Streaming has become the fastest growing method of selling access to music – a point not lost on wireless providers who know consumers like to listen on the go. But this seemingly “win-win” scenario can become a “loss” for equal treatment of consumer internet traffic if telecom companies can prioritize or discount data that is used for streaming audio or video.
In September of 2015, PIAC, along with Council of Senior Citizens Organizations of BC and the Consumers Association of Canada, filed an application against Vidéotron and its new “Unlimited Music” service, which offers free streaming of music – that is, there is no counting of, and thus no charge for, the data consumers use to listen – though only for audio and only for the “right” services, such as Spotify, Stingray, Rdio, and Google Music.
“By allowing unlimited streaming of specific types of online content for certain providers, Vidéotron is favouring itself and its streaming partners,” stated Geoff White, Counsel to PIAC. “Vidéotron is treating a very small subset of internet traffic differently. They’re doing so in such a way that, since they aren’t being charged any rates or overages, customers are obviously going to favour that content.”
White continued, “Vidéotron’s role as a traditional telecom provider in the eyes of telecom law, is to just pass information from point A to point B. Now they are inserting themselves in an editorial manner, in a way that is helping move end-users towards certain content by favoring the way in which it’s treated from a billing perspective.“
This isn’t the first time that PIAC has intervened when a provider has threatened discrimination against certain types of internet traffic (sometimes described as a violation of “net neutrality” – but in fact a long-standing prohibition as well in telecommunications law) with a streaming service. Bell Mobility made available a similar offer with its ‘Mobile TV’ application. Customers were allowed viewing of Bell owned or controlled streaming video, at reduced prices, so long as it was seen through Bell’s app. In that case, the CRTC ruled Bell’s Mobile TV app left competitors with an undue disadvantage, as Bell was showing preference to its own services over the data of any other party providing data (including competing content), a violation of the Telecommunications Act. That case is now before the Federal Court of Appeal, but PIAC contends in its application that it is effectively similar to Vidéotron’s current program.
John Lawford, Executive Director of PIAC points out that what makes this “zero-rated” streaming music a bad deal for consumers is the stifling effect it has if you’re not on board with the telecommunications company providing access to the internet. “For innovators and rival streaming music providers, your only way through the door with these types of deals in place is through big service providers. Some may not have the money to compete, others could find that there’s just no room.”
“Many other companies would be tempted or forced to copy the same approach if it were allowed and then you would carve up the internet into deals,” Lawford explained. “You would end up with a situation where one provider will get you this piece of the ‘net and another with this piece. It’s not the kind of approach we prefer and it certainly harms innovators. How do you get in? By making deals with telecom providers with large subscriber bases. They’re not going to want to harm those already inside, so why let in an outsider? How do you develop a critical mass of listeners without free access to all subscribers?”
PIAC is hoping that the precedent set in the Bell Mobile TV case was a clear stance by the CRTC against this kind of subscription deal. While, as noted, that case is under appeal, consumers need a mobile internet connection that is unfettered by corporate deals with service providers. No data should be treated differently for a price. The case is still in before the CRTC, but PIAC hopes for a swift resolution to the issue in Spring 2016.