Beyond UBB: why Canadian content is the next Internet battleground

America wants you, Canuck!

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The story so far…

  1. Commons Heritage Committee wants CRTC to regulate Netflix et al. (March 9).
  2. Harper falls (March 25).
  3. Bell reverses on reseller pricing (March 28).
  4. Netflix cuts its default bitrate by 70% (March 28).
  5. OpenMedia.ca outs Bell’s pricing “reversal” (March 31).
  6. DE has late night call with 2 Netflix staff, ends up being about Microsoft’s Silverlight platform (April 2).

Some links and teasers

1) The Commons Heritage Committee report on private TV ownership and new viewing platforms is here (surely anything called “Heritage Committee” or “Heritage Canada” lacks credibility as a forum for determining Canada’s digital future; so apparently Netflix is a bigger threat to our welfare than letting three companies own most of our broadcasting system). Canada’s media establishment is warning policymakers and politicians we need:

  • more Canadian content on more platforms;
  • more concentration of ownership;
  • more protection from foreign services (e.g. Netflix), which are sucking the life’s blood out of our struggling vertically integrated conglomerates;
  • more regulation.

Conclusion: but the real victims of the foreign demons will be Canadian consumers! (Noted in passing: Bell’s Bibic told the Committee in connection with his company’s takover of CTV that “there is no level of media concentration at all.” Report, sec.2, my emphasis.)

2) Harper’s eventual demise is the only permanent fix for ISP pricing and related broadband issues, in addition to getting Marc Garneau as our new minister of industry. Marc’s March 7 CRTC filing can be downloaded from here. The LPC election platform has lots of good material on digital Canada, pdf link here.

3) The Bell filing seeking Aggregated Volume Pricing (AVP) is publicly available only in heavily redacted form – as on Scribd, here. Whereas all cost information is deleted, Bell and Bell Aliant conclude their proposed wholesale rates are “just and reasonable.” The CRTC often passes along that judgment on tariffs, leaving the rest of us with no evidence to gauge for ourselves. Bell wants this decided asap, so as to “reduce the incentives wholesale ISPs have with regard to further gamesmanship intended to forestall the implementation of a pricing plan that would make them accountable for their Internet usage which, most immediately could appear through ploys to delay the outcome of this proceeding…” (filing, p.3, para 8, my emphasis). Btw, the companies fess up on one thing: “pricing for GAS services is not strictly cost based.” No shit – and delete “strictly”!

4) And, how ironic, on the very same day (March 28) Bell proposes to make it a little easier to run Netflix, Netflix sends out an email announcing a much lower default bitrate for its Canadian subs:

“Starting today, watching movies & TV shows in Canada will use 2/3 less data on average with minimal impact to video quality. For example, watching 30 hours of Netflix movies & TV shows will only use 9 GB of data, well below most Canadian ISP data caps. Previously, 30 hours from Netflix typically used 31 GB. Why the change? We know that many of our Canadian members have monthly Internet data caps. This new default account setting will significantly reduce the amount of data Netflix delivers to you each month.”

Welcome to the Canadian version of a 2-tier Internet: plenty of bandwidth and quality set aside for Cancon, which will be protected from unregulated foreign competitors who don’t deserve no stinkin’ bandwidth! I’ve fiddled with the video quality settings – Good (default), Better and Best. I’m sticking with Best, because it makes a huge difference. If you go with Best, it sucks up about a gig an hour for SD compared to 0.3 gig for Good – and HD on Best will consume as much as 2.3 gigs. Worried? Then get the hell off Bell and Rogers. TekSavvy e.g. has affordable 300-gig and unlimited plans.

5) The fine folks at OpenMedia.ca warned in their March 31 email that, despite some proud achievements on UBB, we shouldn’t get too complacent: “Bell recently made an attempt to save face by proposing a new ‘Aggregated Volume Pricing’ scheme. This has now been outed as an effort ‘to placate the political and regulatory backlash against them while at the same time trying to maintain the [usage pricing] concept.'”

The election is a gift that does exactly what OpenMedia needs: it makes room for a much more ambitious agenda on Internet policy reform. But mark my words, many of the usual suspects will be fighting alongside for a closed Internet that’s regulated in favor of Canadian culture and not in favor of Canadian consumers. Even if we win the UBB battle (and it’s hard to say exactly what that will look like), there’s a much larger war being waged for control of Canada’s Internet. As the Heritage Committee report shows, the big dogs are in bed with their sometime foes, in particular the producers and cultural lobbies. Almost every witness before the Committee called on the CRTC to get busy and regulate the Internet – before it’s too late and we lose our souls to yucky American entertainment. Faux patriotism – the ISP specialty – had to struggle to get a word in edgewise beside the faux populism – “We’re just giving Canadians what they want we think is good for them.” (Noted in passing: blaming foreigners for domestic upheavals is also popular in other parts of the world these days.)

6) Then there’s Silverlight. I’m too tired to start MS-bashing at this point.

(continues soon…)