Blogs & Comment

What to do about vertical integration? Absolutely nothing

A classic case of the CRTC needing to stay the hell away because it’s related to several other issues the regulator has recently messed up.

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There’s a fun spectacle going on in Ottawa right now called the “Vertical Integration Hearings,” which is basically a pillow fight by the telecom industry in front of the CRTC over who owns what. It’s fun when you consider that the whole exercise is a complete waste of time other than being regulatory theatre at its finest for fans of that sort of thing.

In a nutshell, Canadian telecom is now lorded over by four relative giants: Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor. Each has telecom concerns, such as internet, wireless, television and phone businesses, as well as broadcast and print holdings. For those keeping score, Bell has CTV and the Globe and Mail, Rogers has CityTV and a host of magazines including Maclean’s and Canadian Business, Shaw has Canwest (Global) and the National Post, while Quebecor has the Sun newspapers and TV and a bunch of French channels. Because these companies own both the content and the methods of distributing it, they are considered to be “vertically integrated” (as opposed to horizontally integrated, which is what you sometimes become with your significant other).

The point of the hearings is to answer the question: What’s to stop these companies from keeping their content from the other guys? If CTV (via TSN) has the rights to NHL programming, for example, what’s to stop Bell from offering hockey only to its own customers? And what if Rogers chose to do the same with MLB baseball or some other sport? In such a scenario, customers would have to get TV subscriptions from both Bell and Rogers if they wanted to get all of that programming. The same concerns also apply to the internet and wireless, where all content is migrating to.

Such a situation would of course be a nightmare, yet there have already been instances of it – in May, Bell announced it would stop carrying Sun TV because Quebecor was apparently charging too much for it. (Not that many would consider living without Sun TV a nightmare, but you get the drift.)

A number of commentators have argued that this is very bad and consumers will ultimately suffer for it, which means the CRTC must put rules into place to prevent it from happening.

I couldn’t disagree more. This is a classic case of the CRTC needing to stay the hell away because it’s related to several other issues the regulator has recently messed up or is currently in danger of messing up.

The answer to the question above, about what’s to keep companies from tying up exclusive content, is simple: competition, which comes in several forms. Firstly, as York University professor David Ellis so eloquently argued recently, the regulator needs to get its “grimy paws off my Netflix.” To summarize, the CRTC is currently considering whether it should regulate so-called over-the-top internet services, including Netflix, YouTube and the like, but it most certainly should not. If the CRTC foolishly decides otherwise and does try to get involved, it will enter its own regulatory form of the Vietnam or Afghanistan war. Its mission will be hopeless and it will be endless.

Over-the-top services need to be left alone and possibly even nurtured as competition to vertical integration. Of course, the CRTC has already nearly screwed that up when it gave its blessing to usage-based internet billing, which would have effectively castrated such services. Amazingly, and somewhat perversely, the market responded by working as it should. Since the regulator fouled up, the public got outraged, the government threatened action and the industry – Shaw and Telus so far – have responded by significantly increasing their internet usage limits. The others will have to follow suit or risk even more consumer anger.

If the vertically integrated companies want to shackle down content with exclusivity, they should be allowed to go ahead and try. If consumers have all the internet data they want to play with, they will quickly find their content through other legitimate over-the-top services and, failing that, they’ll turn to less-legitimate options such as BitTorrent.

This sort of “piracy” is the ultimate competition. File-sharing and other questionably legal methods of acquiring content are constantly improving, both in terms of ease of use and encryption. It’s been proven over and over that when content providers make it more difficult or expensive for consumers to acquire the stuff they want, they not only turn to alternative means, they feel justified in doing so. It’s also been proven that legal and technological responses can’t stop this sort of thing, they only make it improve even more.

So bring on the exclusive vertical integration. Anyone who tries it will soon learn the folly of their ways as consumers turn to other options, as well as the fact that many people who do go that route never come back.