Saturday, 14 March 2009

Content versus Carriage

Canada provides an appropriate most-similar comparison to Australia for numerous reasons. However, the development of communications technologies in Canada follows a different trajectory to that in Australia. In addition to the local focus institutionalised by organisations such as the Union of Canadian Municipalities (now the Federation of Canadian Municipalities), Canada has been at the forefront of dealing with technological convergence in comparison to Australia.

In Canada yesterday, the CRTC conducted the New Media Hearings with a number of companies. One of the more interesting responses on industry structure came from Cogeco:
Cogeco expresses a need for a regime overhaul along the lines of European countries where there is no legal or administrative distinction between telecom and broadcast. Canadian laws are almost twenty years old on this and don't offer a comprehensive digital strategy.
The common carrier concept (designed to deliberately separate the carriage of specific content from a particular carrier) appears to be a remnant of the past. Nonetheless, issues such as preserving national identity (known by antagonists as 'cultural protectionism') are very important to Canadians. The vicinity of US cultural industries (TV, movies, radio etc) requires a particular policy response. Cultural protectionism is dealt with similarly in Australia, but it is really off the radar as far as an omnipresent threat is concerned.

A major problem for content regulators is that, for the most part, such regulators are stuck in an elitist paradigm based on TV and radio broadcasting. By 'elitist' I mean where one content provider beams their content to numerous viewers. In the Internet era, even the average citizen has the opportunity to be a content provider in a many-to-many environment. The proliferation of tools such as youtube and Flickr reduces the need to control content. Elite content, to the best of my knowledge, really doesn't cut it on these types of applications.

While Canada may need to consider more carefully the ramifications of bridging the carriage versus content divide, there is a case for opening the divide in Australia. I know this would enable newspapers, television and radio stations to control national content, but in practice this is happening anyway. Breaking up the monopoly hold of Telstra and the free-to-air TV stations is a major task - the legacies are so entrenched in Australia - but enabling carriers to specify content would be better than the abysmal content Australians pay top-dollar for on the repetitive Foxtel channels. Until this situation changes, Australians are really missing out.

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