When Rogers Communications began promoting its Rogers@Home high-speed Internet service nearly a decade ago, the company branded it "the Internet on Cable." My weekly column (Toronto Star version, homepage version, Ottawa Citizen version, Tyee version) notes that years later, their service, as well as those of their competitors, is gradually morphing into "the Internet as Cable" as broadcasters, Internet service providers, and cultural groups steadily move toward the delivery of content online that bears a striking resemblance to the conventional cable model.
While cable television has its virtues – some consumer choice, the ability to time shift programs by recording them with a VCR or PVR, and video on-demand offerings – it is largely premised on limited consumer control. Cable distributors determine channel choices, geographic distribution, and commercial substitution (with input from the broadcast regulator), offer only limited interactivity, and quietly even possess the ability to stop consumers from recording some programs.
Until recently, the Internet was precisely the opposite, offering unlimited user choice, continuous interactivity, and technological capabilities to copy and remix content. That is gradually changing as broadcasters seek to re-assert greater geographic control over their content, ISPs experiment with cable-like models for prioritized content delivery, and some creator groups lobby the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to adapt Canadian content regulations to the Internet.
The re-emergence of geographic borders on the Internet coincides with broadcasters finally jumping on the Internet bandwagon, as they race to make their content freely available online. Some U.S. broadcasters are selling downloads through services such as Apple iTunes or Amazon.com, yet the unmistakable trend is toward free, ad-supported streaming of content mere hours after it first appears on commercial television. Each major U.S. broadcaster already offers a handful of shows in this manner with ambitious plans to expand their services in the months ahead. NBC and Fox recently unveiled Hulu.com to some critical acclaim, while Comedy Central created a new site for the popular Daily Show that features a complete archive of eight years of programming.
Canadians, alas, are generally locked out of these sites due to licensing restrictions. Canadian broadcasters have been scrambling to buy the Internet rights to U.S. programming, both to protect their local broadcasts and to beef up their online presence. U.S. broadcasters may eventually decide it is more profitable to stream their content on a worldwide basis and to remove longstanding geographic restrictions, however, for the moment they are parceling up the Internet as they would a broadcast destined for multiple cable markets. This geographic bordering extends beyond just blocking streamed content. The new Daily Show site is off-limits for Canadians since the U.S.-based Comedy Central recently took the unprecedented step of redirecting Canadian visitors to the CTV-owned Comedy Network site.
Broadcasters are not alone in working to bring the cable model of control to the Internet. Large ISPs are engaged in similar activities, with a history of blocking access to contentious content (Telus), limiting bandwidth for alternative content delivery channels (Rogers, Bell), and raising the prospect of levying fees for priority content delivery (Bell). There have been similar developments in other countries. For example, when earlier this year the BBC launched its Internet-based iPlayer, which allows United Kingdom residents to access BBC content online, several broadband providers floated the prospect of charging the BBC for delivering its content on their networks.
Several Canadian cultural groups apparently see a parallel opportunity to institute greater control and regulation on the Internet. Last week, ADISQ, which represents the Quebec recording industry, joined forces with 17 other groups to argue that if ISPs can prioritize content for commercial gain, they can be required to do something similar to advance Canadian culture. Those claims conveniently ignore the multitude of Canadian online success stories, including Têtes à claques, Glacticast, thousands of bloggers, hundreds of podcasters, and video streams from everyone from political parties to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Creators ought to be pushing for guaranteed equal treatment online, yet together with the CRTC, some are now actively discussing adapting Canadian content requirements to the Internet, a move that only a few years ago seemed politically improbable and technically impossible.
These issues may ultimately sort themselves out. Users have many easily-obtainable tools to defeat geographic blocking, ISPs may find themselves subject to net neutrality legislation if they continue to abuse the public’s trust by failing to maintain their networks in a transparent, neutral fashion, and cultural groups may come to the realization that regulatory approaches that mandate content requirements are doomed to failure in a world of unlimited content choice. Yet as the Canadian broadcasting community gathered in Ottawa this week for an annual meeting called Broadcasting Redefined, it appears that the redefinition of the Internet as Cable has begun.