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Small-city and rural Canadians could lose their free TV

Shaw Communications has asked the CRTC for permission to cut off free television to tens of thousands of Canadians in small cities and rural areas.

Shaw Direct asks CRTC to end program meant to replace over-the-air signals

The Local Television Satellite Solution that provided free service to Canadians who lost signals when TV transitioned from analog to digital in 2011 could end this year. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Shaw Communications has asked the CRTC for permission to cut off free television to tens of thousands of Canadians in small cities and rural areas by ending a program to replace signals lost when broadcasters stopped transmitting via analog eight years ago.

In a recent application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Shaw's home satellite service advised the broadcast regulator it wanted to terminate the Local Television Satellite Solution (LTSS). 

The LTSS provided minimum access to Canadian television services, including CBC, Radio-Canada, CTV, Global and Citytv. It was only available free if a household was in an area that previously received over-the-air signals free through an antenna, and lost them in 2011 when transmission converted to digital.

Unless I'm willing to give up some of the rent money, I have to accept that I will no longer be able to receive, as a Canadian, CBC programming.- Doug Grisack, LTSS subscriber in Lethbridge, Alta.

That conversion removed television service for rural Canadians across the country and viewers in both small cities and metro areas as large as Saskatoon or London, Ont.

Lethbridge, Alta., resident Doug Grisack is concerned he'll lose access to programming as a result of Shaw's request, unless he opens up his wallet for pay television service.

"Unless I'm willing to give up some of the rent money, I have to accept that I will no longer be able to receive, as a Canadian, CBC programming," said Grisack, who has sent his concerns to the CRTC.

"I think as a Canadian taxpayer, I should have some sort of access to the national programming of the CBC."

Service a condition of Shaw acquiring Global

Providing the free satellite service was part of a deal Shaw made with the broadcast regulator when it acquired Global TV in 2010. The CRTC required Shaw Direct (then branded Star Choice) to offer the program until its next licence renewal at the end of August 2019.

Shaw's satellite arm looks to end free distribution of satellite to more than 30,000 households. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

In filing for that licence renewal, Shaw indicated it provided equipment and satellite service to more than 31,000 households, and while it refused to confirm for the CBC how many Canadians are currently receiving signals, it said it voluntarily kept the program going for two years longer than the CRTC originally requested.

In a statement emailed to CBC News, Shaw said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on the LTSS while their application is in front of the CRTC.

Chunks of Canada lose access to basic, free TV

Large portions of Canada will no longer have access to basic services such as CBC Television signals if this goes through, according to Gregory Taylor, a University of Calgary assistant professor.

"You've got these dead zones as far as over-the-air television goes right now," said Taylor, an expert in Canada's conversion from analog to digital television.

He is not advocating that the CRTC require Shaw itself to continue the LTSS, but believes it's important the federal regulator maintain basic TV access across the country.

Small cities like Kingston, Ont., Brandon, Man., Fort McMurray, Alta., and Kelowna, B.C., would be affected.

Gregory Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, says the CRTC can 'be creative' to maintain the LTSS. (CBC)

"The success of this program should show the CRTC that this demand exists," said Taylor. "The CRTC can be creative about this if they choose to make the effort to maintain it."

Taylor pointed out the regulator has multiple sources of funding it can direct towards a program like the LTSS, similar to how the CRTC requires funding of Canadian television programming already.

Former chairman surprised by request

The past chairman of the CRTC from 2007-2012 told CBC News he was surprised to hear of Shaw requesting to kill the LTSS service.

"I don't understand why they would not [continue]," said Konrad von Finkenstein, who oversaw the regulator during the analog to digital transition for broadcast signals, and pointed out the LTSS service gave Shaw free advertising and access to potential customer homes across the country.

Konrad von Finckenstein was chairman of the CRTC when Shaw's free satellite service was first implemented. ((Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press))

"The whole idea of broadcasting over-the-air is to give people free access to television," said von Finkenstein. "Just because we made a change in assigning the airwaves [converting to digital] it should not come at the expense of people who were enjoying free TV … before."

Shaw has sent advertisements to current LTSS clients offering them a two-year discount on paid service, but according to customers including Grisack, the company has not indicated what would happen if the CRTC refuses their request to discontinue the program.

The CRTC is accepting public comments on Shaw's application until end of today (May 13). Shaw said it would make its final submission to the regulator later in the month.

About the Author

Anis Heydari

Video Journalist

Anis Robert Heydari has worked in jobs ranging from cleaning up oil spills to fixing phone lines, but all those roads eventually led to being a jack-of-all-trades and CBC News reporter. Reach him at anis@cbc.ca.

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