Monday, April 18, 2011

The True North Strong and Divided

Connection. Our Founding Father Sir John A. Macdonald saw that our meagre population in this vast, beautiful land of ours would live isolated from each other without a tie to bind. And so he dreamed up and built from coast to coast a railway.

In the next century, a regulated monopoly laid down wires all across our land and encouraged Canadians to get on the telephone; they made local calls cheap and long distance expensive. And whether or not it was their intent, the result was we were more likely to call each other than the rellies back home. Telephones tied us together.

In this century, well, we have neither visionary politician nor benevolent private business to draw us together via the new ties: cell phones, broadband, and digital TV.

In fact, through pricing, mergers, and bad regulation, the CRTC and private companies, under the uninterested eyes of the government, have actively discouraged Canadians coming together either with each other or with their own culture. Like book publishing companies, the big private Internet cum telephone/cable companies seem to feel that only high prices will net them lots of good moolah. Like book publishers, they don’t seem to realise that lower prices will net higher volume in sales and so still bring in that good moolah. And, as well, serve Canadians well.

The spiral to the time before Confederation, when pre-Canadians lived in isolation of each other, began with cell phones. Offered in pricey, confining packages with bogus charges tacked on, cell phones are so expensive that only the well-employed can afford them, especially the smart phones. If I was to purchase a smart phone, the data rates would be so beyond my means, I'd have to dip into my food budget. But no one, not our leaders in Ottawa or Canadians grumbling at home, seemed to care enough to do something about it, to force the CRTC to make these companies bring their prices into line with the rest of the world.

Until recently.

Last year, the Conservative Government over-ruled the CRTC and allowed a new cell phone company to enter the market, one owned or backed by a foreigner. Foreign ownership of our communications companies is a no-no under our laws and has been challenged. But this company forced competition into the cell phone market, offering affordable month-to-month bills, no pricey packages. Other companies have also popped up. And so far, the big three have been unable to squish them in their usual undercut-until-they-die-then-raise-prices-again way.
Still, prices remain too high, coverage across our country is spotty, and they do not yet connect Canadians like Macdonald’s railway or Bell’s landlines of old.

The spiral backwards has continued with the way we do Internet. In the last five years, the Internet has exploded in both usefulness and popularity. If you are not connected, you are isolated outside the mainstream. You cannot check on those extras your favourite TV show offers; you cannot easily find information on travel, from the TTC to flying; you do not have access to comparison shopping and reviews from your fellow Canadians; you cannot talk to Canadians from east, west, north, and south about the election or the debates or usage-based billing. The latter may not seem like a big deal, but connecting with Canadians in another part of the country through social media opens your mind up to how others see our shared country, allows you to learn about issues that your local newspaper doesn't talk about, allows you to meet new people and widen your social circle.

And when you're isolated through illness, injury, or poverty, the Internet provides you with the only social life you may have.

But again price prevents many from signing up. The big companies charge usage-based billing, which penalizes Canadians from doing anything on the Internet beyond checking email and browsing basic sites. You want to watch TV? Pay more. You want to check out the latest viral videos? Pay more. You want to own and operate a website? Pay more. You want to share your photographs? Pay more. You want to stream movies? Pay more. You want to be a social media bug? Pay more. They recently convinced the CRTC to force that same usurious pricing scheme on the small ISPs who are the only ones to charge a flat fee, just like Bell used to for landline telephones.

Flat fees encourage Canadians to sign up and take advantage of everything the Internet offers. They encourage Canadians to talk to each other and to see more of what we create for each other. They are wicked competition for usage-based billing. No wonder the big boys had fits over flat fees. Luckily, Industry Minister Tony Clement understands the concept of competition and told the CRTC to rethink their decision on usage-based billing. But if Canadians tune out and don’t remain vigilant, flat fees will go the way of the Romans.

But not only does price retard connection, so does old tech. Recently my parents dropped Bell’s much-ballyhooed 25 Mbps Fibe service because they were getting the same 5Mbs speed as me yet paying through the nose for it. Meanwhile, big Canadian towns don’t even have what the government calls high-speed (1Mbps, what a joke).

And not only does old tech and high prices hold back connections, so does rate limiting. That’s when Bell or Rogers peek into the kind of Internet activity you’re up to and slow down your connection to a crawl if you’re doing something real naughty like watching TV.

Small ISPs do not rate limit, but they are held hostage to the ancient technology, for they rent the lines that Bell builds. In the US, Google has been so frustrated with the slow pace of change in broadband-line tech that they have begun building their own true high-speed Internet lines. Here in Canada, we have neither a government nor a private business with that kind of vision or citizen interest. Yes, Google is doing it to serve their own interests. But Americans will benefit.

The spiral to pre-Confederation days of isolation gets worse when you factor in the changes in television technology.

TV is shifting from cable and satellite back to free over-the-air digital TV and to the Internet. 

Over-the-air TV provides stunningly better HD pictures than either cable or satellite.

Needless to say Bell and Rogers are supremely unhappy. And so to stem this tide of new tech and new ways of Canadians consuming their own culture and entertainment of their choice, they have begun buying up content creators, with CRTC’s blessing and while the government yawns. They can now control who sees what and how much we Canadians pay for the “privilege.”

Yes, free over-the-air TV is available to any Canadian within transmission distance of a digital transmitter. But while Canada is blanketed in analog transmitters, come August 31, those will be turned off and far fewer digital transmitters will replace them. Worse, by this time in the digital conversion process down south, American broadcasters had already added subchannels and program information to their digital feeds. Canadian broadcasters? Nothing. Yet the possibilities are fab. CBC could add their news channel to 5.2; CTV could add TSN to 9.2 and MuchMusic to 9.3. Or they could be like NBC or PBS and add obscure but neat channels to that third subchannel.

How many Canadians know about digital TV or about having less access to free TV?

Unlike the US and UK, the government has abdicated its responsibility to inform Canadians about television going digital in Canada, to tell them how free over-the-air digital TV works, and to tell them how to ease the transition. While the US government offered Americans substantial coupons for converter boxes so that Americans could continue to use their old TVs, Canada offers its citizens nada.

In the US, the government and every broadcaster for months and months and months beforehand aired PSAs on what digital TV is, how to convert your old TVs, how to get the new digital signals over the air, and so on.

Again, Canada offers nada.

Oh sure, I heard on Twitter that CBC, our public broadcaster, and perhaps CTV have started PSAs recently, but when?, is what I want to know. Three am when we're all asleep? I haven't seen them. Have you?
Meanwhile the government is nowhere to be seen or heard on this issue.
On top of that, the CRTC allows CBC – our public broadcaster – not to replace all of their analog transmitters. What? I hear you exclaim. Yup small cities like London and Moncton will no longer have access to our public broadcaster over the air come August 31. To watch our public broadcaster, they will have to pay high cable or sat rates. I don't even know what the situation is and will be in the North.

As you can imagine, this time next year, only those with a good income will be able to afford Canadian TV no matter where they live.
So to sum up: when less-than a hundred years old, Canada sought to tie her citizens together through the railway (now partly dismantled) and landline telephones (now waning in use and been taken over by telemarketers). Now that she’s over a hundred, Canada seeks to keep us apart by charging as much as it possibly can for cell phones, Internet, and television. It seeks to keep us apart through slow broadband, usage-based billing, and rate limiting. It seeks to keep us apart from our culture by reducing access to free TV and flat-fee Internet. Canada – our country – is being divided between those who can afford usurious rates and those who cannot, those who have access to free digital television and those who do not, those who have access to broadband and those who do not, those who can find an outlet for their creative work and those forced to seek it outside of Canada.

And no one on the campaign trail is talking about any of this.

Mature Canada has no leadership in government or private business, no vision, no sense of how important it is to tie us from coast to coast to coast in this vast, beautiful land of ours, to have us stand strong and free, together.

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