Last week, Bell, Shaw, Quebecor, Rogers, Netflix, the Canadian Media Production Association, Open Media and hundreds of others filed documents detailing the stance they will take at crucial CRTC hearings on vertical integration and Usage-Based Billing in June and July.
At stake is control over a set of industries - what I call the 'network media industries' - that have grown immensely from $42.3-billion in revenue to nearly $74-billion between 1996 and 2009 (adjusted for inflation). Also at stake is whether the 'business models' of the dominant telecom and media giants or the open and decentralized principles of the Internet and digital media will set the course of development in the decades ahead.
The issues are also fundamentally about media concentration, a hotly contested subject that is as important as it has ever been, but one that is usually compromised by a lack of evidence. Consequently, fiery debates typically take place in a vacuum and closely track ideology rather than evidence.
To take one example: the existence of 500 ISPs suggests a highly competitive market. CRTC data, however, point in the opposite direction, with the "old" telephone or cable providers serving 95 per cent of subscribers and the "Big Six" (Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Telus, Quebecor, Cogeco) alone accounting for three quarters of the market.
My own data shows that concentration climbed sharply between 1996 and 2004, and has stayed remarkably flat ever since, with more than two-thirds of Internet access revenues going to the Big Six. While not quite as high as the CRTC's figures, the upshot is still a few players competing in oligopolistic markets.
The problem with the CRTC's data is three-fold: it focuses only on the top four or five players; it is presented inconsistently from one year to the next; it relies on information that it refuses to disclose. Last year, I filed several Access to Information requests to obtain this data, but was refused each step of the way.
I did so as the lead Canadian participant on the International Media Concentration Research Project - a project led by Eli Noam, a renowned Professor of Economics and Finance, and media expert, at Columbia University. The project includes more than forty researchers from across the political spectrum who are systematically collecting data for every sector of the telecom, media and Internet industries since 1984.
So, what does the evidence for Canada show?
First, that each sector of the media is concentrated by standard measures. Second, that patterns follow a U-shape, with concentration falling in the 1980s, rising sharply from the mid-1990s until peaking in the early 2000s, and staying relatively flat since then. Third, that concentration is high by global standards and more than twice as high than in the US.
These trends have been encouraged for several reasons. First, there can be no doubt that the Internet has vastly expanded the range of expression available, but this reality often overshadows the fact that several core aspects of the Internet are prone to concentration (e.g. ISPs, search, social networking sites, etc.) and that the biggest players now control an ever-expanding stable of outlets.
Formal rules on media concentration were adopted for the first time in 2008 by the CRTC and this is a far cry better than none at all. However, by using the same criteria used to regulate banking and granting frequent exceptions, the rules are weak and detached from the values of free speech and democracy.
Second, there is too much deference to claims that the traditional media are in crisis. Such claims are generally false (see here).
In fact, "old media," such as television, have grown impressively and new media markets have been a boon for established players. The vast majority (95 per cent) of Internet access revenue ($6.5-billion), for instance, goes straight to the incumbents' bottom-line.
Companies that have crashed and burned, notably Canwest, were actually profitable. However, saddled with debt, it could not weather the short-term decline in revenue caused by the global financial crisis and forced into bankruptcy in 2009-2010.
Third, the myth that Canada's small media market requires big players with deep pockets further underpins consolidation. However, Canada has the eighth largest network media economy in the world, after France and Italy and just ahead of South Korea and Spain.
Independent ISPs, TV channel owners (the Weather Channel), online video providers (Netflix) and others have consistently claimed that the big players use their dominant positions to crush competition. The CRTC, despite its own analysis, has failed to deal with media concentration head-on. The Harper Government's directives to rely on "market forces to the maximum extent feasible" have further disarmed the regulator.
These issues will no doubt come to a head during the vertical integration and Usage-Based Billing hearings. Yet, there is every reason to be skeptical about what can be accomplished given that this is a classic case of bolting the barn door after the horse has already left the stable. Industry Minister Tony Clement's recent declaration that vertical integration is the way of the future further reinforces the perception.
This is not the way of the future; it is the way of a discredited past.
In the U.S., for instance, the fully integrated multimedia conglomerate has become the exception (e.g. Comcast/NBC-Universal) after the disastrous AOL-Time Warner merger, the break-up of Viacom-CBS and collapse of the "old" AT&T. Indeed, the reign of sprawling media conglomerates is in retreat in almost every other developed capitalist democracy.
With events in Canada running counter to trends elsewhere, it is time to think about breaking-up Bell/CTV, Shaw/Global (Corus), Rogers/City-TV and Quebecor/TVA (Sun TV) into two separate parts: network infrastructure and content services. This is called "structural separation" and under this scenario these entities would become wholesalers of network facilities and retailers of their own content and services.
They would sell access to their networks to other content providers and ISPs on equal terms. This would give them an incentive to increase revenue by intensifying the use of their networks by others instead of by prioritizing services and content they own. More than a century of experience teaches a simple rule: when allowed to combine network ownership with the content delivered over them, incumbents will always confer advantages on themselves that they deny to others.
Steps to address this reality are already in place in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Sweden. There may be circumstances in Canada that require unique adaptations of the separations principle. However, only by hiving off control over the medium (networks) from control over the message (content) will innovation, competition, free speech and an open network media ecology trump the incumbents' vested interests and dogma.
Dwayne Winseck is a communications professor at the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University in Ottawa. Prof. Winseck been researching and writing about media, telecoms and the Internet in one way or another for nearly 20 years. You can read more comment on his blog, Mediamorphis . His column will appear every second Tuesday.