Monday was day eight of the CRTC hearings on new media. This included a presentation from Pelmorex Communications, the parent company of The Weather Network. I was curious about this presentation because of Pelmorex's submission to the CRTC which detailed the steps wireless carriers take to alter the Internet capabilities of their customers, so when Michael Geist posted a link to the online transcript, I took a look.
The presentation begins with introductions. Pelmorex president and COO Gaston Germain introduces himself and his colleagues, who include Paul Temple, Senior Vice President of Regulatory and Strategic Affairs, and Taylor Emerson, Vice President and General Manager of their Interactive Services Division.
Germain promotes his company a little, makes some encouraging noises about Canadian content, and then passes things over to Paul Temple, who gets into the meat of his company's complaint:
Under the rules as they exist today, mobile carriers can decide which programming gets preferential packaging and they can ask programmers to pay a fee for it. And if we say no to the fee or we aren't even given the opportunity to be packaged, they may require customers to pay more to access our content. This raises concerns about fair and equitable access on the mobile platform for Canadian services, a platform that is poised to become extremely important for the delivery of programming.
Things start getting painful when the questions from the CRTC begin:
Chairperson Konrad von Finckenstein: Maybe you can explain this access issue to me. I'm not so sure I follow you when you say that wireless providers can discriminate against you and, obviously in your view, do. I understand further that if any ISP or any wireless carrier offers you as part of a bundle that the cost is preferential and is subject to a negotiation which you have.
If he doesn't do that doesn't the customer have the ability to use the internet access off his mobile phone and go to your site? [...] So are you telling me that some carriers block that ability to download whatever it is called, an applet or application, and to put it on their wireless apparatus
Paul Temple: What they will do is, if you are not in that walled garden or preferred package, then you are quite right. Customers can still access our content but they pay a premium to access that content. The data charges that they incur are higher to visit our site as an example than some other competitive site that they have decided to put in their package.
So therefore, unlike wireline websites where whether you go to our site or anyone else's, the cost to access those sites are the same, in the mobile environment whoever isn't in the preferred package, the consumer is charged extra.
Seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? The Internet is the Internet. It doesn't matter which sites I browse on my computer, my ISP charges me the same amount of money no matter where I choose to go online. This is not the case with wireless net access. That's the fundamental issue here: equal access.
In fact, there are laws governing our ISPs that guarantee that fairness (section 27(2) of the Telecommunications Act), but wireless carriers are exempt from this section.
But as simple as the issue seems to me, the commissioners at the CRTC didn't seem to see it. The point Pelmorex was trying to make - that there ought not to be a difference between the net from ISPs versus on wireless networks - seemed to sail over their heads. Their questions and comments indicated that they may see nothing wrong with the wireless walled garden at all.
In fact, at times I wondered if they had any idea what Germain and his colleagues were talking about. Read this exchange, which occurs well into the presentation (edited for brevity):
Mr. Temple (Pelmorex): When you go on a mobile device to go on the internet that is an open network; you are going anywhere you want to go to any site. So it isn't a closed network. It's wide open. The concern is that the wireless carrier can just charge people different amounts or include them in packages or not include them. They have those extra abilities and there is no recourse to that decision, whereas at least on the wireline environment there is recourse [section 27(2) that I mentioned above] if you feel that you are being unjustly discriminated against.
Mr. Germain (Pelmorex): And mobile is becoming -- if it is not already -- just another onramp to the internet. Yet, it's treated differently than the wireline.
Commissioner Simpson (CRTC): In what respect?
Mr. Germain: In that respect.
What? That's right: after Pelmorex executives have presented their case, talked about walled gardens, preferred sites and package deals on wireless networks, explained the reasons this is allowed (section 27(2) of the Telecommunications Act) and explained that they simply wish to have section 27(2) apply to wireless carriers, the CRTC commissioner wants to know "in what respect" Internet access on mobile phones is different.
Where was he this whole time?
The conversation proceeds along these lines, prompting a lot of analogies from the Pelmorex team ("CNN wins [a bid], so now you pay less when you go to CNN's site to watch their video programming and you pay more to watch CBC's because CNN won the bid on that carrier"), but to little avail. Commissioner Simpson, though, does have a memorable question:
"A final question with respect to commercial versus user content, the old axiom of everyone talks about the weather but the question is: Will they make movies about it and put it on YouTube?"
To which I have to respond again: what?
I'm getting a little worried about where we might be headed here, folks.
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