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BCE faces off with Rogers over NHL GamePlus mobile app offerings

Coaches Corner's (with Ron MacLean and Don Cherry back in their seats again ) new space at Rogers Sportsnet's new NHL broadcast studio in Toronto. Rogers struck a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal for the NHL rights last November, promising its content on television and online would give it an edge over its competitors.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The National Hockey League season has barely begun and BCE Inc. is already facing off against Rogers Communications Inc. over how Rogers is using its sweeping NHL broadcast rights.

Rogers struck a 12-year, $5.2-billion deal for the NHL rights last November, promising its content on television and online would give it an edge over its competitors. But BCE is now crying foul, arguing in an application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that Rogers is offering an array of new camera angles on its GamePlus mobile app, including one from the referee's helmet, only to Rogers customers.

BCE argues the app offerings violate CRTC rules, which require that content created for television must be offered to competitors.

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The Montreal-based company said the additional viewing options available on mobile devices only to Rogers customers gives its wireless and Internet businesses an anti-competitive advantage.

The application, posted on the commission's website Tuesday, primarily targets GamePlus, an app tied to Rogers' NHL GameCentre Live streaming platform which lets customers use their phones or tablets to access additional features.

Those features include advanced stats and the much-hyped new camera angles unveiled at the beginning of the season, including the "ref-cam" shot. Anyone can subscribe to the GameCentre streaming service, but only Rogers' clients can access the GamePlus app.

The CRTC's rules for vertically integrated players – companies that both create and distribute media content – bar media owners from withholding content from their rivals on the distribution front. The commission exempts online video services from its broadcast regulations, but specifies that television programming cannot be offered on mobile or Internet streaming platforms on an exclusive basis.

Rogers is defending the move to offer only its subscribers the ability to choose the camera angles and replays they want to watch, arguing those features were developed specifically with an online experience in mind and therefore qualify for the exemption. The camera angles are used in its television broadcasts, but they can only be personally tailored on the mobile app, the company says.

"Clearly this programming is not designed for conventional TV. Conventional TV broadcasts the exact same program to a mass audience who all see the same content, presented the same way," Rogers spokeswoman Patricia Trott said in an e-mail. "With GamePlus, each fan has a unique experience. … We wouldn't have developed [the features] solely for broadcast use."

She added that "it's a shame that [BCE-owned] Bell is trying to stop innovation in hockey. This may be one of the reasons they failed to secure the rights in the first place. … We've invested in significant new innovations to bring Canadians an enhanced experience."

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In an e-mail, BCE spokesman Mark Langton said: "We don't see it as especially innovative that Rogers denies GameCentre consumers access to these stats and other features if they aren't also Rogers internet or wireless customers. These consumers pay for GameCentre just like Rogers customers so why are they denied access to features available on regular broadcast TV anyway? It breaks the CRTC's digital media rules, and it impacts all GameCentre consumers across Canada who love hockey but aren't Rogers customers."

When the GamePlus features were revealed on Oct. 6, fans and sports columnists noted they were only available to Rogers customers. BCE cited a Toronto Star article in its application that referenced a customer complaining: "I pay the exact same $200 that other people do for GameCentre, but because my Internet service provider is Shaw, not Rogers, I don't get anywhere near as much features."

BCE characterized the GamePlus features as the thin edge of the wedge, saying in its application that "if Rogers is allowed to skirt the Commission's rule there is no doubt that they will continue to pursue increasingly aggressive strategies using their exclusive 12-year control of NHL content."

BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.

Rogers has until Nov. 20 to respond to the CRTC application and BCE will have 10 days after that to reply. The commission could then issue a decision, ask for more information or call a formal hearing into the matter.

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