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Great North American Broadband Ripoff: Canada, U.S. Pay Double What Europe, Asia Pays

Phillip Dampier September 26, 2017 Broadband Speed, Canada, Competition, Public Policy & Gov't 4 Comments

Prices in €. (Source: European Commission)

The European Commission’s latest study on broadband pricing shows while Europe and Asia offer consumers affordable broadband, North American providers are forcing Americans and Canadians to essentially pay twice as much for equivalent levels of service.

Just as was the case in 2015, the report found some of the most costly broadband packages in the world are sold to customers in Canada and the United States. This year, the study found the average Canadian paid more than $52 a month for standalone broadband, in the U.S. an average of $42 a month. In contrast, Europeans paid an average of $30 and Asians paid $22 a month for comparable service. Customers in the U.S. and Canada with a triple play bundle package of broadband, TV, and phone service paid more than double what their counterparts in Asia and Europe did last year.

As U.S. and Canadian providers raise broadband speeds and constrict the number of service tiers they offer, customers are forced into more expensive tiers, whether they need or want them. That further exacerbates the digital divide based on broadband affordability.

In Europe, competition in many EU member states has caused prices to drop for some types of service. Double and triple play packages offering 100Mbps or less declined in price by as much as 10.6% in 2016.

The study found:

Broadband prices for budget tiers actually dropped in Europe last year.

For the download speed basket 12-30Mbps, the EU vies with Japan and in some cases Korea showing the least expensive prices in one or more of the four service bundles. The lowest price for Double Play with fixed telephony in the €28 is also the lowest compared to all the countries analysed. The EU, Japan and South Korea have relatively similar prices when compared with Canada and, in particular, the USA.

Comparing the €28 with other countries in the world, the pattern in the 30-100Mbps speed basket is similar to the 12-30 Mbps basket. Japan is the least expensive country for three of four bundles; only Single Play is slightly less expensive in South Korea. Here, the EU28 just fail to present the lowest price for Double Play with fixed telephony. Again, the EU, Japan, and South Korea stay at more or less close compared to Canada and the USA. Alternatively, Canada is the most expensive country in three of four bundles. However, USA shows the most expensive Double Play with fixed telephony – despite considering the lowest price offers in three States there.

With regard to the 100+ Mbps basket of advertised download speeds, Japan and South Korea are decisively the least expensive markets, across all service bundles. South Korea has the least expensive offer for Single Play, Japan for Double Play including TV services. For the top download speed basket, the EU lies in mid-field between the low-cost Asian and the high-priced North American countries.

Other conclusions:

• Ultra-fast broadband offers (100+ Mbps) were still most expensive in the USA and Canada
• The least expensive offer for South Korea across all bundles was faster than 100Mbps
• Compared to Japan and South Korea, European citizens have to pay similar prices for offers of up to 100Mbps, but significantly more for ultra-fast connections.

CBS Invades Canada: Launching Its All-Access Pass Service North of the Border in 2018

Phillip Dampier August 8, 2017 Canada, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

CBS All Access is coming to Canada, bringing nearly the entire lineup of CBS shows and features north of the border.

The service will launch in Canada in the first half of 2018, followed shortly thereafter in other countries in “multiple continents” according to CBS. CBS has not yet set prices for the Canadian market, but the price is expected to be comparable to the $5.99 and $9.99 (ad-free) options sold in the United States.

It isn’t known if CBS will also attempt to offer Showtime as an add-on abroad, but the network promises to include most of the 9,000 episodes of CBS and original programming available to Americans without annoying geographic restrictions for those abroad. Canadian viewers will also be able to watch CBSN, the 24/7 streaming news service developed by CBS News specifically for online audiences, as well as on-demand access to certain shows licensed by CBS but not seen on the network.

CBS All Access is available on smartphones, tablets, Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, Android TV, Fire TV, and most major game consoles.

Bell Acquires Manitoba Telecom for $3.9 Billion; Cell Phone Rates Expected to Rise

bell badBCE, Inc., the parent company of Bell Canada, has acquired Manitoba Telecom Services, Inc. (MTS), in a deal worth $3.9 billion, further enlarging Canada’s largest telecommunications company.

“Under the terms of this transaction, MTS will achieve much more than it could have as an independent company,” Manitoba Telecom president and CEO Jay Forbes said in a conference call with analysts. “BCE’s commitment to invest $1 billion over five years into Manitoba’s telecommunications infrastructure will also contribute greatly to the prosperity of our province and the quality of our customer experience.”

Many MTS customers and consumer advocates disagree with Forbes’ assessment, noting the deal will further consolidate Canada’s wireless marketplace by eliminating the province’s largest wireless carrier – MTS. The wireless business has nearly 500,000 customers – by far the largest provider in the region. Under the deal, BCE will sell off about one-third of MTS’ customers and retail storefronts to competitor Telus in a separate transaction.

Manitoba and neighboring residents in Saskatchewan pay some of the lowest prices for telecom services in Canada. MTS offers unlimited, flat rate Internet plans for both its broadband and wireless customers — plans likely to disappear or become more expensive after Bell takes over. The result, according to one Canadian telecom expert, will be higher rates.

“With MTS out of the way — and Bell and Telus sharing the same wireless network — prices are bound to increase to levels more commonly found in the rest of the country,” lawyer Michael Geist wrote on his blog.

The deal is also likely to deliver a death-blow to a government commitment assuring Canadians of at least four competing choices for wireless service. If Bell’s buyout is approved by regulators, Manitoba will be served by just three competitors — all charging substantially more than MTS.

...but soon we'll be with Bell.

…but soon we’ll be with Bell.

“Compare Bell’s wireless pricing for consumers in Manitoba and Ontario,” offered Geist. “The cost of an unlimited nationwide calling share plan in Manitoba is $50. The same plan in Ontario is $65. The difference in data costs are even larger: Bell offers 6GB for $20 in Manitoba. The same $20 will get you just 500MB in Ontario. In fact, 5GB costs $50 in Ontario, more than double the cost in Manitoba for less data. The other carriers such as Rogers and Telus also offer lower pricing in Manitoba. The reason is obvious: the presence of a fourth carrier creates more competition and lower pricing.”

That Manitoba Telecom would be up for sale at all came as a result of its controversial privatization in 2006 under a previous Conservative provincial government. The decision to privatize came despite a commitment from then-Premier Gary Filmon that Manitoba Telecom should remain a provincially-owned telecom company. Critics point to one possible reason for the flip-flop. Shortly after leaving politics, Filmon was appointed to the board of directors of the privatized company and was given $1.4 million in director fees and compensation over ten years, along with company shares with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Economist Toby Sanger compared costs and returns of Manitoba Telecom and SaskTel, Saskatchewan’s publicly-owned telecommunications company. After two decades, the cost of a basic landline with SaskTel is $8 less per month than MTS, and SaskTel paid $497 million in corporate income taxes to the citizens of Saskatchewan – SaskTel’s shareholders – over the past five years, compared to $1.2 million paid by MTS over the same time period. In 2014, the CEO of SaskTel earned $499,492 compared to $7.8 million paid to the CEO of MTS for managing a very similar sized operation.

The acquisition will be reviewed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the Competition Bureau and Industry Canada, and could be approved later this year or early 2017.

Netflix’s $5 Billion Budget for Content Guarantees Program Spending Arms Race

Phillip Dampier March 3, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 2 Comments

Total-Cable-Rate-increase-FCC6Years of broadcast and cable networks relying on cheap reality TV fare, game shows, and lurid news magazines to save money are coming to an end as media companies realize the only way to stop the viewing shift to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon is to create better programming viewers want to see.

With online video services like Netflix spending millions to create original content like House of Cards and Fuller House, viewers are becoming disenchanted with shoveled reality fare and reruns littering basic cable networks.

A decade ago, cable networks started pushing the envelope on their programming lineups to boost ratings. Sober educational history documentaries on The History Channel began to make way in 2008 for reality shows like Pawn Stars and Ax Men, along with dubious pseudo-documentaries like Ancient Aliens and UFO Hunters. Consistent weather forecast information on The Weather Channel often had to wait for various weather chasing reality shows and other long form programming. Even The Learning Channel ditched educational programming as early as 2001 to feature “lifestyle” shows maligned and lampooned by critics as “freak show” television.

Broadcast networks suffering through an interminable advertising recession increasingly ditched scripted dramas for much cheaper reality and game shows. Even though some of these shows are considered popular, the total number of households viewing them have been in decline for years.

With the advent of series and movies created and funded by online video providers, traditional television networks and cable outlets have realized they can no longer rely on Law & Order reruns and shows like The Real Housewives of Dallas to keep viewers. They have to spend more money to create quality new shows.

bill shockBloomberg News reports networks hit the panic button after learning Netflix intends to spend almost $5 billion this year alone on programming, far more than any broadcast or cable network would ever consider.

The new strategy in response: spend, spend, spend.

“All these companies have been raising the amount they’re spending on programming pretty consistently,” said Doug Creutz, an analyst with Cowen & Co. “TV is losing audiences, and you’re trying to have new stuff to keep audiences engaged with your programming.”

Discovery Communications, Viacom and Starz are among those planning spending boosts to deliver better programming to compete. Although that may be great news for television aficionados, consumers are likely to be handed the bill in the form of higher cable rates to cover the “increased programming expenses.”

The large broadcast networks, movie studios, and cable networks may have created this problem for themselves after they began dramatically boosting the cost of licensing movies and TV shows for ventures like Netflix, in hopes of limiting its growth while also profiting handsomely from their deep content libraries. In response to growing restrictions on licensing content, Netflix embarked on a plan to create some of their own exclusive content instead. Many entertainment executives did not take Netflix seriously until the arrival of House of Cards, a series that could easily have been created and financed by any major network.

Other online video companies quickly followed suit, often using the British TV model of creating affordable, high quality mini-series that might include 8-10 episodes per season instead of the usual two dozen common on American networks. Co-productions with content-starved networks abroad also helped share expenses, secure talent, and move into something beyond conventional programming.

Cable networks have also had increasing success creating shows not just for the American market, but also for export to the rest of the English-speaking world, particularly Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, and Canada.

discoverySome Wall Street analysts like Rich Greenfield at BTIG Research have gone as far as predicting the traditional cable TV bundle is threatened with extinction as cost conscious viewers continue to abandon linear/live television for on-demand content like that offered by Netflix instead. That has delivered a three-way punch: pressures on revenue as program creation spending increases, growing cord-cutting, and cable rate inflation cable executives are increasingly desperate to control.

The day the 500 channel cable package model falls apart may not be too far off. The cost of programming at Discovery’s cable networks, other than sports, has grown 55% from 2013 to 2016, according to projections from researcher MoffettNathanson.

Discovery is using the money to push aside some of its near-endless reality TV fare for scripted programming, developing 10 shows with Lions Gate Entertainment. Viacom, another major cable programmer, saw expenses rise more than 25%, in part to create a new night of programming on VH1, doubling animation at Nickelodeon, and budgeting for more special events programming on BET. Some smaller cable operators were not impressed with the asking price and dropped all of Viacom’s networks from their cable systems.

Starz-LogoStarz, dwarfed by HBO and Showtime, is spending $250 million on its own original programming including Outlander, Survivor’s Remorse and Power. Subscribers who want more will get it as Starz increases budgets enough to allow producers to create 80-90 original episodes this year, up from 75 in 2015. To introduce subscribers to the shows, Starz commonly offers cable subscribers free trials as part of ongoing cable company promotions.

If you run an entertainment studio, are employed in the entertainment field, or can act, these are good times. In fact, demand for scripted shows may be outpacing the capacity of studios to produce them.

John Landgraf, CEO of Fox’s FX Networks, asserted there’s “too much TV,” noting over 400 scripted shows were filmed last year.

Until the late 1980s, most of the demand for scripted shows came from NBC, CBS, ABC, and the then-new FOX, because they were the only ones with enough money to afford the high production costs. Today, cable subscribers foot the bill for most cable network original shows, causing cable rates to spiral. With Netflix ready to spend at least $11 billion on programming over the next five years, the days of rate hikes are far from over.

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)

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