Science

Broadcast rules on internet, cellphones under review

The roles of the internet and cellphones in broadcasting are up in the air as the CRTC has launched a public consultation on what its role should be in regulating these "new media."

The roles of the internet and cellphones in broadcasting are up in the air as the CRTC has launched a public consultation on what its role should be in regulating these "new media."

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Thursday issued its 75-page Perspectives on Canadian Broadcasting in New Media, which suggests updates to the Broadcasting Act.

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The document summarizes a host of recent commissioned studies and recommendations the CRTC has received from more than 60 various stakeholders since beginning its New Media Project Initiative last year.

While the commission had previously exempted broadcasting over the internet and cellphones from regulation, the rapid pace of technological change has made a new review necessary.

"New digital technologies and platforms are creating opportunities for the broadcast of professionally produced Canadian content that simply didn't exist a few years ago," said CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein in a statement. "Our intention is not to regulate new media, but rather to gain a better understanding of this environment and, if necessary, to propose measures that would support the continued achievement of the Broadcasting Act's objectives."

The commission in 1999 decided against regulating broadcasting over the internet because it did not want to discourage investment in building networks by service providers. Broadband was still in a fledgling state — access wasn't yet pervasive and speeds weren't fast enough to provide quality video.

However, now more than 60 per cent of households, or 6.8 million subscribers, have broadband internet. Of those, about 58 per cent have a connection speed of five megabits per second or greater, which is more than enough to pipe standard-definition video over the internet, the CRTC said. As speeds increase, high-definition video over the internet will also become more pervasive, bringing with it a "borderless new media environment."

The regulator also issued a similar decision to exempt cellphones from broadcasting regulations in 2007 after finding that a small portion of users — only 2.9 per cent — viewed television or other video content on their mobile devices. That too is set to change, the commission noted, as cellphones become more advanced and open to outside developers

"There is a growing industry consensus, however, that mobile platforms will begin to resemble more closely the fixed internet, featuring open protocols and networks allowing access to content without navigating carrier gateways," the CRTC said. "The introduction of new handsets featuring commercial web browsers able to access internet content including web pages and internet applications points the way to an acceleration of this trend."

Interested parties have until July 11 to file their comments on whether they think the CRTC should regulate new media. The CRTC will review the comments and decide which ones are to be publicly debated in a proceeding to be held in early 2009. It will set the date of that proceeding late this summer.

Review not necessary: Rogers

Some stakeholders aren't pleased that the new review is taking place.

Rogers Communications Inc., which is an internet and cellphone service provider and owns a number of television stations across the country, said nothing good can come of the proceeding.

"I don't think you can regulate broadcasting over the internet," said Rogers's head of regulatory affairs, Ken Engelhart. "What are you going to do? Send a letter to YouTube and ask them where their Canadian broadcasting licence is? You have to exempt it because there's no way to regulate it. It's a borderless world."

As for video on cellphones, Engelhart said special regulations aren't necessary there either because the service is complementary rather than a replacement to traditional television.

Rogers also opposed the idea put forward by the CRTC that ISPs could be taxed in order to subsidize the creation of Canadian broadcasting content specifically for the web, much in the way traditional broadcasters now subsidize Canadian television.

"It's a terrible idea," Engelhart said. "The CRTC should not be in the business of taxation."

Industry experts agreed and said it would be foolish to try to apply the Canadian content rules of traditional broadcasting to the internet.

"The traditional broadcast world is one of scarcity and it simply doesn't apply to the internet, which is a world of abundance from a content perspective," said University of Ottawa internet law professor Michael Geist.

The CRTC did, however, again raise the issue of regulating access to the internet. The regulator also opened another separate consultation on Thursday on the traffic-shaping practices of some service providers.

"To have the CRTC ask Canadians for comment on that particular issue twice in one day... speaks to the fact that this has emerged as a mainstream issue," Geist said.

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