment is that none of these conditions exist. Cable and satellite providers have virtually unlimited space (my provider currently features a trio of channels that continually display a fireplace, aquarium, and sunset in high definition), Canadian content can be found through a multitude of venues including video-on-demand and Internet-based streaming services, and consumers can access broadcast content from anywhere on any device.

    My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues the upcoming battle will not be about which channels benefit from regulatory handouts, but rather over whether there is a need for any broadcast regulation beyond basic principles of non-discrimination on what consumers can access through conventional broadcast and the Internet. These principles, now found in the Commission's policies on vertical integration and Internet traffic management, will become an increasingly important part of the regulatory process.


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