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    Why Are Canadian Wireless Carriers Increasing Prices? Because They Can

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    Tuesday March 18, 2014
    Yesterday, I was contacted by a Toronto radio station wanting to discuss wireless pricing increases  that have occurred over the past few months (including increases over the weekend at both Rogers and Bell). Their key question was what lay behind the increased prices?  While some might point to reduced roaming revenues or costs associated with the spectrum auction, I believe the answer is far simpler.

    The carriers increased prices because they can.

    Indeed, this is precisely what the Competition Bureau of Canada concluded could and would happen in its analysis of the wireless environment in Canada.  In its  January 29, 2014 submission to the CRTC, it stated:


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    Moving Targets: CRTC Sets Universal Broadband Access Target By Year End But Govt Plan Is For 2019

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    Thursday March 06, 2014
    The federal government released its Report on Plans and Priorities for 2014-15 today with departments and agencies identifying spending estimates and work priorities. The CRTC's report offers some interesting insights into its main activities and targets, particularly with respect to broadband access.

    The latest CRTC broadband target is for 100% of Canadian households to have access to broadband speeds of 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload by December 31, 2014. That target is a year ahead of schedule as last year's report set the 100% target for the end of 2015. The new target is also difficult to reconcile with the government's announcement that it plans to spend $305 million over the next five years to extend broadband to rural and remote areas. In fact, last week reports suggested that Industry Minister James Moore and the government had established a target of 2019 for universal access to broadband. If the CRTC target is achieved, the government's broadband plans and targets would appear already outdated. Interestingly, Industry Canada's report includes a target of 77% of the population with broadband subscriptions (not access) by March 2015, but broadband is defined is only 1.5 Mbps or higher.


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    The CRTC's Future of Television Consultation: The Missing Provocative Questions

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    Wednesday March 05, 2014
    Last month, I blogged about the CRTC's Talk TV consultation and concerns that the questions were framed in a lopsided manner.  CRTC Chair Jean Pierre Blais was asked about those concerns in Twitter chat and he responded that the questions and answers "were intended to be provocative." I address that response in my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) highlighting both the concerns with the survey and offering some additional provocative questions that the Commission excluded.

    The column begins by noting that regulation of Internet video services and the prospect of pick-and-pay television channels headline the second phase of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's future of television consultation which launched late last month. The "TalkTV" initiative is designed to make it easy for Canadians to participate, featuring six short scenarios followed by a limited number of choices for respondents.


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    The Future of Television Consultation Omits the Big Question: Do We Still Need the CRTC?

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    Wednesday March 05, 2014
    Appeared in the Toronto Star on March 1, 2014 as Do We Still Need the CRTC?

    The regulation of Internet video services and the prospect of pick-and-pay television channels headline the second phase of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's future of television consultation which launched late last month. The "TalkTV" initiative is designed to make it easy for Canadians to participate, featuring six short scenarios followed by a limited number of choices for respondents.

    While the consultation quickly attracted considerable participation - the commission said thousands of Canadians responded in the first week alone - its content raises serious concerns about future plans for CRTC regulation. Indeed, if the consultation is a signal of where the commission is headed, not only is the notion of true pick-and-pay channels dead and the much-disliked simultaneous substitution alive, but regulation of Internet video services may be just around the corner.

    The Internet video discussion in the survey focuses almost exclusively on new regulatory fees for services such as Netflix. After asking respondents whether online services should be required to contribute to funding for Canadian content, provide closed-captioning, and adhere to regulated programming standards, the CRTC poses a series of follow-up questions that all involve additional costs.

    Respondents are asked whether they would pay an extra 50 cents per month for Canadian-made programming (presumably the additional cost for a Canadian content contribution fund) or a few cents each month for closed captioning. The commission also inquires whether Canadians would be willing to pay $5 more each month for increased Internet usage costs. The CRTC floats the possibility that such usage would not count against monthly data caps, suggesting that it may be willing to violate net neutrality principles as part of a new Internet regulatory regime.

    The consultation delves into other controversial issues, but often offers a lopsided perspective. Signal substitution, the longstanding practice that swaps a U.S. feed with the Canadian equivalent (with Canadian commercials) when the same program is being aired at the same time, was raised during an earlier part of the consultation as a policy ripe for reform. Once the issue is explained in the survey, respondents are offered just three choices: keep the policy unchanged, black out U.S. signals, or require Canadians to pay extra fees to compensate stations for lost revenues. 

    Similarly, the consultation asks whether Canadians would like access to more U.S. and international programming. The Commission seemingly pre-judges the issue by framing the ramifications of new programming as increasing cable and satellite fees, creating lost Canadian jobs, or developing new channel packages with additional Canadian content to offset the foreign programming.

    When asked about the apparently skewed approach during a recent Twitter chat, CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais responded that the consultation was meant to be provocative. Few would object to a provocative approach that generates interest in broadcast policy, however, these provocations are entirely one-sided.

    For government regulators, it is seemingly provocative to ask about Internet regulation and the implementation of new fees that could almost double the effective cost of services such as Netflix. It is also provocative to equate more consumer choice with lost Canadian jobs or to propose compensation for Canadian television stations if simultaneous substitution is removed.

    Yet the commission does not offer up similarly provocative options such as the elimination of many broadcast regulations in order to create a level playing field with Internet services or removing the requirement that Canadians purchase basic television services with all cable and satellite packages. It also does not provoke respondents with the possibility of new rules to eliminate simultaneous substitution by forcing Canadian broadcasters to adjust to a more competitive marketplace or to re-imagine the role of public broadcasting in Canada.

    Given that the CRTC rightly or wrongly often attracts the ire of Canadians, the survey also avoids the biggest provocation of all - does Canada still need the CRTC to regulate broadcasting?  The answer to that question might depend upon the final results of its future of television consultation.

    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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