The Sad State of Media Concentration in Canada

With files from Sean Morley If you (assuming you are Canadian and pay to access the Internet) were asked the question “Who is your internet service provider?,” chances are you'd answer with one of six replies: Bell, Rogers, Telus, Shaw, Quebecor, or Cogeco. In a recent blog entry, media policy expert and Carleton Professor Dwayne Winseck, describes the level of concentration within the Canadian Internet Access Market -- one that has grown into a 6.5 billion dollar industry -- and how the above "big six" players account for over 60% of the total revenue of this highly lucrative market.

Though there are over 500 Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Canada, the infamous "big six" form an insulated oligopoly whose anti-competitive practices have had a crippling effect on diversity and innovation in the Canadian Internet Access Market. Yet despite constant complaints from small, independent ISPs about the "big six," and data from its own reports showing that this level of concentration has remained steady since the nineties, it seems the CRTC is reluctant to deal with this pertinent issue. And while the CRTC has dragged its heels and demonstrated its reluctance and/or impotence in dealing with concentration, other, perhaps more forward-thinking, governments (e.g. in Australia and the UK) are opening up their markets by investing billions of dollars into high-speed, universal, and affordable networks.

That said, Winseck admits the question of concentration in Canada is a contentious and fiercely debated issue, made all the more heated when analysts and industry players alike have no consistent body of evidence on which to rely. Subsequently, "fiery debates have taken place in a vacuum, with positions closely tracking ideology rather than evidence." As Winseck asserts, even the CRTC's reports are inconsistent, parochial, and rely on data sources that, despite Winseck's many attempts to access them through Access to Information Policy claims, the commission refuses to reveal. Further, Winseck put forth these ATIP proposals as the lead Canadian participant of the well-respected and comprehensive International Media Concentration Project that aims to alleviate the above difficulties that plague this tired debate.

So why, you may ask, is it so hard to undertake serious analysis of media concentration in Canada? Not only are there no long-term studies and Draconian restrictions that limit access to data, the "big six" habitually "restate" their numbers. For example, Bell has "restated" its numbers concerning the number of high-speed Internet subscribers it has had in the last several years. This, unfortunately, sounds all too familiar when framed within the larger context of ISPs claiming one thing -- for example, network congestion as an impetus for usage-based billing -- and then not providing data to support their claims.

Nonetheless, as Winseck (and many others) argue, "Concentration levels in Canada are, in fact, high by global standards and more than twice as high as in the US." And it is imperative to note that this concentration is neither an accident, nor the random result of competition in a laissez-fair market. Media and Internet policy and regulatory frameworks have encouraged these trends of concentration and conglomeration and have resulted in Canada having one of the most concentrated telecom, media, and Internet markets in the world. As a result, several, huge conglomerates (note: Bell (CTV), Rogers (CityTV), Shaw (Global), Quebecor (TVA), and Cogeco (Radio)) have expansive reaches over Canada's media landscape and a frighteningly powerful influence over the future of our Internet. Winseck goes on:

"If ‘the medium is the message’, as Marshall McLuhan once stated, than the dominant players’ ability to shape the speed, capacity, price and technical and economic characteristics of the Internet give them considerable influence over the types and range of creativity, innovation and expression available. In other words, tinkering with the medium alters the meaning of the message. The CRTC refuses to entertain such a view, however, by adopting a narrow conception of editorial influence over content. In fact, it has seemed bent on severing far-reaching and principled debates over "Net Neutrality”, “Open Networks”, “Open Media”, etc. by using the sterile language of “Internet Traffic Management Practices” instead...Indeed, it is not just the subtle ways in which tinkering with speed, capabilities, price and traffic that ever so slowly alter the Internet, but rather several instances whereby control over the medium has been translated into direct efforts to control the content flowing over it."


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