CRTC looks at making digital content available without anti-competitive actions

MONTREAL – With more and more TV content in Canada being delivered online through mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, Canadian regulators open hearings this week on possible measures to ensure a level field for service providers.

New wireless company Public Mobile says it wants to ensure an equal opportunity for all players even if it doesn’t currently offer such services for its mobile phone customers.

“We’re interested in potentially expanding our set of services and making sure that if we moved into things that were closer to broadcast distribution, we would have the flexibility to compete in those markets,” said Public Mobile executive Bruce Kirby.

Public Mobile will appear before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in Gatineau, Que., on Monday to make its case for fairness in a field dominated by major players such as Shaw Communications Inc. (TSX:SJR.B) and BCE (TSX:BCE), which own most of the country’s television broadcasting assets.

“It’s making sure that a BCE or a Shaw or a Rogers cannot use their power in the content segment of the market to benefit themselves anti-competitively within the wireless segment, whether or not we’re involved in that,” Kirby said.

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He also argued that programming content should not be prohibitively expensive for those who don’t have it.

In recent years, much of Canada’s private broadcasting sector has been swallowed up by a handful of big communications companies.

Shaw Communications Inc. has bought 11 local Global TV stations across Canada and a group of specialty stations such as HGTV and Showcase for $2 billion.

After approving the Shaw sale last fall, the CRTC said it was worried that consolidation in the broadcast industry could produce anti-competitive behaviour and announced it would hold the hearings.

BCE has purchased the rest of the CTV television network it didn’t already own for $1.3 billion.

When the CRTC approved the sale in March, it put a moratorium on BCE from entering into new exclusive deals for TV programs carried on its mobile services without also making them available to competitors, although current agreements, such as with the NFL on mobile, are exempt.

Ian Morrison of Friends of Canadian Broadcasting said the “horses are already out of the corral,” but the CRTC still needs to look into the issue.

“Market forces have caused this problem so there’s a role for the regulator in ensuring that the small independent services have fair and equitable commercial arrangements so that they are protected from predatory behaviour,” Morrison said.

Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B) has its hands in many businesses, from cable TV and wireless to radio and TV broadcasting, Internet advertising, magazine publishing and professional sports.

Some regulatory safeguards are necessary to protect consumers, said Ken Engelhart, Rogers’ senior vice-president of regulatory matters.

Content should not be exclusive for companies that own broadcast and distribution assets because it limits consumers’ choices, he said.

“You’d get different content depending on which cellphone you subscribe to or different content depending on which online version of cable you get,” Engelhart said. “To us that makes no sense.”

Bell’s Mirko Bibic said there has been no evidence of anti-competitive behaviour in the last decade with vertically integrated companies.

“Consumers clearly benefit through access to all their favourite content, including Canadian produced content, available on various platforms,” said Bibic, senior-vice-president of regulatory and government affairs..

Other companies that own broadcast content and the means to distribute it are Quebecor (TSX:QBR.B), which owns the TVA French network in Quebec, the Sun newspaper chain, the Videotron cable TV company and a wireless service.

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