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Canada Talks TV: Preparing for A-La-Carte Cable TV; Providers Threaten Rate Hikes

alacarte

Does Canada’s Food TV need special protection when it made 53% gross profits on the backs of cable subscribers that pay for the network whether they watch it or not?

“If you cut your cable, then your Internet is going to go up,” predicts Gary Pelletier, president of the Canadian chapter of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing.

That is just one of several predictions many Canadian cable and phone companies are claiming will come from the “disastrous decision” to allow consumers the freedom to pick and pay for only the cable channels they want to watch. Amidst claims that over 10,000 jobs will be lost, chaos and bankruptcy will stalk minority and niche cable networks, consumers will pay much higher bills, and American programming will boycott Canada fearing a-la-carte could make its way into the United States, Canada is at least having an adult discussion about the future of television and where it fits in the country’s identity.

Big changes are coming as a result of the latest great soul-searching made by our good neighbors to the north, always concerned about the potential of the Canadian Experience being overrun, if not decimated by the United States’ entertainment hegemony. In a moment of clarity, regulators have just realized what the rest of English-speaking Canada already knew: protectionist content regulations don’t work on the Internet. Canadians routinely bypass geographical restrictions and Canadian content laws with virtual private networks that relocate them, online at least, to a home address in the U.S. so they can binge-watch the unrestricted American versions of Netflix, Hulu and other online video services.

Regulators have now adopted the attitude – “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” encouraging Canadian entertainment producers to create fewer, but better shows that will not only attract Canadian audiences, but those abroad.

Only the exchange is supposed to be mutual. High quality Canadian television productions like Orphan Black, Schitt’s Creek, X Company, The Book of Negroes, This Life, 19-2, Vikings, Killjoys, Rookie Blue, and Murdoch Mysteries are all among Canadian critics’ top favorites. But relatively few Americans know these shows exist or assume they are co-productions owned by some American entertainment conglomerate. Only a brief glimpse of a Canadian flag during the warp speed end credits might clue viewers this isn’t the case.

Despite protectionist media policies that have endured since 1970, the Canadians are now boldly going where Americans have so far feared to tread. They are having the conversation about the future of television and online entertainment in all forms while American media barons remain in denial.

For average consumers, the biggest change will begin next spring when the era of Canadian a-la-carte cable television arrives, allowing consumers to take an ax to the expensive 120-300 channel television package once and for all. Starting March 1, all Canadian providers will be required to offer consumers a basic cable package priced at no more than $25 a month, containing Canadian and U.S. over the air stations and networks, educational, and public channels. If you want more, you can have it by buying channels or mini-packages of networks individually to create a personalized cable TV lineup of networks you actually care to watch.

Programmers across Canada, particularly those catering to sports fans, foreign audiences, religious viewers, and minorities are horrified by the idea. So are media critics that fear the change could help bring an end to Canada’s unique multilingual and multicultural identity.

special reportCustomers like James Rehor of Hamilton explains why.

“Why would I pay for it? Why do I get it? Why does it come on my TV?” asks the 60-year-old construction worker. He’s ready on day one to purge the large number of French and other non-English channels from his Cogeco Cable lineup. Rehor offers comfort to sports programmers, however. He’s a big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so Leafs TV, Sportnet, and TSN will stay.

Non-sports fans are another matter. They can’t wait to ditch the sports networks that are always the most expensive channels in a Canadian cable package.

“Clearly the most expensive (channels) will always be sports,” Pelletier tells the Canadian Press. “At the end of the day, for sports watchers, their cable bill will probably stay the same or increase, maybe … In the case of someone who doesn’t watch any sports at all, their bill will probably decrease.”

An Age of Abundance: Canadian telecom regulators are transforming media regulations in Canada, recognizing the way Canadians watch television has changed. Quality, not quantity, is now most important. CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais discusses the new reality. (6:08)

Pelletier and his industry friends are on a mission to convince Canadians to leave well enough alone and not drop the current all-for-one price cable television package for a-la-carte — not realizing the potential consequences.

catnipSome in the cable industry have tried other scare tactics to no avail.

One industry-backed study predicted pick-and-pay could cost the economy 10,000 jobs. Consumers could care less. Unifor, a union that represents many in the television sector, seemed to agree Canada’s cultural heritage will be at risk with lowest common denominator programming dominating from St. John’s to Vancouver, much of it shoveled from the United States. But Canadians still want their House of Cards and Homeland.

Howard Law, a media spokesman for Unifor, predicts less profitable Canadian channels will fold under a pick-and-pay pricing model.

“The introduction of pick and pay will, in itself, lead to a major loss of revenues to Canadian broadcasting system, which ultimately plays out in less Canadian content and less Canadian jobs and less Canadian broadcasting,” he said in an interview on CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Minority interest and religious channels are also worried about their future. Most of those networks are classified as “specialty channels” by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Legacy networks that have been around since at least the 1990s have been sitting pretty, protected by their designation as a “Category A” specialty station. Unlike in the United States, Canadian cable networks are licensed to operate by the CRTC, and at least 60 of those Category A networks also enjoy “genre protection,” a CRTC policy that guarantees their channel carriage on Canadian cable, satellite, and telco TV systems and protection from other cable networks that want to run the same kind of programming.

For decades, protectionist Canadian content regulations made certain Canadian television reflected its audience. But online video and the Internet has allowed Canadians to bypass traditional cable television to watch they want, not what the government hopes they will. New CRTC rules reflect that reality as Canadian TV rethinks how to get the viewer’s attention. From CBC-TV’s The National (4:16)

CRTC policies have allowed Canadian specialty channels to flourish despite operating in a smaller marketplace with fewer viewers than their American counterparts. That means networks like FoodTV and HGTV in Canada have profit margins ranging from 53-58 percent. Fashion Television and BookTV made an improbable $2.7 million in pre-tax profit, not so much from viewers but from the licensing fees every Canadian cable customer pays for the four networks whether they watch them or not.

From its inception, Canadian TV has always faced a looming shadow from the south. Protecting Canada's identity has been a priority for decades.

From its start, Canadian TV has always faced a looming shadow from the south. Protecting Canada’s identity has been a priority for decades.

“If you’re a specialty channel that’s lived within the protective cocoon of bundling for years, you’ve gotten used to having a full-time job with benefits,” independent technology analyst Carmi Levy told CBC News. “Contrast that with living outside the protective cocoon, you’re essentially a freelancer, you fight for every contract, you have no benefits, there are no guarantees that money will be coming tomorrow or next week.”

It probably won’t be coming from subscribers like Mr. Rehor, who won’t hesitate to drop channels if they go unwatched.

The CRTC is also doing some dropping of its own, starting with genre protection, which could lead many specialty networks to follow American cable networks that today depend on chasing ratings to justify their licensing fees. The unintended result in the United States has been questionable lineup changes like the appearance of Law & Order rerun marathons on WEtv, a network supposedly dedicated to women’s entertainment. Ovation, a fine arts independent cable network that is about a niche as a network can be, depended on weekend binges of PBS’ Antiques Roadshow reruns in 2012 just to attract enough viewers to show up in the ratings.

Lesser known networks like OutTV, Canada’s only network dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers, may face an uncertain future if it can’t charge a premium price to make up for expected subscriber losses from pick and pay. Other niche channels may have to merge with other networks or more likely relaunch with an online platform and deliver a reduced menu of content to audiences.

crtcLarge Canadian mainstream networks and programmers don’t expect too much change from pick and pay, as most Canadians will likely still demand a package with their programming included. But distributors – cable, satellite, and telco TV platforms, do expect some major changes. The average Canadian now pays around $50 a month for basic cable, a price that will be cut in half next spring.

Rogers Cable already knows what is coming. It ran a trial in 2011 in London, Ont., with 1,000 customers who were given the choice of picking and paying for the channels they wanted. It didn’t take long for the cable company to discover customers loved it and TV stations and cable programmers hated it.

“We found that customers like bundles, but want to build their own. They want a basic package and an extra package they create,” Rogers spokesman Kevin Spafford told the Toronto Sun. “We did get push back from TV stations. There was concern about offering this service. They did not want us to proceed with that model.”

After the trial ended, Rogers allowed the pilot project participants to keep their pick and pay packages, something they’ve held tightly for over four years.

Rogers’ pilot offered something like what the CRTC is demanding be available to all Canadians:

rogers logoROGERS PICK AND PLAY PILOT

  • $20 a month for “skinny basic” TV package of Canadian stations. (The CRTC plan mandates no more than $25.)
  • 15-channel package for $27 a month. Other packages of 20 and 25 stations also offered, for more money. (The CRTC wants networks to offer channels individually or in mini-bundles.)
  • U.S. major networks offered for $3 a month. (Under the CRTC policy, these stations may appear under the basic or a-la-carte tiers.)

REGULAR ROGERS

  • Basic: $40 a month, 190 channels
  • Digital Plus: $63, 220 channels
  • Sports packages: $77, 230 channels
  • VIP TV: $77, 270 channels
  • VIP Ultimate: $119, 320 channels

The upcoming changes are probably the biggest in Canadian cable television history, but they still may not be enough to attract cord-nevers — those who have never subscribed to cable TV. Most are under 30 and already watch all their favorite shows online. Some budget-minded Canadians who want to cut their cable bill may consider joining them by cutting the cord altogether or slimming down their cable packages, but Pelletier warns that cable operators will not leave their money on the table.

cablecordSupplementing a slimmer cable package with a streaming service or two could increase data charges, Pelletier warns. Plus, you may have to surrender any discounts you get from bundling cable with home phone, Internet and/or wireless service.

Usage capped Internet is also still an effective deterrent for cord-cutting and whether your television entertainment comes over the cable or online, providers will still make a run for your wallet. Some observers predict providers will dramatically increase the retail prices of a-la-carte networks to limit potential savings while also continuing to raise broadband prices.

A 2014 national PIAC poll found 90 per cent of 1,000 consumers polled were willing to pay an additional $1 a month per channel, while 54 per cent would be willing to go $3 a month, and 21 per cent would be willing to pay $5 a month for an extra channel of their choosing. Many don’t realize under the current system the wholesale rate for many channels is under 50 cents a month. Considering what Canadians are willing to pay, it is likely cable companies will price channels according to what the marketplace will tolerate, which could be around $3 for each channel a month.

Suspicion about any cable company offering a New Deal is something Americans and Canadians have in common. Mr. Rehor is already keeping a wary eye.

“I think it’s a good idea, I just don’t know how they’re going to really work it,” he says, fearing it could ultimately end up costing the same amount he pays now.

CBC News offers this extended discussion about the implications of “pick and pay” cable television. (10:11)

Rogers Enables VoLTE Voice/Video Calling It Exempts from Its Own Usage Allowance

netneutralityIf you make a voice or video call over Rogers’ wireless network using Skype, you will chew into your monthly data plan. If you make the same phone call over Rogers’ Voice over LTE network, your data allowance is safe.

Rogers this week expanded VoLTE in Canada to iPhone 6 series phones, joining select Android devices that have had VoLTE service available as an option under phone settings for some time.

VoLTE relies on the same wireless LTE 4G network data sessions do, but Rogers has “zero-rated” voice and video calls made over its own phones so they do not count against a customer’s data plan allowance. Customers using a competing app like FaceTime or Skype are not so lucky — using either counts against your data plan.

rogers logoThat could suggest a potential Net Neutrality violation for one of Canada’s largest cellular providers because Section 27 (2) of the Telecommunications Act makes it clear unjust discrimination is illegal:

(2) No Canadian carrier shall, in relation to the provision of a telecommunications service or the charging of a rate for it, unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person, including itself, or subject any person to an undue or unreasonable disadvantage.

“It is the main ‘backbone’ behind implementation of Net Neutrality in Canada, along with the ITMP rules (2009-657),” said , who closely observes the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, responsible for upholding Net Neutrality in the country. Mezei tweeted the CRTC this afternoon, asking who they thought would be the first to file a Net Neutrality complaint against Rogers for the practice.

Rogers Communications: Canada’s Newest Net Neutrality Advocate?!; Blasts Vidéotron for Fuzzy Caps

rogers logoCanada’s largest wireless carrier and near-largest Internet Service Provider has just become one of Canada’s largest Net Neutrality advocates. How did that happen?

In an ironic move, Alphabeatic reports Rogers Communications today filed a letter with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that supports a ban on providers exempting customers from usage caps when accessing content owned by the provider or its preferred partners.

The issue arose after Vidéotron, Quebec’s largest cable operator and significant wireless provider, began offering an Unlimited Music service that keeps the use of eight streaming audio services – Rdio, Stingray, Spotify, Google Play, 8Tracks, Groove, Songza and Deezer – from counting against a customer’s usage allowance.

videotron mobileThe practice of exempting certain preferred content from usage billing, known as “zero rating,” is a flagrant violation of Net Neutrality according to consumer groups. Rogers now evidently agrees.

“The Unlimited Music service offered by Vidéotron is fundamentally at odds with the objective of ensuring that there is an open and non-discriminatory marketplace for mobile audio services,” Rogers’ CRTC filing said. “Vidéotron is, in effect, picking winners and losers by adopting a business model that would require an online audio service provider (including Canadian radio stations that stream content online) to accept Vidéotron’s contractual requirements in order to receive the benefit of having its content zero-rated.”

The practice of zero rating can steer users to a provider’s own services or those that agree to partner with the provider, putting others at a competitive disadvantage. That is what bothers the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which calls the practice incompatible with an Open Internet.

Rogers has an interest in the fight. The company owns a number of commercial radio stations across Canada, many that stream their content over the Internet. None are exempt from Vidéotron’s caps.

Rogers’ advocacy for Net Neutrality is new for the company, and ironic. Rogers partnered with Vidéotron and Bell to offer its own zero-rated online video service for wireless customers until last August, when consumer groups complained to the CRTC about the practice.

Rogers may also be in the best position to judge others for the practice while finding a convenient loophole for itself. Its current promotions include free subscriptions to Shomi, a video streaming service, Next Issue, a magazine app, or Spotify, the well-known music streaming service. While Rogers won’t exempt your use of these services from its usage caps, it will effectively exempt you from having to pay a subscription fee for the service of your choice, which could provide the same amount of savings zero rating content would.

So Much for Competition: Rogers to Buy Independent Mobilicity to Use in Tax Savings Scheme

Phillip Dampier June 23, 2015 Canada, Competition, Consumer News, Mobilicity, Public Policy & Gov't, Rogers, Telus, Video, Wind Mobile (Canada), Wireless Broadband Comments Off on So Much for Competition: Rogers to Buy Independent Mobilicity to Use in Tax Savings Scheme

mobilicityMobilicity, a struggling independent wireless carrier serving some of Canada’s largest cities, will end its efforts to compete with larger wireless companies if a court approves its sale to Rogers Communications, Canada’s largest mobile operator.

Late this afternoon, sources told The Globe and Mail Mobilicity accepted an offer from Rogers in excess of $400 million to acquire the wireless company’s assets and transfer some of its wireless spectrum to Wind Mobile Corp., one of the last remaining Canadian independent carriers, to appease regulators, who could still block a deal with Rogers.

The federal government’s wireless telecom policy has stressed the importance of having at least four wireless providers competing in every region. Wind has managed to achieve that in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, but lacks enough coverage elsewhere. Mobilicity landed itself in financial trouble soon after launch, finding the costs of network construction high for a company with below-expected customer numbers.

rogers logoMobilicity has been under creditor protection since September 2013 and has only managed to keep 157,000 active customers on its discount cellular network. Rogers is said to be interested in Mobilicity primarily as part of a tax write-off strategy. Mobilicity had non-capital loss carry forwards of $567-million by the end of 2013, which offers Rogers a reduction in its tax bill of about 25 to 30% of that amount.

Observers predict Mobilicity could continue for a time, if in name only, as part of Rogers’ larger portfolio of wireless brands. Rogers already controls two other Canadian wireless brands: Fido and Chatr.

As late as yesterday, Rogers and Telus were both fighting to acquire Mobilicity after it became clear there would be no “white knight” for Mobilicity that would satisfy competition regulators or creditors. Telus attempted an acquisition twice, only to be rebuffed by the Competition Bureau. A last-ditch effort by Wind Mobile to acquire its comparatively sized competitor was a flop with creditors who expected a higher bid.

Mobilicity’s network coverage was always one of its biggest challenges. The company only managed to offer direct coverage in parts of the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa/Gatineau, Calgary, Edmonton, and Greater Vancouver. Mobilicity’s network also relied on very high frequencies that had a challenging time penetrating buildings, and its lack of network densification led to complaints about dropped calls and poor coverage overall.

The disposition of an earlier plan submitted by employees and Mobilicity’s founder to transform the company into an MVNO — providing independent wireless service using its acquirer’s network, isn’t known at press time.

As late as yesterday, BNN was reporting Telus and Rogers were both competing to acquire Mobilicity. It appears Rogers has won. (2:23)

Rogers Cable Dumping Usage Caps for More Customers; New Ignite Plans for Unlimited Video Streaming

Phillip Dampier March 4, 2015 Broadband Speed, Canada, Competition, Consumer News, Internet Overcharging, Online Video, Rogers Comments Off on Rogers Cable Dumping Usage Caps for More Customers; New Ignite Plans for Unlimited Video Streaming

rogersThe cable company that used to make you think twice about every online video you watch doesn’t want you to think about that anymore.

Rogers Cable, eastern Canada’s largest cable company, has traditionally been one of the stingiest usage cappers in the Canadian broadband business. But now the company is marketing the fact many of its Internet plans are now usage-cap free.

Today, Rogers introduced Rogers Ignite Unlimited, 100/10 and 200/20Mbps Internet plans that come with unlimited usage, subscriptions to Rogers NHL GameCentre LIVE and shomi, Rogers’ TV Everywhere service.

“We’ve redesigned our plans to give our customers unlimited usage options with consistent, reliable speeds so they can surf more, stream more and share more without worrying about going over their limit or getting a spotty connection,” said Robert Goodman, senior director, Rogers Communications.

Goodman says the new plans are specifically designed to handle the increasing bandwidth demands of video streaming, which can quickly chew through any customer’s usage allowance. Rogers’ officials admit that 50 percent of the traffic on its broadband network is now video streaming and that customers’ Internet usage has spiked by 60 percent annually.

That growth, without a corresponding increase in usage allowances, offers a natural deterrent to cord-cutting and online viewing. Viewers who exceed their usage allowance face stiff overlimit penalties.

Rogers is not expected to lose any money dropping usage caps from its higher-end Ignite plans, which do not come cheap. The least expensive plans still keep usage caps with a $1.50/GB overlimit fee. Customers bundling multiple services together will pay less than these broadband-only prices:

  • Internet 30 ($64.99): 30/5Mbps with 100GB allowance
  • Rogers Ignite 60 ($74.99): 60/10Mbps with 200GB allowance
  • Rogers Ignite 100u ($84.99): 100/10Mbps with unlimited usage
  • Rogers Ignite 250u ($94.99): 250/20Mbps with unlimited usage

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