Diversity of Voices

My weekly Law Bytes column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) focuses on the CRTC's upcoming diversity of voices proceeding.  The column notes that the initiative should be seen as part of the larger new media challenge, which CRTC Chair Konrad von Finckenstein has described as "the defining challenge of our time in broadcasting. There is no more important matter facing the Commission, nor does any other matter have such long-term consequences." 

The CRTC has launched the New Media Project initiative will analyze whether new media should be regulated and assess its impact on the creation and distribution of Canadian content.  The initiative will also consider critical access issues including network neutrality (described by von Finckenstein as "Internet traffic prioritization") and whether access to high-speed broadband networks should be elevated to a core policy objective. A final project report is not expected until March 2009, however, the CRTC has a second initiative that will cover some of the same terrain much sooner – the Diversity of Voices proceeding.

The Diversity of Voices proceeding comes in response to the growing consolidation of Canadian media and seeks commentary on whether the changing corporate landscape has had a negative impact on the diversity of perspectives within the Canadian broadcasting system.  The CRTC’s interest in the issue arises directly from the Broadcasting Act, which includes a statutory objective that Canadian broadcasting "provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern."

The need for an open consultation on media diversity is long overdue.

Canadian media consolidation includes both horizontal integration, where the same corporation controls television, radio, and print outlets in a single market, as well as vertical integration, where a single corporation controls both the production and distribution channels for new content.  The Canadian market has featured creeping consolidation in recent years, leaving four companies – CTVGlobemedia, Canwest Global, Quebecor, and Cogeco – with dominant control over the television market (Rogers is rapidly emerging as the fifth player and Astral is a key player in specialty channels).  Four companies similarly dominate the radio market (Corus, Astral Rogers, and CTVGlobemedia) and five companies lead the newspaper market (Canwest Global, Quebecor, Torstar, Power Corp., and CTVGlobemedia).

Since many of these same companies also control some of Canada’s most trafficked websites, the consultation rightly asks about the impact of cross-ownership of conventional broadcast platforms and new media.  Yet it fails to make the more important connection – many of the dominant media companies play a key role in the Internet service provider market, which is also highly consolidated with the six leading Canadian ISPs (Bell, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, Quebecor, and Cogeco) controlling well over 70 percent of the market.

Many of the major media companies are likely to argue that new media, particularly the Internet, provides a strong counterbalance to consolidation in the television, radio, and newspaper sectors since Internet video, podcasting, and blogging deliver similar content from a diverse array of sources. The companies fail to acknowledge, however, that the counterbalance is dependent upon Canadians' ability to access new media content without interference or prioritization.  Indeed, in a world where the same companies, such as Rogers, Quebecor, and Cogeco, control both content and carriage of content, there is a real danger that the carriage side of the business may prioritize its own offerings at the expense of the diverse, third-party content.

Safeguarding against this form of content discrimination requires considering structural separation of carriage and content as well as network neutrality rules that would require carriers to treat all Internet content and applications in an equal manner regardless of its source. The CRTC has identified the need to consider network neutrality within the new media context, but the same concern must surely be addressed as a question of sustaining the diversity of Canadian voices. 

One Comment

  1. Net Neutrality required
    When it comes to how to get high-speed internet, everyone in Canada has at most two choices: your phone line or your cable line. Not surprisingly, your phone company and your cable company are also your only choices for where to get an internet connection. This combo has led to high prices and/or poor (high-latency/low-bandwidth) connections in Canada compared to elsewhere in the

    Fortunately, the damage has been somewhat limited because these two ISP’s are in real competition with each other. They were rapidly growing their user base at the same time in the same region, and so pricing and connection quality has been at least maintained at an adequate level.

    To try to encourage even more competition (and hopefully improve pricing/customer-support further), the government introduced legislation requiring the phone company to sell its lines at a reasonable rate. As such, major markets now may have one or more smaller DSL carriers. This has further kept pricing in check.

    To try to make more money, the major players are already selling line priority. For example, a company may purchase use of the line at a specific time of the day with a guaranteed service level in order to perform a nightly remote backup.

    But how are the major players to grow beyond this? Newer technology is allowing the major players to begin selling or making use of packet priority. That is, noot only can they prioritize users, they can prioritize content. With this technology you can expect to see the major players selling you packages with deals like: a) $15.95/month for email and html with a bandwidth cap, b) $29.95/month for email and html with a bandwidth cap and a low-latency connection, c) $49.95/month for email, html, and torrents/file-sharing/movies with a bandwidth cap and d) $74.95/month for email, html, and torrents/file-sharing/movies with no bandwidth cap.

    Now is this fair?

    I would argue that for the same reason the government had to write legislation to bring in additional DSL carriers, they will also have to write legislation to either prevent such packet priority or to ensure all ISP’s have independent access to it. Hence, net neutrality is required. With real competition, while some users (including me) will end up paying more for the better connection we need, other users will be able to pay less, and so I believe with net neutrality packet priority can be made fair.

    An addendum: what do I mean by independent access to packet priority. A DSL carrier is dependent on the phone companies backbone. If the phone company is able to prioritize all the DSL carrier’s packets, then the fact that you have additional DSL carriers is irrelevent. If, however, all the DSL carriers can independently prioritize packets, then they can setup competitive packages which should keep pricing and quality in check.