CRTC considers hearings on rules for online video

Canada's broadcast regulator is considering reopening the discussion on online broadcasters, the start of a process that could affect what kinds of video users can get online.
The CRTC, led by chair Konrad von Finckenstein, is considering re-opening consultations on setting rules for online video services, including Netflix and YouTube. (Canadian Press)

Canada's broadcast regulator is considering re-opening the discussion on setting rules for online broadcasters, the start of a process that could affect what kind of videos that users can get online.

The CRTC this week ended a fact-finding period as it looks at starting public consultations on so-called over-the-top services like Netflix and YouTube two years sooner than planned.

Over-the-top refers to internet use over and above surfing and email, like streaming television or movies through online video services.

The regulatory body dealt with the issue in 2009 and decided there was no need to regulate such services, but that it would hold new public consultations in 2013 and issue an updated decision in 2014.

The fact-finding period is unusual, since it isn't a full public hearing, said internet law expert Michael Geist, who holds a Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce at the University of Ottawa.

"It's not clear exactly what that is," he said. "It's either consulting, in which case it's a full public process, or it's not."

Geist said he expects the CRTC to announce by sometime this fall that it will hold hearings into the issue.

The CRTC is starting public hearings Monday on usage-based billing for internet services.

Last winter, the regulator had decided to allow large telecommunications companies to cap the bandwidth smaller internet service providers could use without paying extra.

It would have essentially ended  unlimited internet access plans offered by smaller internet providers.

But CRTC chairman Konrad Von Finckenstein announced the commission would take another look at the issue, after then-industry minister Tony Clement said flat-out the government would not accept usage-based billing.

Small providers use existing internet infrastructure but offer higher limits to consumers for the same or lower prices than major companies like Rogers and Bell.

Bell Canada, which has been fighting the independent ISPs, argues heavy users cause congestion at peak periods and should pay for the extra bandwidth they use.

But Clement said he wasn't convinced there is congestion caused by the six per cent of internet users who are heavy downloaders, or that charging for that use would ease congestion.

The pre-consultation has drawn largely similar responses as the last round, with big players like Apple, Google – which owns Youtube – and Netflix arguing they shouldn't be regulated because they already have Canadian content and more competition is good for consumers. Creative groups, meanwhile, want video providers treated the same as broadcasters, and are pushing particularly for providers to pay into the system the helps fund Canadian productions. Broadcasters Rogers and Shaw argue they should face less regulation in order to be able to compete with an unregulated competitor.

Geist said the easiest way to handle this is to let the market figure itself out. While there's no question traditional broadcasting is facing a transition, he said, the barriers to entry are low both for broadcasters who want to compete online and for content creators who want to make their work accessible.

And, he pointed out, there's no mass movement away from cable.

"There's not a lot of cord-cutting taking place yet," he said.

150,000 jobs

Norm Bolen, president of the Canadian Media Production Association, said 150,000 Canadians are employed in the creative production sector. He argued it's important to consider what the country could lose if the regulations aren't extended to online video providers.

"People need to think this through and not just think about it with facile arguments about 'oh, we shouldn't regulate the internet'," he said. "If Canadians don't want Canadian content, that's their decision to make ... but they need to understand the impact on our culture, our economy."

Bolen said serving Canadian customers means the online providers are essentially operating in Canada and he simply wants them to make a contribution to the economy relevant to the size of their online audience.

Canadian broadcasters have to fund and broadcast a certain amount of domestic content, meaning there's less money for Canadian productions if new players don't have to pay into their own funds.

"We're not talking about keeping anybody out of Canada," he said. But, "if you're going to compete, compete on the same terms as the rest of the players."

The CRTC did not respond to a request for comment.