We’ve got a government in Canada that’s always trying to play the angles. One is to announce new policies via Twitter. Industry minister Tony Clement has become an old hand at this. And this is how PM Harper’s office let out the word that it wants to roll back the decision of the CRTC to force telecoms to charge Internet users by usage – the more you use, the more you’d pay.
A popular move, you say. No one on a fixed rate wants to be shifted to User-Based Billing where it would cost extra to down load movies and other heavy data features.
Under the current system, the big Telcos – BCE and Telus, for example – set a cap on how many gigabytes a subscriber can draw down. You get notified when you’re near the limit, and likely to run into more charges. It’s the independent companies — Small Internet Service Providers — who buy bandwith from the telcos and re-sell it to subscribers who would be hit. They’d have to give up offering unlimited downloading, and start charging heavy users extra.
As a result of Ottawa’s blow-back, the CRTC is reviewing the decision. It says it’s doing it “of its own initiative.” Believe that, and I have a bridge I can sell you.
This fiddling with the CRTC decision on bandwidth is just another example of how the Harper government has made a shambles of telecom policy.
First, they overrode the CRTC to allow Globalive, backed with Egyptian money, to start up in Canada regardless of rules that are supposed to limit the entry of foreign providers. We won ‘t apply the law in this case, the government said.
Few of us, especially me, have any objection to another entrant in our over-priced mobile telephone market.
But we either have laws or we don ‘t. That’s why the Federal Court, in a stunning slap at the Harperites, has told Ottawa it had no basis to allow Gobalive in. So now the future of their Wind Mobile is up in the air, and investors are scratching their heads as to whether telecom in Canada is something that it’s safe to invest in.Not a healthy situation.
Clearly the Harperites are seizing on every populist opportunity to try to make friends and influence voters.
How about trying to do it in a rational, sustainable way?
In principle, there’s nothing wrong with user-based billing. The problem is there’s not enough competition in telecom in Canada. That’s why our cell phone costs are so high, and why South Koreans pay a fraction of what we do for ten times the Internet bandwidth we enjoy.
In principle, it’s a good idea to encourage foreigners to invest in Canadian industry when new competition will be beneficial to consumers.
But the idea of allowing one company to circumvent the foreign investment rules, or stopping an eminently sensible user pay system for the internet, makes for an incoherent, unpredictable, and risky public policy.
These decisions might seem beneficial to consumers in the short run, but their demoralizing effects on investment will do Canada no good in the long run.
So here’s my idea: Let the CRTC do its job. Makes rules for the telecom players. And if we want to lower the cost of cell phone and Internet access, open up the market to anyone who wants to provide service.
As an author, I’d be indignant if someone profited by reading my books over the air without getting my permission or compensating me for my work.
Yet that’s what happens every day in Canada when you turn on your TV set and pick up a cable signal of your favorite CBC, CTV or Global programs.
There’s a big battle going on in Canadian broadcasting over what the networks call “carriage fees.”
Hard pressed by falling advertising revenues, the networks are asking the CRTC (Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission) to require cable companies to compensate them for including their signals in the programming package they sell their customers.
I’ve always wondered why the cable companies were not required to do this in the first place. The U.S. has long had a rule that cable companies pay over-the-air TV stations for carrying their signals.
The networks may have welcomed the added exposure they got as Canadian homes switched from antennas to cable in the past forty years. Now that decision has come back to haunt them.
The specialty channels, like Bravo and the Weather Network, have been treated differently. From Day One, they’ve received a few cents for every cable customer.
Cable companies like Rogers and Shaw claim they’d have to charge customers $6 more a month to give the networks carriage fees. The networks would like the cable guys to cough up the fee from their profits.
As an example of how troubled Canadian broadcasting has become, CTV announced it would have to close three small city stations in Windsor and Wingham, Ontario and Brandon, Manitoba. When no buyer stepped up, CTV boss Ivan Fecan said he’d let them go for a dollar. Shaw Cable immediately offered that princely sum, and it looks as if they’ll get them.
At the same time, Shaw took out newspaper ads blasting the networks for asking for a bail-out.
I wonder if the folks running Shaw and Rogers have ever heard of intellectual property rights. Getting rich by selling somebody else’s property doesn’t seem right to me.
REPORTING ON THE RUN
There is a famous newspaper cliche, first popularized by Ben Hecht’s play The Front Page, that goes “Get me Rewrite.”
It was supposedly shouted by legmen who phoned from police court to pass on details of a trial. Their facts would then be written up by Rewrite and slapped on the front page of the next edition.
Today, a lot of news is transmitted from the scene to the presses — pictures as well as words — via wireless computing and digital photography.
In a landmark court ruling this week, Justice Douglas Cunningham has given reporters covering the trial of Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien permission to live-blog and send instant news stories from their handheld devices inside the courtroom. The story’s here.
Reporters used to have to take a break and rush from the courtroom to phone in their stuff, just like in the days of The Front Page.
However, the judge turned down the CBC when it requested permission to put TV cameras in the courtroom.
The Mayor, by the way, is charged with influence peddling.
A REVIEW OF MY NEW BOOK
If you’d like to read a review of my new book, Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime, go to my book site and click on News and Reviews (on the right).
My thanks to Nancy Mereska for her kind review.
If you’re a cable TV subscriber — and who isn’t these days — you’ve probably got channels on your set you never watch.
But if you’re in Canada, the agency that rules over the TV wasteland, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) won’t let you see the English language network of Al Jazeera, the Quatar-based Arabic-oriented news service.
Most Canadians want news and entertainment that is distinct from what’s on the U.S. TV channels spilling into Canada. That’s why our public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., was set up back in the 1930s. Private broadcasters add to the mix with their own Canadian programming, even if most of what they air originates in the U.S.
For a time back in 2003, the CRTC allowed Canadian cable companies to carry Al Jazeera’s Arabic service, but on the condition that they’d be held responsible for its content.
Maybe that will change now that Al Jazeera English has a new boss. Canadian Tony Burman, former editor-in-chief of CBC News, has taken over as the network’s Managing Director. Of that 2002 CRTC decision, Burman says:
“That’s a bit like holding a newsstand responsible for what the New York Times or the Economist prints.”
Al Jazeera was set up by the Emir of Qatar as a public broadcaster. It’s now subsidized, but the aim is for it to become self-sufficient from advertising and cable revenues.
Al Jazeera’s had a rough ride in the West since even before September 11. The demonization of everything Islamic has led to it being called a terrorist network. Its coverage of the recent Gaza invasion, when it was the only outside news service on the ground there, did not endear it to many in the West.
The late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American cultural critic, wrote of this anti-Islamic bias back in the 1990s. He spelled it out in Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Vintage, 1997).
Said’s argument was that the incessant presentation of stereotypes and prejudices about Islamic peoples is deeply entrenched in Western culture. He puts much of the blame on biased reporting of Western news agencies which has prevented understanding and perpetuated distortions.
I’ve made a habit of checking in on Al Jazeera’s online news site. Its postings, many written by Westerners, provide a fresh slant on the day’s news, offering a perspective you’ll not get even from such level-headed sources as the CBC or BBC World News.
Of course, it’s a perspective that was highly unacceptable to the Bush government and its allies. It remains suspect by many in Western media.
The ability to present an unfavorable image of the Islamic world was essential to the Bush strategy of building the fear that would permit public acceptance of the most repressive aspects of the war on terrorism.
We need to realize that there is no monolithic “Islam” any more than there is a monolithic Christian fundamentalism. Extremists in all religions pose an equal menace to peace and understanding.
A few glimpses of Al Jazeera’s English programming might go a long way to informing people in the West on the true nature, and challenges, of dealing with the Muslim world.
Sometime in the next few months, there will be a fresh application to the CRTC to add Al Jazeera to the line-ups of Canadian cable companies. If the past is any indication, you can expect to see bitter opposition from some in the Canadian media establishment.
And we thought varied voices were the bricks and mortar of an informed democracy!
Update: Al Jazeera English has applied officially to the CRTC to begin broadcasting in Canada. It also has launched a website iwantaje.ca to “clear up misperceptions and myths” about its TV news service.