The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is holding a hearing in Gatineau, Quebec this week, with a number of stakeholders testifying, on the “Examination of differential pricing practices related to Internet data plans”.
Differential pricing falls into the category of caveat emptor “deals” offered to consumers by large retailers, in this case Canada’s large telecom companies, that would seem to privilege certain streaming services, making them seem attractive to consumers at the expense of other similar services, rather than treating all choices neutrally.
For public policy advocates, preferential pricing, or “zero-rating” is not only detrimental to consumers, but it’s also harmful to the public interest, not to mention Canada’s climate of competition and innovation.
So the stakes around this hearing are high.
Simply put, it revolves around a request by Canada’s telecoms and other service providers to allow them to offer preferential treatment to certain internet traffic, or to set up a two-tiered internet.
The hearing was set in motion in 2015, when Videotron made two applications to the CRTC for its Unlimited Music service, asking that mobile Videotron users be able to stream music through that service without any of the data counting against their data plan.
The entire concept of a “data plan” or having a cap on your monthly internet usage isn’t itself on trial at this particular hearing, but it does tend to come up as it’s related to the idea of privileging certain traffic over other traffic.
As part of its written intervention, OpenMedia made clear that, “data caps are a result of poor competition in the Canadian telecommunications market, and serve to perpetuate lack of competition while hindering innovation.”
Rather than treat the Videotron request on its own, the CRTC has recognized an opportunity that this case has implications for net neutrality in Canada, and so decided to open it up to look at the issue as a whole, so that all of Canada’s ISPs would have the results of the hearing as guidelines for how they will proceed themselves.
In his opening remarks this morning, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais mentioned that a large part of the public consultation process leading up to the hearing unfolded on Reddit.
“When we launched this review in May, we accepted comments and interventions through our traditional methods,” said Blais. “We realized, however, that this issue was of particular interest Internet-savvy Canadians who were having their own conversation on Reddit. So we went to them. I believe we are one of the first government agencies to use Reddit as an official consultation platform, and I am very proud of that. Over 1200 comments were shared on Reddit and these points of view have been added to our public record.”
Along with Videotron favouring the practice of “zero rating” or discriminatory pricing are Bell, Shaw and Telus, with Rogers being a surprise holdout against the practice.
Other stakeholders presenting their case at the hearing this week include: the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, Sandvine, Facebook, the British Columbia Broadband Association, Eastlink, OpenMedia, TekSavvy, Québecor Média, and a representative of Canada’s Competition Bureau, among others.
The hearings can be watched live on CPAC 2.