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Canada's telecom regulator must soon decide whether to restrict billing practices associated with a handful of apps that let users stream live and on-demand television stations on their mobile devices.

For a fee of about $5 per month, the apps typically let subscribers stream up to 10 hours of television content without that time counting against the limit on data in their wireless plans. It sounds like a great deal for consumers wary of hefty cellphone bills but some say it gives the cellular providers' affiliated TV services an unfair leg up over competing online video services.

Now these services have been caught up in the growing debate over "net neutrality," a long-standing principle that essentially means Internet carriers, such as cellphone and cable companies, should not restrict content providers such as YouTube, Wikipedia, bloggers or anyone else. Some fear that without rules supporting net neutrality, telecom companies could interfere with content flowing over their networks by blocking or slowing access to material from competitors or giving preference to their own services.

Critics say the practice of cellphone carriers exempting certain material from data caps violates net neutrality by treating content differently and the issue is now before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

The case before the CRTC is based on a complaint filed last November by Ben Klass, a Manitoba graduate student who said BCE Inc.'s Mobile TV app gives the television service affiliated with the company's broadcast division a preference over other over-the-top (OTT) streaming video services such as Netflix Inc. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre filed similar complaints in January about mobile TV apps offered by Rogers Communications Inc. and Quebecor Inc.'s wireless business Videotron, both of which offer similar pricing and exemption from data caps(although Videotron has since launched an iPhone version of the app that bills users based on the amount of data consumed). PIAC argued the apps give consumers little practical choice as viewing the same amount of video content from a competing service costs substantially more due to data charges.

The CRTC combined the three complaints into one proceeding and final written arguments from all sides were filed last month. It's not clear when a decision will be issued.

BCE argues its Mobile TV app – which had 1.3 million subscribers as of the first quarter of 2014 – is a broadcasting service and not subject to telecom rules. It says the app does not harm services not affiliated with the company and points out use of Netflix and YouTube to stream video is growing exponentially despite mobile TV options. Rogers and Videotron also point to the dominance of those OTT video providers and argue that mobile video is still a new product.

In the United States, cellular giant AT&T Inc. announced a "sponsored data" program in January that lets mobile customers use participating apps without it counting against their monthly data allowance while the app developers or content providers pay for the network usage. The program drew barbs from net neutrality advocates who said it could be used by the Apples and Googles of the world to promote their content to the detriment of smaller competitors.

Chile's telecommunications regulator recently came out against wireless carriers offering social-media plans that let customers use services such as Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook without signing up for more expensive data packages with complete Internet access. In May the regulator said those plans violated Chile's net neutrality law by privileging the selected sites over competing social networks.

Daniel Lyons, associate professor at Boston College Law School and a specialist in Internet regulation, says the Chilean decision to fine carriers for offering social media plans "actually harms poor people."

"Maybe there are a number of customers who either can't or don't want to pay for entire Internet access, but they'd love to be able to access Facebook on the go," he said.

The challenge before the CRTC doesn't engage the same socioeconomic dynamics, Mr. Lyons said, but zero-rated deals can be good or bad for consumers. "I think [the carriers] have a point that video over the Internet, especially over mobile devices, is still in its infancy, so it's helpful to give customers an incentive to at least try out the product," Mr. Lyons said.

Geoff White, who acts as legal counsel for PIAC, says the idea of companies making connectivity more accessible and affordable – as in the Chilean example – is appealing. The problem, he says, comes with pre-selecting the type of content users can access.

"That intuitively contradicts what the Internet is meant to be: an open access, unfiltered communications medium provided by telecoms whose sole role under the law is to pass the data from point A to point B – not to tell you what you can and cannot view, or to price some data more attractively than other data," he said.

Follow Christine Dobby on Twitter: @christinedobbyOpens in a new window

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